Yesterday we got the entire front page of The Australian plus another whole broadsheet page inside filled with an hysterical one-sided attack on the decision to retain the PIR. In Crikey we got an editorial and a nearly incomprehensible rant. Earlier in the week we had Bernard Keane and Guy Rundle joining the chorus for all the wrong or muddled reasons. The noise from all this is like a crippling bout of tinnitus. Irritatingly loud but so hard to discern much sense.

On the one hand we have all the usual suspects of Murdochian neo-conservative champions of “free market” capitalism joining with unlikely cheerleaders such as Allan Fels and Bob Carr. It should matter that the former, in his role in the ACCC, left us with the world’s most extreme concentration of retailing power in groceries, petrol, banking, etc, and the latter, after a decade in power left Sydney in a worse state vis a vis functional infrastructure.

All of the above are heavily vested in the argument, either from the political/ideological side (The Australian) or the industry (Dymocks, Carr, Woolies, Coles) or as working authors (Keane and Rundle, very strange bedfellows with the above lot, but both have softened their original hardline anti-PIR positions).

I have written on the PIR (here and here) but am neither an author (not counting 100 scientific publications) or in the industry, being a mere book buyer. Despite the thousands of words written on it this week I still feel there is the need for clarity, so here goes.

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(1) Internet bookshops. This is an utter distraction and has no bearing on the argument about whether to retain the PIR or not. Amazon is the biggest book retailer in the world and no one can effectively compete with them (as some bloggers have commented it seems highly likely that wannabe competitors like BookDepository are unsustainable). Not American bookshops and therefore certainly not Australian bookshops. Anyone who believes that removing the PIR would suddenly make Australian bookshops competitive with Amazon, or just “more competitive” is either a fool or a knave.

What exactly was The Australian trying to prove by comparing Dymocks prices with Amazon when it should have been comparing the US RRP (or even Dymocks Hong Kong as I did.) How would removing the PIR help except as in point four below. And incidentally why on earth are Amazon purchases exempt the GST? Plenty of American states impose a state sales tax on Amazon purchases and France imposes a 5.5% TVA. Logically Australia should, too, and the free marketeers should support this on the basis of level playing field etc.

(2) E-books. Ditto. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

(3) Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. As bloggers have shown, Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

(4) Dumping of remaindered copies. First, it is hard to believe after the thousands of words written on this but there are still readers who do not understand that authors (a) do not earn a anything from remaindered books (mostly from large print runs in the US & UK) and (b) have no choice in their contracts about this.

This week Rundle mentioned:

“They never seriously addressed the main problem that PIR abolition would create — remainder imports that would see Australia’s most successful authors gain no royalties from sales of their books”

and that

“The simple answer would be to protect Oz authors specifically. But we can’t do that because the US-Oz free trade agreement prohibits this, and this is the thing that really needs changing.”

Well, yes, finally Guy puts a valid point that he essentially ignored previously but which was the main point by the likes of me and others and most authors. As the PIR supporters said, there was never any mechanism proposed by the PC or the likes of Dymocks to prevent this authorial “theft” via dumping. Indeed Dymocks, not to mention News Corp (one of the largest book publishers in the world) almost certainly planned to try to profit from it and to hell with the Australian authors, publishers and independent bookshops (see my article that shows Dymocks is hardly ever the cheapest and their Hong Kong stores — no GST, no restrictions — are only marginally better).

(5) Cheaper books in Australia. First the PC report, contrary to much commentary, did not unambiguously establish consistently higher prices in Australia compared to other markets — it is complicated by many factors. As noted above the comparison with online retailers is not the valid comparison. Second, I do not believe anyone on either side of the argument, including Allan Fels or Bob Carr and especially Don Grover (CEO, Dymocks) believes that removal of the PIR would result in cheaper books, unless you allowed point four. With the main promoters being Dymocks, Woolies, Coles and K-Mart, what more do you need to know? Carr talks about getting cheaper books for underpriviledged kids. He should donate his board fees and get Dymocks to set up a subsidy scheme. Speaking of subsidies:

(6) Government subsidy of authors. Is there really any need to formally dismiss this one? Keane and Rundle, who are among the most independent, fearless and hard-working Australian journos, seem to support such schemes. I am dumbstruck. Is Keane serious that the public or potential authors should lament that Craig Emerson killed a proposed author subsidy scheme? Is he seriously saying that this would substitute for an Australian publishing industry?

None of this is to say that some reform may not be needed in the book industry. Some of the more outrageous cost differences in many books (see second table here) have nothing to do with the PIR. This, and the related problem of poor availability of older or less popular books, may be traced to wholesalers or middlemen who book retailers are forced to deal with. Talk with your friendly independent bookshop and they will gripe about it. But the PC did not consider such matters. And the big chains, such as Dymocks’s Grover and Bob Carr never mention it. Funny that.

Our media landscape is amongst the most concentrated in the democratic world. Big media businesses are marred by big media interests. If you want the full, untainted picture on important issues — our environment, corruption, political competence, our culture, our economy — Crikey is required reading.

I am a private person that takes online privacy very seriously but I wanted to contribute my words to this campaign as I genuinely believe that we will improve as a country if more people read publications such as Crikey.

Sydney, NSW

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