By Di Morrissey
There’s been a lot of discussion in the media lately about books…prices, availability, copyright laws, greedy publishers, social media calling precious writers to get out of their ivory towers, academics pontificating about whingeing authors and the PIR – Parallel Importation Restrictions – which no one understands.
It started in March last year with the Harper Review, which recommended that the Government have the Productivity Commission (PC) review intellectual property, and amend laws to allow for parallel imports.
At present, Australian publishers, under an agreed code of conduct with booksellers, have two short weeks to release an overseas title after it is released in the USA or UK. If they don’t meet that date, then booksellers are free to parallel-import that title. By law they only have 30 days. Consumers can freely import copies for themselves at any time.
But, in November 2015, the Treasurer announced that the government should remove rules to allow parallel imports, to take effect after the PC’s final report, due in August 2016.
Those supporting this plan say it will make booksellers more competitive with overseas suppliers, promote lower prices and provide quick accessibility. Sounds good. But, in reality, the publishers and organisations like the Australian Society of Authors, say that the real impact will be that fewer Australian authors and books will be published, which means less choice, less income for all concerned – especially authors.
This will also mean a huge reduction in jobs across printing, publishing, bookselling (which employ 20,000 in Australia) and less promotion and trade in their international rights.
It should be remembered that authors make, on average, a royalty of 10 percent of the retail price of a book; the average annual earnings of an Australian author are about $13,000.
Consumers complain Australian books cost too much, and that used to be the case. But book prices have dropped by 30% in the past decade, and discount department stores discount bestsellers by at least 35% every day of the year. To order online from overseas, given our dollar exchange rate and postage, doesn’t save a reader much, if anything.
Australians are big readers and book buyers, and they support local authors. We like stories about who we are, where we live, and ideas and subjects to which we can relate. Promotion of our culture in books, movies and music, is a no brainer.
Australian publishers woke up to this in the 1960s, when Australia was considered something of a dumping ground for American and English books, and so we began to not only publish more Australian authors, but to promote them. By the 1970s, it was the beginning of the end of the cultural cringe which, many fear, will return should the PIR be lifted.
Some critics say that Australian writers should play on a level playing field with all comers from all countries. That, if an Australian manuscript is any good, it will be picked up by a publisher overseas just as readily as here. As if. Nice to think so.
Just as we tend to prefer our stories that reflect us and our culture, so do foreign publishers favour their own. I once had an American publisher comment that he liked my novel The Last Mile Home, set in 1950s New England NSW, but, “Could I move the story to Iowa in the 1980s.”
There is also the issue of ownership of an Australian writer’s backlist (previously published books.) UK and American publishers drive a hard bargain; i.e. “If you want to be published by us – sign over the Australian rights to your books,” thereby depriving your Australian publisher of income, after they’ve made all the outlay of finding and nurturing you, publishing and marketing your book(s).
Australian authors know, that without a pro-active publisher behind us, we wouldn’t be where we are. We also know that the profits we make help a publisher take risks and publish more experimental books, special interest books, and take a punt on a first time author.
None of this will happen if the PIR is lifted.
When New Zealand lifted its PIR, the NZ publishing industry crashed. Book prices in NZ have declined at a lower rate than in Australia, and they remain higher than in Australia. The range of titles has decreased in NZ, but risen in Australia over the same period, and investment of capital in publishing and infrastructure has been dramatically reduced in NZ.
In addition to the proposed changes to the PIR, there has also been a thought bubble from the PC about Copyright. Slipped into the recommendations is draft clause 4.2, whereby it is suggested that it’s a grand idea to reduce existing copyright protection from 70 years after the death of the creator, to a total limit of 15 to 25 years. I celebrate 25 years of publishing history this November and, under this proposal, I would cease earning from my earlier books. I would not own the rights to books like Tears of the Moon.
Neither the US or UK governments have plans to reduce the term of copyright for their writers and creators. So, why does the Australian government plan to treat Australian writers and creators so abysmally?
There’s a revealing exchange of comments on The Conversation’s website in which academics ‘who don’t live in the real world’ and are ‘all for’ reduction of copyright laws, are castigated by an articulate young author, Elizabeth Ellen Carter.
Ms Carter describes the problem of having a government saying, after one has owned a house or factory for twenty years or so, that you no longer own your asset, simply because the government says you don’t!!
But it’s not only authors who stand to lose ownership of their creative output. Illustrators, photographers, artists, designers etc, face the same fate.
What compensation will there be, if copyright is taken away? Australia is an international signatory to the Berne Convention to protect copyright, is it not? So how can our Government ministers even consider this spurious and selfish idea? Perhaps they should agree to meet and discuss the issue with publishing organisations here, rather than arrogantly assuming that they know best for our nation of readers and writers, and all who make it happen.
The Productivity Commission is not facing the media to justify the logic and reasons as to why this whole thing is a good idea. What other plans might the government be hiding from an unsuspecting nation?
The big question is why? Why does our government think this a good idea??
Shoot it down, Malcolm. Bad idea.