Why indeed? Think of the Australian book industry. Jackie French, Tim Winton, Di Morrissey, Richard Flanagan, Liane Moriarty, Christos Tsiolkas, Markus Zusak, Andy Griffith, Thomas Keneally, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Carey. We could go on and on, such are the fruits of its labours, the rich and fertile ground that is the Australian publishing industry. But aside from some of our wildly successful authors, the public face of this industry, think also of the successful publishing houses, the budding, not-yet-discovered authors and the estimated 25,000 Australians that this vibrant industry employs. An industry that is facing a serious threat.
We at Better Reading support the campaign to oppose government changes to parallel importation of books into Australia. Our very existence depends on a thriving Australian book industry and we know that you, our readers, are as passionate about Australian stories as we are. The Australian Booksellers Association has just added its voice to the many writers and organisations supporting this cause – and we need your help before it’s too late.
Why are Australian stories threatened? The government’s Productivity Commission has recommended the scrapping of parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) on books. For anyone who is unsure or wondering what the the hell a PIR is and why it’s threatening the book industry, we spoke to novelist Nikki Gemmell and Ross Gibb, Managing Director of Pan Macmillan Australia, to find out why proposed changes could be drastic and far-reaching for many of us who love books and in particular, Australian stories.
“A PIR is a restriction on somebody bringing a book into a territory that they don’t have the publishing agreement for,” explains Ross Gibb.
An Australian publisher has two weeks to make a book available – after that time a bookseller is free to import a book. And of course any consumer is within their rights to purchase a book from overseas any time they like.
But if the government remove restrictions on importing books, any overseas edition of the book can come into this market. The reason this is so bad for the Australian publishing industry is that the Australian publishers have invested in the work to bring a book to market (editing, cover design, marketing, developing the author, etc) but the benefit doesn’t flow to them. The market would be flooded with overseas copies of books which are competing with local publishers’ copies of books.
This is the case, whether it’s a local or international book. Say, for example, there’s a new JK Rowling book. The Australian publisher would prepare their own Australian edition for market. It does well, and the publisher can use that money to invest in smaller projects and authors. Without PIRs, the market is flooded with the British or American editions, and the money goes overseas instead of staying in, and supporting, the Australian industry. The majority of authors are not earning huge amounts anyway. (One estimate is that the average annual wage of an author in Australia is just $13,000).
The adverse effect would be felt right through the industry.
“The flow-on from that is that we don’t have the security to invest so ultimately we publish less, take less risk, invest less in authors, certainly invest less in unknown authors.
“The benefit is going to an overseas publisher or an overseas retailer,” says Gibb. “So who are the winners? People who are not here, who don’t employ Australians, people who don’t develop talent and create markets and probably who don’t even pay tax here.”
We asked Gibb how it would affect his company’s ability to develop some of the successful local authors that have come out of Pan Macmillan Australia in recent years, such as Liane Moriarty and Andy Griffiths. Will his company still have the ability to nurture homegrown talent like that?
“We take the initial risk,” he says. “It might be three books or five books or 20 books and then they finally hit the number one spot on the bestseller list and the UK and US publishers become interested.
“If we can’t find them, nurture them, develop them and support them, they are hardly likely to be spotted from New York and London”
Some advocates of removing restrictions argue that book prices will be lowered by allowing parallel importation. Gibb says there is no evidence of this:
“None whatsoever. The Productivity Commission has not done a single model to show that books will be cheaper and by how much.
“Book prices have fallen in Australia over 25 per cent in the last five years. New Zealand is an open market and book prices have fallen by only 15 per cent.”
“Book prices have GST on them and everyone compares us to the UK and US but of course they do not tax books so we’re already 10 per cent more expensive than those markets purely on the basis of tax.”
What concerns Gibb is that the Australian industry has fought for years to reach this point – an equal footing in the international industry. This is a backward step and the winners will be “people like Apple, Google, Amazon.”
What’s really surprising is that even those countries perceived to be champions of a ‘free economy’ such as the UK, and even the US, uphold restrictions on parallel imports. “So why would we feed our markets to New York and London and international tech companies when we’ve got a hugely successful cultural industry?” asks Gibb.
Even more telling is that in countries where restrictions on book imports have been removed, their book industries have diminished, namely Canada and New Zealand.
“You only have to look at a country like New Zealand to see how that local, thriving industry that told New Zealand stories for New Zealanders has been decimated,” says Nikki Gemmell.
“The New Zealand publishing industry has shrunk and the amount of books they publish each year has shrunk enormously. It means there has been a reduction in the strong, varied dynamic NZ voice – that distinctive voice that tells the story of a nation is being extinguished.
“They can’t risk a new author in the way that they could in the past. Nurturing an author who might be a brilliant writer but doesn’t sell many copies over two or three books and maybe it’s their fourth or fifth book that they break through, that’s not happening in New Zealand.”
Gemmell thinks that an author like herself wouldn’t have made it in a country where parallel imports are allowed: “I just thank god I was lucky that I wasn’t in that world, I don’t think I would have been published. My first book, Shiver, was published 20 years ago by Random House. My publisher took a complete punt on me but she did it because that was the kind of climate that we had in publishing then.
“I’ve never seen it so grim in terms of what we’re facing now. It’s a perfect storm of elements that are shrinking our world and what’s at stake is the heart of our national psyche in terms of who we are as Australians.
“As my good mate Peter FitzSimons said, ‘It’s like we’re sitting around a campfire listening to our stories, our Australian flavoured stories, but there’s a chill wind blowing that’s going to blow out that campfire.'”
Gemmell says the cause lacks a political champion from any political party, whereas back in the 90s, the Democrats’ Natasha Stott Despoja had stood up and supported the book industry when it was threatened.
“We need as many signatures as possible on the petition to make Malcolm Turnbull and his government and the Labor party and the Greens sit up and take notice that we all care passionately about Australian stories and Australian publishing.
“We don’t want our strong Australian voices silenced. Write to your local member, talk about it with anyone involved with politics. Get it out there, let people know that this is a huge threat facing our industry.”
Whether you support the issue or not, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment here or on our Facebook page. Or if you would like to find out more please read the many articles that have been written on the subject below. There are a number of ways you can make your voice heard: