Save Australian books

April 23, 2009

Seven Things I Hate About the Productivity Commission inquiry

I’m making a rare but important departure from the delicious world of food here – although the proposal detailed below will certainly reduce the food on my table once writers’  incomes are decimated!

Am hopping mad about Australia’s Productivity Commission inquiry into book prices in Australia – specifically, its recommending changes to a couple of laws called ‘territorial rights’ and ‘parallel importation restrictions’. Boring on the face of it, but quite terrifying in actuality. It means basically handing over our hitherto protected book market (same as those of the UK, US and Canada) to international publishers, who pay Australian authors much less than Australian publishers do.

What the PC report means to a writer like me:

1. Literary fiction, my game in the book world, is a very difficult avenue to make money from as a writer. It’s very difficult to be published at all in Australia as a literary fiction writer. The Productivity Commission itself has openly admitted that the Australian book industry will contract as a result of its proposal. This means publishers will shed jobs and publish fewer books. Literary fiction is already a tiny portion of a publisher’s output – if it shrinks even further, I have no confidence that my books will continue to be published here at all.

2. No overseas publisher has taken any of my books, often (they say) because they’re ‘too Australian’. But even if I suddenly were to be published by an American or British or Canadian publisher, I would not be competing for readers on a level playing field with writers from those countries. They have the same protections for their authors that the Productivity Commission is trying to destroy for us, and there’s no talk of changing theirs. Territorial copyright is the international norm – but our government wants to remove our protection.

3. Each time a book of mine is sold, I get between $2 and $3. It is a depressing fact that every writer already earns far less from the sale of each of their books than their publisher or the bookseller does. When an English edition of an Australian book is sold, the writer gets less than one third of that because she will get a lower ‘export royalty’. It is the writer, the primary producer and yet the most vulnerable player in the publishing industry, who will suffer most economically from this proposal.

4. If you don’t care about literary fiction, or even books at all, you might care about jobs. I am very proud to be able to say that right now I’m a primary producer. Every time I write a novel or a story and it’s published, I provide paid work  for a literary agent, a publisher (and their assistants), two editors, a typesetter, a graphic designer, a proofreader, a printer, a warehouse manager, a forklift driver, a truck driver, a sales rep, a bookseller, a publicist, several writers’ festival directors and their staff, a journalist, a book reviewer, a magazine editor. And all these people provide jobs to other people in other industries. We are in the middle of a recession in which the government is spending a lot of money to preserve jobs – but here, the government is attacking a very successful industry. And it is the primary producer of this industry who will be the first one shafted by this proposal.

5. There is no evidence that lower book prices will be passed on to consumers. The large book chains already admit they frequently sell books at higher than recommended prices – if they’re so concerned about putting more books into the hands of working-class children, as Dymocks director Bob Carr (who, incidentally but not surprisingly is on the public record as saying rather proudly that he has absolutely no regard for contemporary Australian fiction), says he is, then why aren’t they already doing it?

6. There is also no evidence that cheaper books mean people will read more books – decisions about reading, especially in a consumer culture that seems on the whole to value plasma TVs over books of any kind, are not made on the basis of price alone.

7. Those are the fears I hold for my future as a writer, and about loss of jobs at a time when we should be protecting every job we can. But fears for my future as a reader of Australian literature are graver than these. This isn’t just an economic issue – it’s an issue about culture, about allowing our own writers to show us who we are as a country, to examine and reflect upon our own Australian experience. This proposal takes us back to the days Miles Franklin railed against, when Australians were told what to read by colonialist British publishers. Now we are proposing to heighten American & UK influence on our culture even further, and to allow international publishers to dictate what we will read about our own lives, our own Australian experience. This is unthinkable for other countries, but the Rudd Government is prepared to chuck our literary culture overboard and screw writers while they’re at it.

What you can do

  • Sign this petition to save the Australian publishing industry – it will take about six seconds.
  • Find out more about this proposal and what it means for Australian writers, publishers and independent booksellers here.
  • Read these great straightfoward but really interesting articles on the subject by Malcolm Knox and David Marr.
  • Contact your local MP and scream and shout. Labor government policy has always been to oppose lifting restrictions on parallel imports and changing territorial copyright – until now.
  • Tell your friends what this means, and ask them to help save Australian literature from extinction.

Thankyou for your attention – broadcasting will soon return to normal.


  1. I agree. It’s very worrying. Thanks for the link to the petition.

  2. Have signed the petition… but have clearly missed something, because I thought they basically decided to uphold the status quo…?

  3. He no working… I get an error message when I click the link. But you’ve got me worried now.

  4. A group of authors have created a TAKE ACTION SITE :


    Here you will find everything you need to know on the PIR issue and how to take action!
    We need your help now. The multinationals of the ‘Coalition for Cheaper Books’ are using their power to railroad this trhough.

    The market control that Woolworths and Coles now hold over petrol pricing and groceries will soon be extended to include books. Together with Dymocks they have been lobbying for the lifting of the current restrictions on the parallel importation of books. They have pushed the ‘cheaper books’ slogan by calling themselves the Coalition for Cheaper Books and have managed to convince the Productivity Commission. However, I and many others are not convinced.
    By hiding behind this collective name, the ‘Coalition’ has duped the email list of Dymocks into signing a petition. I have seen this petition and it guaranteed cheaper books for the consumer. But there is no guarantee. These retail giants are not obliged to pass on any savings to the consumer that the lifting of PIRs might present. In fact they have a history of not doing so.
    In their submission to the Productivity Commission, Penguin Australia stated: “At the moment two of our biggest chains are selling many titles significantly above RRP”.
    According to industry sources Kmart and Target (Coles Group) demand up to 70% discount on the RRP from the publisher. (By comparison the author receives less than 10% of the RRP.) Then they go and add a few dollars extra over the RRP. Do you really think they’re all about delivering cheaper books? I don’t think so.
    A side effect from this will be all the small businesses that will go under: the independent booksellers, the smaller publishing houses, and their distributors. Sound familiar?
    But even more concerning will be the loss of our ‘Australian Voice’ and the impact this will have on our children’s literacy.
    Australian children need books that reflect their world, their culture and history.

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