I cannot begin to convey to you the destructive stupidity of what is being proposed, nor the intense sadness and great anger that so many Australian writers feel about this proposal.

said Richard Flanagan in his Closing Address at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.

Unfortunately, the Productivity Commission ignored Richard Flanagan and many others in its report on the investigation into the current provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 that restricts the parallel* importation of books. The report was released this week and is 240 pgs, but you can download each section separately, the most important being the Overview which includes key points and the Recommendations.

The Coalition for Cheaper Books is the major supporter of the removal of restrictions on parallel importation of books and their spokesperson is former NSW premier Bob Carr, currently Director of the Board of Dymocks. The Coalition represents booksellers in Australia with a combined market share of about 40% of book sales: Dymocks, Woolworths, Coles, K Mart, Big W and Target. The Coalition’s submission to the Productivity Commission creatively describes this membership. The “small, family owned businesses” which make up part of their membership are a particularly small minority. And it’s quite a stretch to call the last five booksellers. Books might comprise some of their diverse wares, but their main business is taking money from us when we’re not paying attention. ie. you’re standing in a long line that’s not going anywhere, with chocolate, bottled water, stupid Golden books, etc. staring you in the face, and thinking,

I’m thirsty, I need a sugar fix and Johnny won’t shut up.**

Arguments in favour of keeping parallel importation for books were detailed in the myriad submissions from Australian authors, illustrators, publishers (and even Angus & Robertson!?) to the Productivity Commission. Australian publisher Allen & Unwin’s submission noted:

The certainty provided by the Copyright Act, coupled with the incentive to operate efficiently embedded in the 1991 parallel importation provisions, have led to a situation where benefits are derived for consumers, authors, booksellers, printers and publishers. As well as this Australia derives a cultural benefit from the publication of close to 14 000 Australian authored books every year – books that help Australians understand themselves and their country better.

Writing in The Age newspaper former Hunters and Collectors front man Mark Seymour compared the parallel importation provisions for CDs in the 1990s with the current proposals of the Productivity Commission in regards to books. Yes, musicians can be as eloquent as authors.

As to the price of books? That’s not what this controversy is about. In the end, it’s all about selling a free-market line…

As well as the Productivity Commission report and the Coalition’s submission, I’ve read other arguments in favour of removing the restrictions. To my utter amazement one of these arguments came from my professional association, the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). ALIA made a joint submission with the Australian Digital Alliance and the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee to the Productivity Commission.

When I first read ALIA’s position earlier in the year I was shocked at their lack of understanding of the issue. Being the slacker that I am, all I did was abuse their stupidity in conversation with a few people (one of these conversations may have been on an email list). The Head of my department at Curtin University, Kerry Smith, told me I should contact ALIA with my views. It’s not until now, when it’s a bit too late, that I’m getting around to it. I’ve emailed ALIA and if anyone reading is a fellow member, feel free to borrow my words (see below), amending as you see fit, and contact them too. If you’re not a member, join ALIA, then contact them.

Do we really want to increase profits of retail chain stores? When we could continue nurturing Australia’s amazing literature.

*I will never be able to spell the word parallel without a computer.
**I admit the book, Golden or otherwise, is probably not going to be added to the shopping basket.

My letter to ALIA

To ALIA,

As an associate member of ALIA I am writing in regard to ALIA’s position on the Productivity Commission’s report into the current provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 which restrict the parallel importation of books.

I am dismayed at ALIA’s response to the report and the Association’s joint submission to the Productivity Commission arguing for the removal of parallel importation restrictions for books. I realise ALIA, as the organisation representing the interests of libraries and library workers in Australia, has little interest in the well being of Australia’s authors, illustrators and publishers. Conversely, as an Australian librarian I have a great interest in Australia’s unique literature and the people who create it. Australia’s libraries are an important avenue for promoting a love of our homegrown stories and books among the general public, especially those who will never buy a book, no matter what the price. No other country’s libraries concentrate on Australia’s literature to the extent that our libraries do.

I have a number of disagreements with your position, but I will concentrate on two. You may find further details as to why removal of parallel importation restrictions for books will hurt Australia’s literature on my blog http://teenageresearch.wordpress.com/.

ALIA’s submission noted the Honourable Allan Rocher’s words,

These [Australian] writers apparently have no confidence in their ability to compete with overseas authors.

Competition from overseas authors is a legitimate threat to Australia’s literature, not because our books are of lesser “quality” than overseas counterparts (I can name numerous titles, authors and illustrators who are vastly superior), but because the Australian publishing industry is tiny in comparison to those of the US and UK. The monopoly enabled by parallel importation restrictions allows our tiny publishing industry to compete on a more even footing with the larger industries of the US and UK. These disparities were noted by many submissions to the Productivity Commission.

ALIA’s submission and email response to the report also noted:

By removing the restrictions, local booksellers and libraries would have the option of accessing better value books from overseas. Local publishers would have a strong incentive to make their prices more competitive and to look for greater efficiencies in their operations.

In the last week I have personally noted the decreased physical quality of a US book compared to locally published books. I read YA fiction and I borrowed Beastly by US author Alex Flinn from my local library, published and printed in the US. I enjoyed this light romance, set in New York and retelling the story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s perfect for teenage girls, but the poorly designed cover and almost grey paper of the book made for a very unattractive physical object. As much as I know never to judge a book by its cover, I was glad the library had it because I would never buy this US edition of Beastly. From my research with teenagers, both those who enjoy reading and those who do not, find cover design and overall look of a book an important factor in deciding whether to pick up and read a particular book.

Currently multinational publishers and distributors set up branches in Australia and contribute to Australia’s economy and our local publishing industry in many ways, described by a number of submissions to the Productivity Commission. The removal of parallel importation restrictions would allow multinational publishers and distributors to freely import books to Australia without the risks associated with local branches, thus all profits, expertise, etc. would be concentrated overseas. In this instance it may be that the greatest efficiencies in local operations would be to reduce publication of Australian books by Australian writers and illustrators and concentrate on titles which have already proven their worth in overseas markets.

The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) rejected the findings of the Productivity Commission, as have numerous Australian authors, illustrators and publishers, including Tim Winton, Sonya Hartnett, Shaun Tan, Kate Grenville and Peter Carey. The ASA’s position is supported by the New Zealand Society of Authors, the UK Society of Authors and the Authors Guild in the USA. You may be interested in an article by celebrated Australian musician Mark Seymour concerning the related changes to parallel importation of CDs which occurred in the 1990s. His article in the Age newspaper can be accessed online http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/the-book-price-row-rings-too-sadly-familiar-20090709-deln.html

It would be a tragedy if our thriving publishing industry, including first time authors as all our cherished Australian authors once were, was diminished by removal of parallel importation restrictions. We must ensure we do everything to nurture our amazing literary creativity.

Yours sincerely,
Clare Snowball.