The Most Hated Book Down Under

In Feature Articles by Andrew Wilkins

Editorial by Andrew Wilkins


MELBOURNE: Australia is a nation of booklovers, but you won’t find many fans for a new Australian paperback, ISBN 9781740372817. In fact, there’s an argument for saying it’s “Australia’s Most Hated Book.”

That’s because it’s a report by an Australian Government think-tank, the Productivity Commission, which recommends (among other things) the abolition of the copyright protections that enable Australia to function as a separate rights territory in the global publishing marketplace.

In other words, it has recommended turning Australia into an open market for books.

The Commission’s argument is complex and obscure in its reasoning (“better targeting of cultural externalities,”…anyone?) but devilishly simple in its conclusion: consumers are paying too much for books due to the old-fashioned and restrictive practice of allowing a publisher the exclusive right to publish or distribute a book in Australia. Because a consumer’s right to cheaper books outweighs any other considerations, we must therefore abolish territorial exclusivity. As the 280th largest publisher in Australia (and that’s pretty small), I’ve now joined the chorus of universal derision emanating from all sectors of the book industry — with one or two notable exceptions that we’ll discuss later. The bodies representing publishers, authors, booksellers and printers have all come out unambiguously against the proposal and have even formed a coalition to fight it.

When the Australian Government announced last November that it was going to ask the Productivity Commission to look into the Parallel Import Restrictions that protect Australian publishers from having to compete with overseas editions of their books, many in the book industry felt rather like the cast of Jaws 2. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …. “

The Australian book trade has been here before, you see. Rather like the indefatigable mole in that popular arcade game, Whac-a-Mole, the argument that books in Australia are too expensive and hard to get and that abolishing territorial copyright will make them cheaper and more available just keeps on popping up. It was the personal hobbyhorse of former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Allan Fels and it was supposed to be addressed by reforms to the Copyright Act way back in 1991.

Those reforms put in place what most still regard as an eminently sensible compromise. Booksellers wanted to get the books from overseas that their customers wanted; publishers wanted to protect the licences under which they published and distributed overseas books in Australia. In a version of the old “use it or lose” principle, the Parallel Importation Restrictions made a publisher release an overseas book within 30 days of its first publication elsewhere or risk losing its territorial rights.

While this satisfied most booksellers at the time, it didn’t satisfy all. Now some of the largest of them — discount retailers Woolworths, Coles, Kmart, Target and Big W — plus Australia’s second largest bookselling chain Dymocks, have come out in support of the Productivity Commission’s recommendation under the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing banner of The Coalition for Cheaper Books. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Given there are no — I repeat no — definitive figures that demonstrate books are more expensive in Australia than in the US or UK anyway — after one has taken into account the 10% sales tax the Australian Government puts on books and fluctuations in the Aussie dollar — the real story behind this proposal must lie elsewhere.

This is really an argument about bestsellers, profit margin and market power. It’s plain to see that Big Retail wants Parallel Import Restrictions to go so they can bring in cheap A-format (i.e. mass market) US editions of writers like Dan Brown and James Patterson. They can’t currently do this because they have to buy the more expensive B- or C-formats (larger trade-sized paperbacks) from the protected Australian publisher. They’ll buy ’em cheap by the pallet load from overseas publishers, stack ’em high, sell ’em low and thereby maximise their profits.

With the large multinational publishers in Australia shorn of their biggest sellers, one can predict a shift in the balance of power in the Australian book trade — a shift from Big Publishing to Big Retail.

As a small, independent publisher, I’d rather the shift was from Big to Small, but sadly there are no proposals from any think-tank proposing that. Indeed, I seem to be operating in a parallel universe — unacknowledged by the Productivity Commission — in which the retail price of books is set not by how much I can gouge out of the consumer by abusing my exclusive, market-corrupting licenses, but by how much books actually cost to produce and how much margin I have to give away to get them in front of the consumer. Apparently, my sole concern should be how much the US or UK edition is selling for.

Fortunately, the Commission’s fundamentally mad* proposal, which also involves placing a fit and healthy industry on the life support of completely unnecessary subsidies and grants, has a long way to go before it becomes law. In the midst of a recession, it would take a courageous Government to perform unnecessary surgery on a relatively healthy patient purely to satisfy a few ideologues and large retailers.

* If one defines madness as blind insistence, in the face of all available rational evidence, on an alternative reality.

Andrew Wilkins is owner of Wilkins Farago, an Australian trade publishing house.

READ: The Productivity Comission’s Report on Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books

VISIT: “Australians for Australian Books,” the site of the coalition fighting the proposition to lift the ban on parallel imports.

PERUSE: The site of “The Coalition for Cheaper Books,” the group in support of lifting the ban.

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.