If we don’t fight we lose….

The debate about the threatened lifting of restrictions on the parallel importation of books simmers in the Australian publishing world.  Expect it to escalate if the Federal Government’s Productivity Commission makes public a decision to allow the abolition of territorial copyright on June 30.

Many book-loving Australians remain unaware of this issue, not realising it will affect them too – by the probable lack of choice of Australian books and by higher prices for those books. How do you explain the intricacies of this issue to those who are interested in our concerns? I’ve written this blog entry in an effort to help.

What is Parallel Importation of Books? Parallel importation would allow Australian booksellers to import Australian books from the US and the UK, irrespective of whether they’re already published in Australia. These books may be produced cheaply in the US, but that’s before they’ve had freight charges and GST added.

There’s a reason both the US and the UK prohibit parallel imports into their countries. Why allow it to happen here?

When the Productivity Commission takes its findings to Federal Government at the end of June, they may follow their Draft recommendation – i.e. to limit Parallel Importations Restrictions to 12 months from the date of first publication of a book in Australia. But this too will badly affect authors’ territorial copyrights because sometimes it takes a year for a book’s sales to pick up.

How will lifting the PIRs affect the Australian publishing industry? Lifting the restrictions, even after 12 months, would risk turning our vibrant, world-class and thriving publishing industry into a series of warehouses for imported books from overseas, especially Australian books that have been remaindered in North America.

Most submissions to the Productivity Commission agree on one thing – lifting or watering down the PIRs will be a direct threat to all aspects of the Australian publishing industry.

For the majority of Australian authors, the news is bad: we’re lucky to get 10% royalty per book now in Australia – being forced to write for an overseas market to survive could mean less or no royalties; and as publishers cut costs here, they will be less inclined to support and nurture developing authors (like myself) and new authors.

Who is behind the push for lifting the PIRs? Over the past ten years there have been a number of attempts to lift these restrictions in Australia – this is the latest.

The biggest group behind this recent move to re-examine the laws is the hastily put-together Coalition for Cheaper Books, whose spokesperson is Don Glover, head of Dymocks Books. The others are the multi-national retailers Woolworths and Coles, and their offshoots, Kmart, Target and Big W. Also implicated by their public comments are free-marketeers like Alan Fels and ex-NSW Premier, Bob Carr, and this week, ACT Education Minister, Andrew Barr. Note: Bob Carr also serves on the board of Dymocks.

Recently, Dymocks sent a ‘help us to get you cheaper books’ petition to their Booklovers’ Loyalty customers. They got 16,000 signatures to push their case for lifting the restrictions on Parallel Importations, which they presented to the Productivity Commission. Nowhere on that petition did Don Glover provide information about the negative effects upon Australian publishing of his proposed ‘free market’. And nor are the Productivity Commissioners quoted where they admit there is no guarantee that most books will be cheaper if the restrictions are lifted.

Franchisee owners of Dymocks’ stores face a dilemma. They don’t want a war with authors – most of them probably have a genuine love of Australian books. They feel threatened by Coles and Woolworths who have no knowledge or commitment to Australian books and who constantly undercut the authentic bookshops’ prices.

How will lifting the PIRs affect Australian book readers? Removing PIRs risks flooding the market with inferior imports; ensures the loss of Australian experiences, content, ideas, references and landscape in Australian-authored children’s books especially; and an increasing use of Americanised spelling like color and organized; terms like faucet instead of tap, vacation instead of holiday, Thanksgiving in books written by Australian authors.

But there is something even worse – the dumbing-down of Australian-authored children’s books to suit the American market. If the restrictions are lifted these versions will be sold in Australia.

Warning: blog author’s personal opinion alert … Recently I’ve seen an example of how a vibrant and clever Australian picture book in the hands of the American market has become more literal, almost bland in its pared down text. Page by page, sentence by sentence I compared the Aussie version next to its American twin, not that you could call them twins – the US version is more a flavourless facsimile of the original.

It’s great that the US publisher recognised a superb Australian authored and published book, and I salute my author friend for making inroads into an overseas market, but why not tell the story like it is? Australian children understand its subtlety; does this mean American children can’t? What do you think?

What can we do? The protection offered by these Restrictions will be lifted if people don’t speak out, so the time to act is now:

  • Go to the Productivity Commission’s website. Read some of the articulate, informative and passionate submissions written by authors, publishers, booksellers and many others. You owe it to yourself as a reader and to the future of Australian books. http://www.pc.gov.au/projects/study/books
  • Talk to the manager and staff of your local, franchised Dymocks’ stores – tell them your concerns about the negative effects on Australian books and authors if the restrictions are lifted.
  • Write short and sharp letters to newspapers/online and paper
  • Write to politicians – the final decision is in their hands.

For more information:
Recent Australian Society of Authors’ submission to Productivity Commission

Award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan’s closing address at the Sydney Writers Festival

This article appeared in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s (Qld Branch) newsletter 2009/2

5 thoughts on “If we don’t fight we lose….

  1. Yes, Kat and Chris – and we have to get this information out to Australians from every walk of life. People-power is a potent force that politicians listen to!


  2. Rallying the troops again, Sheryl. Good on you! It’s important that readers know exactly what is being proposed, and the affects it will have on Australian publishing – and reading!


  3. The coalition for cheaper books is the main driving force behind the lifting of PIR’s. This is made up of Dymocks and Big W to name but two. They say they want cheaper books for Australians but they offer no firm evidence to support this claim. ‘Trust us’ they say, we’ll look after you! well I for one are a little sceptical. Big business looks after big business and I think this is nothing more than a cash grab. Buy the books cheaper from over seas, discount them heavily so that small opperators and local publishers can’t compete and when there are no small opperators left, hike the prices up because Australian consumers have no option but to buy from them. If we as a nation let this happen without a fight then we are to blame for the consequences. Write to your politicians and tell them you won’t stand for it!


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