✱ An Open Book

The influence of globalisation can be felt in countless obscure policy areas, in situations where it not obviously apparent what is the best thing to do. One such example is the arcane matter of parallel importing as it pertains to Australian publishing.

Most products manufactured overseas have authorised distributors in Australia. Parallel importing refers to a process by which someone other than the authorised distributor legally imports such products (genuine products, not knock-offs) and sells them on the market, often at significantly cheaper price points.

The Copyright Act 1968 includes protections for Australian publishers from the parallel imports of books. Upon the publication of any overseas title, Australian publishers have 30 days to publish an Australian edition, which local booksellers are then obliged to buy. Economics of scale being what they are, the local version often costs $10-$15 more than the equivalent overseas edition, even taking into account shipping. In 2008, the federal government asked the Productivity Commission to investigate whether these protections should be removed for the benefit of consumers.

Australian authors soon launched a concerted (though poorly articulated — much irony to be had there) campaign against removing the protections. This is where it gets complicated. Parallel importing does not directly affect the majority of local writers. Rather, by ensuring the existence of a local publishing industry that can pick and choose which overseas titles are bankable, it supports an ecosystem of local authors and their more uncertain commercial success. It is this ecosystem that the local campaign argued was under threat if the rules were changed.

For the bestselling Australian authors, parallel importing also raises the threat of remainder sales. In the odd supply chain system of the book industry, once a publisher decides a title is no longer commercially viable, it pulls it from shelves, and booksellers are able to send back all their unsold copies for full credit. The publisher then sells this invariably large stock of ‘remainders’ cheaply and directly to wholesalers, where they end up in bargain bins for a few dollars. Importantly, authors receive no royalties on these remainder sales. It is therefore entirely possible to imagine a situation (for a few authors, anyway) where the overseas run of an Australian title ends and Australian bargain bins are full of copies of it, selling for prices that hugely undercut the local edition and on which the author makes no money.

In a perfect market, presumably, authoring would be done where authors enjoyed the greatest market advantage and local authors would simply move there. This means we probably wouldn’t have another Storm Boy, but it may also spare us from Gretel Killeen’s My Life is a Toilet. Qualitative judgments are never straightforward.

The interesting question for our purposes is what role does policy have in all this? The Productivity Commission recommended the removal of parallel import protections after three years, to give enough time for another appropriate means of support for the local industry to be developed and implemented, though what that might look like, the Commission gave no indication. The Government apparently decided this was too hard or too unwelcome a conversation to have and announced it would be leaving the legislation as it was. Tellingly, it said ‘if books cannot be made available in a timely fashion and at a competitive price, customers will opt for online sales and ebooks.’6

This decision appears to benefit both consumers and the local publishing industry, but it leaves the actual local booksellers in perhaps the most unworkable position. They are obliged to buy the higher-priced local editions, while exposed to the market and distribution power of Amazon and the Book Depository (free overseas shipping!). This is a large factor — as well as poor management — in the recent collapse of REDGroup and its Borders and Angus & Robertson brands. It’s also why you now see many independent booksellers with in-store signage demanding/pleading that customers not simply use their store to conduct research for a later online purchase. Then there’s the ebook, which threatens to disrupt the entire print publishing industry altogether.

It seems to me that this is not so much a problem of free trade/protectionism as it is of ensuring a flourishing capacity for imagination, knowledge and cultural life (or cultural capital, if we must insist on that language). Policy should be directed at ensuring this capacity, rather than maintaining a particular institutional set of affairs or attempting to pick and choose winners, as neoliberals sometimes call it. In other words, it matters less how we ensure we have a capacity for unique cultural life than that we do it. This will first require that we begin to think of people, wherever they are, as producers and readers of books and ideas rather than simply vendors and consumers of them. ◾

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