As I understand it, anyway. And it’s an issue with many sides.
The beginning: The government is investigating the potential value of parallel importation for books. They’ve looked at it before, and it’s never been passed, but Rudd and co are taking another look at the situation.
What is parallel importation? As far as I can tell, it is the right to import books published overseas and distribute them in Australia, without infringing on Australian-held copyright. For example, if a book is published in Australia and the US, and the US version is cheaper for distributors to buy, under parallel importation the distributor can import the US version and sell that instead of the Australian product.
Cheaper books mean benefits for booksellers, and also the reading public. Parallel import should drive down the overall price of books, and increase the variety and availability of books in general. In terms of the preservation of reading culture in Australia, it’s a good thing.
If so, why have the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Publishers Association, Nick Earls and Garth Nix come out against parallel import? Well, to begin with, authors will probably receive fewer royalties if booksellers buy books at cheaper rates (there is an argument that this could be offset by greater sales, but that seems like a dodgy bet to me).
Local publishers are feeling threatened because, with parallel import, they will be forced to drop their prices to compete on the international book market. Most, especially the smaller publishing houses, are already in financially tight states, so this potential loss of income is a serious issue. Worst case scenario extrapolates this drop in income to less production, poorer quality products, and to local publishers signing even fewer Australian authors than they do now, as they won’t be able to afford it.
However, Bernard Keane has weighed in at Crikey with the argument that the Australian publishing industry should essentially get over it. Software and music import restrictions have fallen, and he asks why books should be any different.
Australian publishers, like other beneficiaries of media regulation like the FTA TV networks and music companies, have had to watch as their fortresses of protectionism have been bypassed by the internet, with consumers exercising the power it hands them to get what they want when they want it, legally or illegally. With a strong Australia-US exchange rate, there’s never been a better time to buy GST-free books from Amazon.
Keane goes on to argue that import regulation is actually a lack of trust in the Australian consumer, that publishers do not believe Australians will buy Australian stories, and the industry must be regulated to keep sales of Australian literature up. He compares it to the broadcasting industry’s Australian Content Requirements, and the theory that Australians wouldn’t watch Australian TV shows if the industry wasn’t forced to make them.
However, it’s not just about the content. Garth Nix makes an incredibly important point in his letter, one which should probably be the sticking point to the entire debate:
I am surprised there is support for an “open” market in Australia because it would be no such thing. It would actually be a “surrendered” market. The entire publishing world still works on the basis of territorial copyright and it will do so for a long time to come, despite electronic editions and the Internet, of which I will have more to say down the page. This is particularly the case with English language publishing. The USA and the UK have actually been strengthening their respective book copyright regimes, not surrendering them. What is “open” about Australian-published books not being able to be sold in the USA or the UK, but American, British or any other English-language edition from anywhere being able to be freely sold here?
Perhaps I’m missing the point, but why should we accept American and British versions of our books, when they won’t do the same? They’d all have American spelling, for one thing. And Australian authors would have nothing to sell Australian publishers; local editions of books by Australian authors will disappear. Australian writers will have to compete for the attention of international publishers, selling their international rights straight off the bat and getting their books published overseas. Then, they’ll be sold back into Australia.
To make this perfectly clear: "Australian rights" will become completely worthless. Australia will, as Nix points out, essentially surrender it’s copyright territory. No other country has done this, or is even thinking of doing this. Quite frankly, it doesn’t seem worth it.
Yes, the bookselling and publishing industry in Australia is in a precarious position, but there has to be a better way to fix it than parallel import.