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. 

The Australian Writer’s Marketplace is Australia and New Zealand’s only guide to the writing industry. While providing submission and contact details for the print media and publishing industry.

4 Responses to “Parallel Imports: The Skinny”

  1. Nick Earls,

    Hi there,

    Thanks for giving this issue some thought, and looking beyond the headlines. The competition industry seems to think that competition is the only thing we ever have to think about but, as you’re aware, there’s a lot more to it when we look at the detail.

    I won’t rehash my letter to the PM – it’s on the ASA’s website for anyone who’s interested in seeing the five pages, rather than the two-line quote that’s appeared in the media – but I’d just like to say more about one point.

    You mention that American editions of our books, for one thing, feature American spelling, and that’s true. What people may not be aware of is how much else can change when a book goes through the contractually obligatory process of americanization. The US Perfect Skin is different in about 200 ways from the Australian edition, and there’s not one of those changes I would have accepted as part of the Australian editing process. It may be the right version of the book for the US, but it’s honestly too different to be right here. Anyone who knows Australian idiom, and particularly anyone who knows the Brisbane suburbs in question, would continually find changes that were off-putting and their reading of the book would be spoiled. Yet it would be marketed here as, simply, a cheaper version of the same book (cheaper only because they’d be dumping excess stock) . No one is going to put a sticker on the front saying ‘warning – contains 200 differences from Australian edition’.

  2. Chris Palma,

    Garth Nix is (intentionally or not) conflating two completely different– and critically important– business relationships here.

    One is the contractual relationship between the Australian publisher (the buyer or seller of territorial rights) and the US or UK publisher. If the Australian publisher buys exclusive rights to publish in Australia, the US publisher is in breach of contract if it sells into the territory– period. Sure, the Australian bookseller can buy from a US wholesaler (who is not tied to publishers’ rights restrictions), but margins would be far less than buying direct from the local publisher, and freight costs far lower.

    The other business relationship– erroneously tied to the first in Nix’s letter– is that between the consumer and ANY bookseller in the world (internet-based, or bricks & mortar). Current parallel importation laws do not restrict the Australian consumer’s free right to purchase any book from a US seller, nor the seller’s right to sell it too him. Likewise, anyone in the US can purchase Australian editions from any Australian bookseller.

    Nix is completely wrong, when he asserts that “The USA and the UK have actually been strengthening their respective book copyright regimes, . . .” The rule of law is alive and well in these countries, and contractual obligations between publishers continue to be duly enforced. Australian-published books absolutely can– and are– freely sold in the US & UK, but only to the extent that the publisher has contractual rights to do so.

    What is often lost in this debate, are the baseline reasons for a publisher to sell foreign rights to begin with– versus retaining world rights and selling everywhere. A US or UK publisher looks at the enormous costs associated with building up expertise in marketing, sales, and distribution in foreign markets– not to mention the editorial knowledge to localize editions for foreign readers (if necessary). It often makes much more economic sense to simply collect a royalty on foreign sales than to build up a full-scale foreign operation.

    The value that the Australian publisher brings to the table, is the local expertise related to sales, marketing, and publicity, as well as lower relative costs of distribution. Importation restrictions or no– this is it’s competitive advantage.

  3. Speakeasy » Blog Archive » More on Parallel Import,

    […] And, there’s been some interesting comments on our previous post on this issue. […]

  4. Symposium,

    Thanks for the great post (and generating the subsequent comments). Your blog post has really helped me understand more about this issue.

    I’m researching to understand how removing PIRs will effect educational publishing in Australia. Keane’s argument that import regulation reflects a lack of trust in Australian consumers buying local content has made me think that if PIRs are removed as the PC recommends, educational products from Australia may not suffer intensely. After all, won’t Australian educators, who choose which textbooks they want to teach with, want Australian examples and case studies to compliment core theories that are international? A US or UK textbook wouldn’t meet that need, despite having the fundamentals of the discipline outlined and explained. In this respect, does the removal of PIRs matter for educational publishing?

    Please let me know if this view is simplistic or if I’m missing something.

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