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08 May 2009

Parallel imports

For those of you who didn't see last night's Lateline debate between Garth Nix and Dymocks CEO Don Grover on the proposed lifting of Australian territorial copyright, here are the salient points.

Firstly - what's territorial copyright? What are parallel import restrictions and why do we have them?

Basically, there's a law in Australia where, if a book is published in Australia within 30 days of it being published overseas, an Australian bookseller cannot import and sell the international edition. Now there's a proposal to remove that restriction. The people in favour of getting rid of it say that it will make books cheaper - we all know that books are cheaper in America, we can see so on Amazon.

But why are books cheaper over there? Two main reasons. The first is that the US is a much bigger pond than Australia. There's more people to buy books, therefore publishers can print more, at a lower cost. The second is that, because of the big pond, most books in the US come out first in hardcover (which is expensive), and then later in a very cheap mass-market edition, printed on very low-quality paper with inferior binding.

In Australia, we generally don't print in hardcover, because there aren't enough people to buy the books to make it financially viable. But that means our first edition paperbacks are pretty high-quality - usually a B or C format, and on good quality paper and embellished covers.

So why not remove this territorial copyright? What purpose does it serve? A few, actually. Firstly, both the US and the UK have full territorial copyright - they don't even have the 30-day rule. They fully protect their publishing industry and authors against imports from other countries. The only country, in fact, to remove its territorial copyright is New Zealand, a country with almost no local publishing to start with. And there is no evidence that it has resulted in cheaper books.

But here's the main reason. If it is cheaper to buy an overseas edition of an Australian book, chances are the consumer will do it. Which means that the Australian publisher doesn't get the money, and the author gets a much lower royalty. With less money flowing through Australian publishers, they become unable to support the smaller books, the niche books. The books that might not sell a squillion copies but are still worthy of publication. Australian authors will turn to the US and UK markets for publication, instead of publishing locally first. In order to appeal to overseas markets, the Australian-ness of their stories will be stripped away.

Dymocks CEO Don Grover has this to say: "I don't think the Australian consumer cares (about buying Australian products), they care about price". He obviously has a lot of respect for his customers.

And let's talk about booksellers for a moment. Customers are already shopping in an international market - you can order any book you like from the US or the UK as an individual, online or through your local bookshop. Australian booksellers are already having to compete with and - so why shouldn't they be allowed to import cheaper books?

Because if we did lift the restrictions, how long do you think it would be before an sprang up? With a US-owned Amazon warehouse in Australia, how many Australian booksellers would be able to compete with the scale of Amazon, without the overseas shipping costs? Not Dymocks, that's for sure.

Ex-Premier Bob Carr is a member of the Coalition for Cheaper Books (along with such august establishments as Coles, KMart, Big W and Dymocks). He says that our current comparatively high book prices are resulting in kids who don't read*. He says that the average book price is $35, which is driving consumers away from buying books for their children. This is a very irritating non-sequitur. Because sure, if you average out all the books in the bookshop, including coffee-table books and cookbooks, the average price is $35. But go into the children's and young adult section of a bookshop, and you will be unlikely to find many books that cost over $20.

My next book Pink, is set in Melbourne. It mentions Flinders Street and trams and the GPO shopping centre and many other places. When it gets published in the US, it won't be set in Melbourne anymore. The footpaths will be sidewalks. The Mums will be Moms. Maths class will be math class, and Ava's high school will no longer be named The Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence, after an ex-Prime Minister. And that's fine, for my US readers. I understand why those changes need to be made. But for Australians to have to read the de-Australianed version because it's cheaper? It's just wrong.

(this post is a modified version of my submission to the ACCC)

*Will somebody think of the children! Let them have cheap books! Mandatory internet filters will make them big and strong and put a rose in every cheek... Or is that Vegemite?


Jam Tart said...

Yay for sticking up for good quality Aussie books!!!!
Also, I've found that when you get "cheap" books from the US and Britain the cost of postage and the exchange rate adds up to be the same as from an Australian bookshop.

By the way, I thought you'd be the best person to ask about copyright for blogs? I've been posting the story I'm writing onto a blog, do you know if there's anything to stop someone copying it and using it as their own?


pat said...

I've been seeing plenty of people raising this issue - in The Age, on blogs, twitter, etc. And purely going by who was on what side, I was pretty sure I didn't like what Dymocks was pushing.

But this post actually laid it all out so I can understand and potentially argue the points myself. Thanks :)

Australian Online Bookshop said...

I agree completly. If Australia does remove territorial copyright it will advantage only one group - The coalition for cheaper books. This is all about increasing profite for major Australian retailers and not about cheaper books for consumers. We are at risk of losing our Australian publishing industry and the future of emerging Australian authors with it.
I think Bob Carr was deliberately misleading when saying the average book cost in Australia at $35.00 is driving consumers away from buying books for their children. He knows full well that the majority of childrens book are as you say, well below $20.00

What Kate did next ... said...

Well said, Lili. Hear hear.

lili said...

Hi Tatiana!

Everything you write, whether it's published or not, is automatically copyrighted under your name. So no, someone can't take something you've written and say it's theirs. And if they do you can sue them.

Jam Tart said...

That's what I thought, thanks for confirming it, Lili.


Kirsty Murray said...

Lili, this is the clearest explanation of the dangers of parallel importation that I've read yet. Well done.

Anonymous said...

What you said times a million. That was crystal clear.

I'm still shocked that they're even contemplating doing this. The Oz publishing industry is thriving right now. Unlike, say, the car industry which is limping along with gaping chest wounds because the goverment keeps throwing money at them. The publishing industry isn't asking for handouts. All we want is to be left as is.


Justine L

james roy said...

Well put, Lili.

Tony said...

Hear Hear! Beautifully put, Lilli.

Dragonsally said...

Thank you for setting this out so clearly. I am going to pass this blog entry around, so people know what is really at stake.

Jason King said...

Why is it an either-or question. Why doesn't the owner of the work decide the terms under which they publish their work?

I mean, sure, there's a lot of legal convenience in the Copyright laws and I don't mean to trivialize the task, but if those laws aren't enough then - in the same way that the software industry did - the publishing industry ought to exercise their rights to set whatever terms of sale they choose for their works.

If one author wished to publish in Australia and a modified version in the US, then in setting the terms of sale of their work they might include a preclusion of export of said materials outside of the US.

lili said...

Hi Jason,

Authors can do that! My next book comes out with Allen & Unwin here, and a modified version is being published in the US (with Moms and sidewalks). This isn't a question about publishing, it's about sales. If a bookseller could import the cheaper US copies of my book, they wouldn't be buying the copies published here - the Australian version.

shiree said...

Hi Lili,
Is there any indication on the American book that it has been modified?

lili said...

Hi Shiree,

Nope. There usually isn't any indication at all.



Melinda Szymanik said...


as a NZ writer published in NZ its a shame to have you say we have almost no local publishing. All the economies of scale that make publishing in Australia more expensive than in the US, are even more tricky here but we are still trying to write NZ books for NZ people and getting them published here.

Melinda Szymanik said...

having said that, I have been following this issue and hope that the parallel importing of books does not go ahead.