Cheaper books? Don’t count on it.

In recent months Australian authors, publishers and booksellers have been spilling a lot of ink both literally and digitally over the issue of parallel book importation. Parallel importation is the commercial importation of books into Australia without the authorisation of the Australian copyright holder, like a local bookstore selling copies of Tim Winton's Dirt Music published in and imported from the United Kingdom instead of copies printed in here in Australia. It can be done on a scale of thousands of books sold around the country through a nation-wide bookstore chain, or as little as half a dozen by a small independent bookstore in Perth.

At present, the Copyright Act 1968 prohibits the parallel importation and subsequent commercial distribution of books. This means that local booksellers must buy books from an Australian publisher and cannot import it from overseas even if the overseas copy is cheaper. There is an exception if after thirty days of a book being released overseas the book is not available for sale in Australia, and also for single copies of books imported for a customer's personal use. Those who favour removal of restrictions argue that the restrictions are anti-competitive as they restrict supply and inflate prices. Those opposed to the removal argue that the restrictions are important to encourage the Australian publishing industry and protect Australia's creative output.

The Australian Productivity Commission released a final report on parallel importation in March this year. It recommended among other things that the federal government should repeal the parallel import restriction on books, idea being that removing the restrictions will reduce the cost of books. These recommendations will be considered by the Australian Parliament sometime in the next few weeks.

First, are books in Australia more expensive than elsewhere? The Productivity Commission worked hard to prove that was the case, but couldn't. In the end they decided that measuring the magnitude of any actual price efforts related to territorial copyright was 'problematic' and in its recent draft report did not 'put a figure on them'. The entire argument from the Coalition for Big Business (sorry, Coalition for Cheaper Books, ie, Wesfarmers, Woolworths, Dymocks, etc) is that abandoning territorial copyright would make books cheaper, but no one has proven that it does.

If good data existed demonstrating a clear and sustained price benefit, it would need to be weighed against possible detriments. If there is no good data to demonstrate conclusively the benefit of change – as is currently the case – the change should simply not be made.

The fact is that some books are cheaper in Australia, some are more expensive and some cost around the same as elsewhere, and prices vary from book to book, time to time, retailer to retailer and with changes in the exchange rate. Either side in this argument can cherry pick individual books – and times with exchange rates that favour their case – and wave them in the air in order to make their point, but it doesn't prove a point about an entire industry. Beware of economic rationalists waving Tim Winton novels, and the comparisons they make.

Is it fair to compare the cheapest price of a book online with the Australian RRP, when discount outlets are selling the book for far less? Why are we comparing Dymocks' prices with Amazon's, when Big W and Kmart are regularly undercutting Dymocks? Australia often has cheaper books than we might think, if we're prepared to shop around.

So how much would the price drop if territorial copyright was lifted, and parallel importing of all books was allowed? Bob Carr, in an article in The Australian last year, pulled the old trick of comparing the highest price he could find in Australia with the lowest price he could find online, and the books he used to make his point included Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, PD James's The Private Patient and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. But here's the point he didn't make: all these books can already be legally parallel imported. So why isn't his team at Dymocks doing just that, and turning them into Cheaper Books? If parallel importing would make books cheaper, why are we not seeing that already with the many books that can be lawfully parallel imported right now? I'm not so cynical that I think the answer's all about Dymocks' bottom line. I think it's more likely that the books wouldn't be cheaper after all.

How often does deregulation live up to its promise of making things cheaper? Milk, anyone? Since deregulation, we've all seen milk become more expensive and farmers get paid less.

The changes proposed by the Productivity Commission are unlikely to deliver the price benefits to consumers that they might hope, but they will put a commercially viable industry in jeopardy. The Commission knows this risk, and accepts it. Recommendation number two is that subsidies be introduced to mitigate against the cultural harm of the proposed change.

The publishing industry creates jobs in writing, publishing, design and printing. It generates export earnings. It creates intellectual property that we can market around the world and that helps make Australia a player in a global knowledge economy. I want this industry to thrive, not to be so harmed – and knowingly, recklessly harmed – that it requires propping up.

We need to read our own stories, and in our own voices. American editions of my novels have had up to 200 changes made for that market, and I want Australians to continue to have access to the original Australian versions. I want Australian children to have access to great Australian children's books, with their Australian cultural references and spelling intact.

So how does territorial copyright work elsewhere? The United Kingdom and United States maintain their own copyright territories vigorously, and each of their systems is in fact less open than the current system in Australia. New Zealand gave up territorial copyright a decade ago, and how have they fared? Have you seen the price of books in New Zealand? They're not cheap. Have you read many great New Zealand authors under 50 lately? Probably not. It's not that the talent isn't there, but the loss of territorial copyright is a major disincentive for a publisher to take the risk of publishing a new author.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise's 2004 report into the industry said 'New Zealand publishers face an inherent problem in that the domestic market is swamped by imports'. Children's publishing was seen as threatened, with 'dumping of children's books' listed by New Zealand publishers as one of the most pressing issues they face. The only reliable sellers the report could identify were 'coffee table books of landscape photos and books about rugby'.

That can't be the kind of publishing industry any of us wants in Australia.
Allowing parallel importation would cost jobs in publishing and printing, reduce the number of current writers able to continue writing full-time, reduce the number of new Australian writers being published and reduce the number of Australian stories being told. It might make some books a bit cheaper, and it might not.

When he presented his Literary Awards last year, the Prime Minister called writers 'the soul and sinew of our nation'. I'm sure he meant that, and this is the perfect time for him to demonstrate that he did.

Award-winning Australian writer Nick Earls is the author of 12 novels, the most recent being The True Story of Butterfish. This article was originally published on ABC Online at

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