In 2008, the Australian Government announced its Productivity Commission would be undertaking a review of the provisions of our Copyright Act which restrict the parallel importation of books to Australia.
This has caused significant debate in our little literary pond and is of particular interest to me because (a) I obviously like to read and (b) I like to bitch and moan about the prices and the availability of books in Australia.
The subject of the review:
Under the Act, an Australian-based publisher has 30 days to print an Australian version of any book released in the world. Following this, if a bookstore wishes to sell said book they can only purchase it from that publisher. They cannot import the same book from an overseas publisher.
The battle lines are drawn:
A debate has ensued between some of the smaller booksellers versus the multi-national bookstores and the Australian publishing industry. I don’t want to go into great detail about the different perspectives (see here and here for two sides of the argument), but issues include competition, protection, royalties, retail prices, book sales, online overseas bookstores, Australian culture, encouraging reading, etc, etc.
I don’t know enough about copyright and protection to deal with such tough points as royalties to authors and the possible dumping of books into the Australian market; however, a few things struck me when reading the various commentaries.
My thoughts (with my obvious bias as an avid reader):
The discrepancy in retail prices~ The Australian book industry has recommended retail prices, which some of the multi-nationals choose to increase (sometimes dramatically). Yet, stores like K-Mart, Target and Woolworths sell books at up to 35% off the recommended retail price. Not sure how that works, but the larger bookstores seem to exist by trading on their corporate image. Given the state of the economy though, this could become a problem for them as customers turn to less expensive options. It seems to me one simple solution to this issue would be to enforce recommended retail prices and still allow individual booksellers the ability to have sales and discounts.
Overseas bookstores and retail prices~ Comparisons show that the cost of books in Australia for the same titles and format are more expensive (again, sometimes considerably) than those sold elsewhere. I am still not clear as to why this is the case; however, some members of the Australian publishing industry are screaming outrage and making waves about the need for protection due to the large number of individuals (ie me) who go online to buy their books overseas. Quel shock! I can’t speak for other readers, but I don’t only buy books from overseas because they are cheaper. I also buy them because of the wide range of books available via these stores and because I can get new releases more quickly. Quite frankly, the ’30 day to print’ thing doesn’t always work and you can be waiting months for a book to come out in Australia. Isn’t market competition a good thing? Or does competition in this context only count if it’s happening within Australia? Perhaps a review of local business practices may prove beneficial to the bigger companies.
The Australian culture~ This argument about protecting vocabulary, cultural idioms, etc through printing Australian versions of books rather than importing overseas versions is very valid and is something I have commented on elsewhere. At the same time, it is one which has Uluru-sized holes in it. Several of the supporters of the restrictions have spoken about the possible replacement of Australian vocab particularly with American words (for eg Mum with Mom). So I guess the various reports dealing with the Americanisation of Australian society largely because of television and movies were all pie-in-the-sky and any influences on our culture will ALL be because of BOOKS! Okaaayyy… Whether we like it or not, books do not have the same role in society they once did and such arguments do not stand up if they are not looked at within a larger context/discussion about cultural identity.
Books and libraries~ The high cost of books in Australia has priced them beyond the budgets of some families. This has been further impacted by the current economic climate. Historically, at such times, we have turned to public libraries for our reading material. Statistics are already showing more and more people throughout Australia are using libraries. Unfortunately, no matter how much the community may value their local library, libraries have a tendency to be undervalued and underfinanced by the authorities responsible for their funding. With increased demand, how are our public libraries going to manage, especially if book prices (wholesale too) continue to rise? What will happen to already strained budgets? What other important programs like ‘books on wheels’ and children’s reading hours will have to be cut? As an advocate for our public library system, I truly hope this is an issue given consideration by the Productivity Commission.
Finally, books and literacy~ Literacy is a major issue in Australia and education programs are being run at all levels of national, state and local governments as well as through community organisations. I would have thought improving accessibility to reading material, including through more equitable pricing of books for families and for public institutions such as libraries, would assist this hugely important matter. For me, literacy and reading equals empowerment.
As I said at the beginning of this post, this is an interesting debate albeit a complex one. I really hope our Government considers more than just the demands of a few multi-nationals and companies. Fingers crossed.
Are any of the above issues similar to what is happening in places other than Australia? I would be interested to know.