Reforms proposed by the Book Industry Strategy Group are long overdue but don’t go far enough and may be difficult to implement, according to industry players and authors.
Yesterday the BISG publicly released its recommendations on how to revive an industry straddling the digital divide and struggling for survival. Innovation Minister Kim Carr — who was handed the report in September — has begun addressing the issues and established a printing and publishing network within his department.
Included in the recommendations — which took 12 months to complete — were a GST exemption on books and significant tax breaks for struggling writers.
“Senator Carr has a real challenge on his hands,” said Corrie Perkin, an independent bookshop owner and journalist, who suggested the minister will need to convince MPs and public servants across all levels of government the issue is worth acting on.
“I hope they all read books,” Perkin added.
Jon Page, general manager of Pages & Pages Booksellers, says the report was long overdue and the government needs to act fast. “The timeline is critical, we’re coming up to Christmas again. Changes need to be made now and not in another 12 months,” he said.
But Australian Publishers Association CEO Maree McCaskill says “business conditions and the financial climate puts its own timeline on it”. She calls it a fair and reasonable report: “I think it nails a lot of the points affecting the industry at the moment.”
Australia remains one of the only OECD nations to place a tax on books. Tim Coronel, publisher at leading industry mag Bookseller+Publisher, says “it would be a marvellous thing” to remove the GST — one of the BISG’s recommendations. But he concedes it’s unlikely to happen given the political climate.
And anyway, says author Sophie Cunningham, the abolishment of GST would have little impact because there is still a significant price difference between e-books and hard copies.
But Page said the government should even the playing field: “Either remove GST on books in Australia or start adding it to the 53% of books purchased [last year] through international online sellers.”
The taxation of books in Australia has long been a matter of debate within the industry. Neither Perkin nor Page understands why the tax exists.
“It would be great if they removed GST from books … I’ve never understood why they were considered a luxury item,” said Perkin. And Page: “A tax on books is a tax on knowledge.”
Another recommendation is for the government to legislate significant tax breaks for authors during periods of low income — similar to current tax exemptions for drought-hit farmers. Coronel notes even well-known Australian authors make little for publishing books.
However, Cunningham — a Melbourne-based writer who has just released a new book tracing the history and highlights of her home town — says the problems are more substantial and won’t be fixed by one piece of legislation.
Currently, a bookshop cannot order overseas stock if there is a local edition — even if it’s cheaper. Coronel says while bookshops can order individual books for customers, it prevents ordering in commercial quantities.
There’s dissatisfaction in the scope of recommendations and debate over who the winners will be. As Coronel noted: “I do know already that the book association has said a lot of the measures are helping publishing and printing, but not sellers and retailers.”
Page, too, is concerned “booksellers weren’t given the attention we were deserved”. “The publishers are equal and as important but we are the ones talking to the customers,” he said.
Reform could be useless if the industry doesn’t act together, according to McCaskill: “I am hopefully the industry as an entire sector will get on and work together to refine some of the issues.”