Dan Mallory’s unreliable narrative: how to get ahead in publishing

Claire Squires, University of Stirling

People across the global book trade have been engrossed by a ripe scandal engulfing one of their own – publisher-turned-author Dan Mallory, whose novel The Woman in the Window was one of the runaway bestsellers of 2018. One tweet summed up the buzz:

The comment from the literary agent Laura Williams refers to a lengthy article in the New Yorker about Mallory, who writes under the pseudonym A J Finn. As the headline explosively proclaimed, Mallory’s life “contains even stranger twists” than his fiction.

These twists, according to the New Yorker, include repeated lies: about his mother’s death from cancer, his own cancer diagnoses, an Oxford PhD, a job offer from a rival publishing company which leveraged promotion. He also, the article suggests, may have impersonated his brother, sent abusive emails, and – most curious of all – left plastic cups of urine in the New York office of his boss (“messages of disdain, or … territorial marking”, speculated the New Yorker – although it went on to quote a spokesperson for Mallory saying he hadn’t been responsible for that).

The article is careful to present evidence for these revelations via both named and anonymous sources, or to state that certain allegations are unproven. The revelations are either denied by Mallory, or blamed in a statement on “dissembling” produced by severe mental illness.

Even more curiously, Mallory’s uncompleted PhD focused on Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley – that twisty tale of a man who murders and then impersonates another. His own The Woman in the Window presents its readers with an unreliable first-person narrator who witnesses – or does she? – a crime.

An unreliable narrator – and an unreliable author? Literary liars and impersonators weave their tales through publishing history. Remember the “memoirs” of James Frey, A Million Little Pieces, which presented as fact made-up scenes of drug addiction and alcoholism?

Fiction-writing fraudsters also abound: prize-winning Australian Helen Darville falsely presented herself as the Ukrainian “Helen Demidenko” and wore peasant blouses ti publicise her book: The Hand That Signed the Paper. Meanwhile JT LeRoy’s novelised tales of an abusive boyhood turned out to be entirely invented, their author represented in public by a (possibly) transgender impersonator.

Who is JT LeRoy?
Brad Coy, CC BY

Literary hoaxers

Mallory joins an infamous line of literary hoaxers, then. But what might this torrid tale tell us about the mental and physical health of the publishing industry?

Social media commentators quickly identified an issue beyond the tricksy questions of truth and lies: that of Mallory’s rapid career trajectory. A “Waspy” family background was polished by an elite US college education, employment at a New York publisher, postgraduate studies at Oxford, a London publishing job and promotion. Then back across the Atlantic to a $200,000 salary and a book deal brokered through his professional networks.

As one much-retweeted comment put it, alongside all the tawdry revelations of the story, it also spoke volumes about the problematic pattern of publishing career paths.

The New Yorker has multiple accounts of how Mallory seemingly charmed writers and fellow publishers, and there’s no implication – other than light borrowing of plots and characterisation – that his writing is not his own. Good looks operated alongside that charm, until the beguilement revealed its multiple deceptions. But the question of how to get ahead in publishing, and those who get to make such rapid ascents, remains.

Glass ceilings, whiteness and class

Publishing and the literary world have serious issues of access and inclusion. The roughly equal number of men and women in board positions in UK publishing does not represent the preponderance of female staff lower down company hierarchies – about 66-80% of people in the industry are women, surveys variously report.

Unsurprisingly this glass ceiling creates a gender pay gap: 16% in 2017 and some even worse figures in 2018’s mandatory reporting from larger companies. Publishing also has its sleaze and #MeToo claims.

In terms of ethnic diversity, a 2018 UK Publishers Association survey showed the BAME workforce of publishing to be under 12%. This is marginally below the 2011 census figure of 13% in England and Wales, but it’s far below the 40% of London, where UK publishing is highly centralised (itself presenting issues of regional diversity).

Repeated surveys have demonstrated publishing’s diversity deficit. Scholarship from Anamik Saha and Melanie Ramdarshan Bold focuses on the challenges of cultural production for writers of colour. Over a period from 2006-2016, Ramdarshan Bold identified, only 8% of young adult books published in the UK were by writers of colour.

Knights Of, who sidestepped traditional publishing by crowd-sourcing funding for a pop-up bookshop to sell diverse books.
Knights of

Like other creative industries, publishing is a middle-class activity, with working-class publishers and writers frequently recounting stories of prejudice and cultural condescension – eg. in publisher Laura Waddell’s Nasty Women chapter, and in Dead Ink’s anthology of working-class essays Know Your Place.

The 2018 report Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries shows publishing’s class demographic to be “especially grave”. Less than 13% of publishers are from working-class backgrounds, while more than 33% have upper middle-class origins.

The whiff of privilege

Such individual and statistical accounts of exclusion demonstrate why the wild story of one already-privileged individual bluffing his way higher and higher up the publishing echelons has caused so much consternation. If the story is true, Mallory repeatedly fooled university admissions offices and publishers’ employment processes. But what employment practices enabled him to rise, even when his story had started to unravel? And how did his apparent charm and good taste enable him to fail upwards? The answers to these questions remain in a dysfunctional swirl of rumour, anonymous sources, non-disclosure agreements and myth-making that probably won’t hurt Mallory’s book sales.

But there are wider systemic and institutionalised issues at play here: the urine scent-marking in the editor’s office (whether proven to be Mallory or not) is a metaphor for the regimes of value in operation within publishing. There is a mystique about taste – a whiff of privilege – that prevails unhelpfully and often prejudicially in the publishing industry. Such inequitable practices govern which hot new literary property we pick up next.The Conversation

Claire Squires, Professor in Publishing Studies, University of Stirling

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


From Tolkien to Burgess: the ethics of posthumous publication

File 20180830 195325 1syp62j.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
An artistic interpretation of a Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings.
wikipedia/NazgulfanartDanijel, CC BY

Andrew Biswell, Manchester Metropolitan University

The publication of The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien completes a publishing project that began in the distant past of 1977, when Christopher Tolkien edited The Silmarillion, the first volume of his father’s posthumous stories.

When Tolkien senior died in 1973, he left four full length published novels and a mass of uncollected papers behind him. His youngest son Christopher, now aged 93, has spent almost half a lifetime annotating his father’s work and preparing it for publication. The 12 volumes of the History of Middle-earth provide an astonishingly detailed account of the languages and landscapes of Tolkien’s fictional world.

This monument of scholarship allows readers of The Lord of the Rings to gain the fullest possible understanding of the careful preparation which stood behind the handful of books published by Tolkien in his lifetime.

As a literary critic who specialises in archival work, I admire the heroic labours of the Tolkien estate in presenting the author’s private papers, letters and illustrations to a wide readership of scholars and enthusiasts. But not all heirs and executors take the same view when it comes to publishing posthumous work, and there are often ethical problems arising from an author’s drafts and manuscripts.

The Larkin Letters

When the first edition of Philip Larkin’s posthumous Collected Poems appeared in 1988, many readers were dismayed to find that the editor had chosen to include a large number of unfinished poems and apprentice work written when Larkin was a student. Critics of that volume argued that Larkin would never have allowed publication of this inferior work, and the overall effect was to diminish the impact of the poems he valued.

Publication of the Collected Poems was followed in 1992 by a volume of Larkin’s letters (heavily cut to remove libels), which revealed the poet to have been seething with racist prejudices. It took many years for Larkin’s reputation to recover from these deep wounds, which had been administered by his own literary executors. There will be no posthumous edition of Larkin’s diaries, which were shredded shortly after his death, according to his own instructions.

Read more:
After years of scandal, Philip Larkin finally has a spot in Poets’ Corner

Virginia Woolf’s letters and journals offer a positive counter example. Edited by her nephew Quentin Bell and published posthumously, Woolf’s Diaries have established themselves as an inspiring series of books for everyone who studies her novels. The pleasure of watching over Woolf’s shoulder as she documents the ups and downs of her writing life is immense.

The ‘lost’ works of Auden and Burgess

Other writers have attempted to take control of their reputations more directly. W.H. Auden, who died in 1973, stipulated in his will that no edition of his letters should be published, and he requested that anyone who had letters in their possession should burn them. Fortunately for posterity, many of his friends had already sold their batches of Auden letters to university archives, and other people simply ignored his wishes. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that an edited collection of Auden’s letters will ever appear.

Edward Mendelson, who is Auden’s literary executor, recently wrote an article in which he discussed his own ethical dilemmas as the editor of the Collected Poems. Mendelson’s guiding principle has been to value the poems that Auden chose to include in his two volumes of Collected Longer Poems and Collected Shorter Poems.

But what to do about the poems published in magazines but excluded from Auden’s books? Those appear in the Collected Poems on the grounds that Auden had signed them off for publication. And what about the rejected early work, such as the poem “Spain” – a response to the Spanish Civil War published in pamphlet form but later excluded from the Collected Shorter Poems? That does appear in The English Auden, an edition of poems written in the 1930s, but it is absent from the Collected Poems.

There is another category of “lost” work by Auden, existing only in manuscripts and notebooks, but never collected in book form. Mendelson has recently unveiled his plans to publish some of these poems, carefully edited and contextualised, in a volume of Auden’s “Personal Writing”, which will include poems and verse-letters written for friends. But none of this work will be finding its way into the next edition of the Collected Poems.

Anyone who manages a literary estate faces hard questions about what should or should not be published. In September 2018 Manchester University Press will publish Paul Wake’s edition of Puma, a science fiction novel by Anthony Burgess. The manuscript, completed in 1976, was unpublished in Burgess’s lifetime, but letters in the archive confirm that he was actively seeking to find a publisher shortly after he’d written it. What readers will make of this “lost” novel by Burgess remains to be seen.

The Tolkien example is a story of a son’s devotion to his father’s work and there is much to admire in Christopher Tolkien’s determination to put as much unpublished writing as possible into the public domain.

For the future, as electronic communication becomes more pervasive, it seems likely that writers will find it harder to delete published work from the record, or to edit their past in the ways evidenced by Auden and Larkin. If only they had survived into the age of social media, their Collected Tweets might have been required reading for every diligent student of their poems.The Conversation

Andrew Biswell, Professor of Modern Literature, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Michael Hyatt Has Something To Sell You

David Gaughran

Michael Hyatt has successfully reinvented himself as an author and speaker – one of those quasi-experts on marketing who slowly morph into a life-coach type guru. It’s a well-trodden path and these guys all tend to present themselves in similar ways.

Here’s Michael Hyatt reclining among soft furnishings. Here’s Michael Hyatt enjoying a tender moment with his dog. Here’s Michael Hyatt projecting success with a shiteating grin for the ages. It’s almost easy to forget what he did. Almost.

In 2009 when Michael Hyatt was CEO of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, he was instrumental in the creation of WestBow Press – one of the first white-label vanity presses operated by Author Solutions on behalf of an established publisher.

The Naming

The shadiness began right from the start, with the choice of name. WestBow was already an established fiction imprint at Thomas Nelson, with titles still in print and stocked in…

View original post 1,675 more words

Cultural appropriation and the whiteness of book publishing

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(Flickr/Tommy Ellis), CC BY-NC

Clayton Childress, University of Toronto

Last month, cultural appropriation became a big issue in the Canadian publishing and media world after the trade association magazine, Write published a special issue featuring work by Indigenous authors. The editor of the magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote a glib editorial in defence of cultural appropriation.

Niedzviecki resigned after Canadian media executives irreverently pledged donations toward a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” on late-night Twitter in support of his editorial. The main thrust of the offending Twitter conversation seemed to be that white media elites and writers felt they were under threat of being censored.

White media elites felt they were under threat of being censored

The argument was framed in the high-minded rhetoric of freedom and creative license, but underneath that thin veneer, it relied on a belief in white victimization that you’d expect from fringe white nationalists rather than the top one per cent of Canadian mainstream media.

As a scholar of the book publishing industry, I can say with empirical authority that the notion of white people being under threat in publishing crumbles in the face of evidence. As I show in my new book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, book publishing is the same as it ever was: it is white-dominated and it’s easier for white people to gain entry to it. Although my research on book publishing is based in the United States, as the sociologist Sarah M. Corse has shown, the U.S. and Canadian book publishing industries are deeply intertwined, and more often than not are actually the same industry.

If you want to throw an all-white party, invite book publishers

To understand the real barriers to book publishing, the most important places to look are the points of entry themselves. In publishing, those access points are guarded by literary agents and acquisition editors. They are the gatekeepers, and across the U.S., the gatekeepers of publishing are 95 per cent white. If those gatekeepers had their own state, it would be the whitest state in the U.S. If they had their own country, it would be the whitest country in the world. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you wanted to throw a party with only white people in attendance, you’d invite veterinarians, farmers, mining machine operators and book publishers.

While it is hypothetically possible that those white gatekeepers could privilege racialized authors over white ones, the reverse is actually true. Regardless of their race, about 38 per cent of the 1,200 literary agents in the United States I’ve studied show an equal interest in representing “general” fiction. But when that fiction covers topics of ethnic and multicultural diversity, white agents run for the hills, with only 15 per cent willing to even take a look.

Racialized authors work harder and submit more widely

Simply put, racialized authors — who are overwhelmingly the ones writing ethnic or multicultural fiction – are the authors who face longer odds of getting published. And like people of colour across different occupations, research shows these authors respond by working harder and submitting more widely, putting more effort and sweat equity into their searches than their white counterparts. This is done in an effort to balance out the discrimination they know they will face.

Yet even in my interviews with racialized authors who could secure publishing contracts, they described a process in which their novels were ping-ponged back and forth between being “too racialized” at first, and then not racialized enough.

Racialized authors are often asked to dumb down their stories

As a Black, southern literary writer explained to me, he had to “dumb down” his manuscript populated by Black southern characters because his editor didn’t believe “people talk that way” – the cultural specificity and accuracy of his novel was whitewashed out.

In the marketing and promotion stage, however, even after having their novels culturally denuded, racialized authors found themselves ghettoized and pigeon-holed again. One African-American novelist told me the painful story of her fears that her work of literary fiction would be pushed back into the “African American interests” section of bookstores rather than being shelved with the rest of the literary fiction.

A widely celebrated Chinese American literary novelist sardonically told a racially diverse room of her fans about a conversation with her publisher: “I told them: ‘Just promise me you won’t put any lanterns or fireworks on the cover because these are stories about people. Yes, they happen to be Chinese, but they’re stories about people.’ So as you’d expect, it has goldfish on it. The only thing I left them.”

Don’t forget these are the success stories. These are the racialized authors who make it.

The ConversationRegardless of the statistically and experientially indefensible claims made by Cultural Appropriation Prize supporters, the real “race problem” in book publishing is the same as it is all over the world: white people are blessed with large and small advantages that they may not even understand. Racialized people are penalized with large and small disadvantages that they have no choice but to understand. If you don’t know where to stand on the cultural appropriation debate, just look at the numbers.

Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Publishing should be more about culture than book sales

Dallas J Baker, University of Southern Queensland

It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money. That being said, we rarely talk or write about publishing without talking about money, about book sales.

That’s because, even though contemporary publishing has seen the emergence of diverse independent publishers and the self-publishing boom, it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.

Most books are produced by one of the “big five” publishing multinationals (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster).

Katherine Bode of Australian National University puts this figure at 74% of books in Australia. These transnational corporations are, by their very nature, focused on the creation of profit rather than the creation of culture.

In fact, for some of those multinational corporations, books and writing aren’t even the largest part of their business.

HarperCollins and Hachette are both subsidiaries of media companies (News Corp and Lagardère respectively). Commercial or “traditional” publishing is not so much aimed at telling a story and hopefully making a profit but at making a profit by telling a story.

In this publishing climate culture is always subsumed to business. The book and its story or narrative are merely a vehicle to generate sales and as such are understood as a unit of exchange rather than as an artefact of expression and/ or meaning.

In other words, publishing is viewed as a business not as a cultural activity. This perception of publishing as a business, even a creative one, means that the question of book sales dominates our conversations about it, rather than questions around how readers use books and book culture to develop a sense of the society in which they live and/ or a sense of themselves.


When we talk about publishing there is little discussion about the ways it contributes to culture, to the formation and expression of identity, to constructing notions of gendered, social, ethnic or national belonging.

Multinational corporations are not about culture, not about identity and belonging. And here lies the big problem. Culture (literature, music, cinema etc.) is about the mediation and expression of identity and belonging.

Although culture is sometimes, perhaps even often, accessed as part of a commercial transaction, it doesn’t need that transaction to fulfil its purpose, which is to communicate, express or muse over something.

Culture can and does thrive without being bought and sold. The huge amount of free culture on the internet attests to that. More to the point, the thing we value about culture doesn’t depend on a financial exchange but on a human exchange, an exchange of ideas and/ or experiences.

Most of us (the sane ones) do not value a cultural artefact or experience because of what it costs but because of the meaning we take or make from it. We also value it because of the effort, skill and expertise its creator put into it.

I appreciate Mark Rothko’s painting Untitled (yellow and blue) because of its simplicity, skillful use of colour and the delight I get from it, not because it is worth US$46.5 million.

I appreciate JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books because the character Hermione Granger kills me, not because Rowling made her publishers a gazillion bucks.

The process of finding meaning in the books we read, or making meaning from them, is one that goes far beyond any commercial transaction. These days it also goes beyond the page.

Our experience of a book is now supplemented by perusing reviews and blogs, engaging with print and screen media items about the book and its author, viewing or reading author interviews, attending book and writing related events and festivals and, for many of us, by participating in fan communities.

Few of these engagements depend on a financial transaction (excepting a festival entry fee here or there).

Though high sales figures might give an indication of social significance in a specific (often passing) moment, it doesn’t give us any sense at all of lasting cultural value.

The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer were socially significant for a while, but it is doubtful that they will be valued (or even remembered) a hundred years from now, or even 50 years from now.

Not even the most ardent Twilight fan is likely to say that Meyer’s books are great cultural works.

Likewise, consider Peyton Place, the 1956 blockbuster novel by Grace Metalious. Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days of its release and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks.

It was also made into a successful film and then a hit prime-time television series.

Even so, until you read Grace Metalious’ name here it is likely you had never encountered it before. Grace Metalious is no Jane Austen, not even an Ernest Hemingway. Many books that are commercially and thereby socially significant for a time fail to find a long-term place of prominence in our culture.

When we talk about publishing these days, we have to talk about much more than book sales, even more than the written word and books themselves. We need to talk about all the things we do with and around books, our engagement with book culture.

In other words, we need to talk about publishing as a cultural practice, as something that contributes to or even constitutes who we are as individuals, who we are as citizens. We need to talk about publishing as a socio-cultural activity that helps us to understand our place in the world.

Publishing expresses and shapes our societies. It even plays a part in the kind of nations we live in. It would be wise, therefore, to broaden the conversation about it to more than sales figures.

In short, we need to shift our attention from publishing as a business process to thinking about publishing as an act of culture.

The Conversation

Dallas J Baker, Lecturer, Editing & Publishing, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Let’s allow parallel book imports, and subsidise Australian publishing

Jeff Borland, University of Melbourne

It’s hard to imagine that too many economists in Australia will receive Christmas cards from book publishers this year. A long campaign of lobbying, culminating with the recent Harper review into competition policy, has resulted in the Commonwealth government deciding to remove restrictions on the parallel importation of books.

To most economists this is a long-overdue reform that will increase efficiency. A group of ten prominent Australian economists today signed an open letter calling on the federal parliament to follow through on lifting the restrictions.

To Australian book publishers, and some noteworthy authors, it is an act of public vandalism, threatening the future viability of their industry.

As an economist who loves reading books, I’ve always taken a keen interest in the debate over parallel import restrictions. And I’ve always thought that there was a fairly straightforward solution – which I am going to describe and argue for in this article.

Why Australian book publishing needs support

It is easy to make the argument that books by Australian authors make a big contribution to our lives. By having an Australian outlook or content, they don’t just provide entertainment or learning, they do it in a way that has a particular interest and relevance to us.

But just because something is good doesn’t mean it needs government support. An economist starts from the position that if a product is good, plenty of people will buy it, which gives an appropriate return to its supplier. Only if the market is failing to deliver a return to the supplier that reflects the full benefit to society from the product, do economists believe that the government might need to intervene.

In the case of Australian books, I believe that such an argument does exist. Here I give two reasons why the market may not get it right – and why government support may therefore be needed.

First, the knowledge about Australian public affairs that is contained in books, and the expertise that authors develop by writing those books, allows for a more informed and productive public discourse on government policy making. This is not a benefit that anyone pays for when they buy a book – but it is a benefit to Australian society all the same.

In my own area of economics, recent books by Ross Garnaut and John Edwards on the coming decade in the Australian economy, and historical perspectives by Ian McLean and George Megalogenis, have all been important source materials for debate on what policy makers should be doing.

Second, much of our thinking about Australian identity and values is formed through the perspectives and stories that are expressed in books – whether it be novels or history or biography.

There is no single book that does this. Rather, it is the putting together of the whole of what is being written about and by Australians that enables us to do this thinking. This is a collective benefit from having an Australian book industry – and as such will always be undervalued in the market.

Why parallel import restrictions should be removed

Parallel import restrictions provide the original publisher of a book with the exclusive right to bring that book into Australia for commercial purposes. This allows publishers to treat Australia as a separate market from the rest of the world, and increases their market power compared to book buyers in this country.

The result is that (due to the smaller scale of market and our high average income level) publishers charge higher prices for books in Australia than in most other countries. This addition to book prices in Australia is a cost borne by book buyers. Publishers argue it is a necessary cost to ensure there is a strong local publishing industry.

But there is a problem with this argument. The parallel import restrictions mean that we pay more for every book we buy, not just Australian titles. Suppose that 20% of the volume of book sales in Australia is by Australian authors.

This implies that (roughly speaking) for every A$200 extra we pay in prices for books that goes to Australian authors and their publishers, we are also providing A$800 extra to international authors.

In other words, parallel import restrictions are poorly targeted, and hence an expensive way for Australian consumers to support the local publishing industry.

A better policy

If our objective is to give extra funding to Australian authors and their publishers, why not do this via subsidies or direct payments to them? With such a policy it would be possible to provide the same level of support to the Australian book industry as it receives from parallel import restrictions, but without supporting international authors and their publishers.

Of course, subsidies and payments to the book industry already happen through bodies such as the Australian Council. What I am suggesting is that there should be an increase in the extent of this funding of the book industry to compensate for the removal of parallel import restrictions.

It should be possible to work out the current value that the Australian book industry derives from the import restrictions, and when the restrictions are removed, to increase the amount of funding to the industry by that amount.

That would leave the Australian book industry just as well off as before the removal of parallel import restrictions, and Australian book buyers would be better off as a result of lower prices.

Heading in the wrong direction

The Commonwealth government has announced that it will implement the Harper committee recommendation to remove parallel import restrictions for books. Unfortunately, at the same time, it is removing funding to the Australian book industry.

Instead of increasing funding to compensate for the removal of parallel import restrictions, this week another round of cuts (including the abolition of the Book Council of Australia) was announced.

There can be no doubt of the outcome from this policy mix. Removing import restrictions together with decreasing government funding will unambiguously reduce the size of the Australian book industry; and with that we will lose the many associated benefits to Australian society.

The Conversation

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Read it and weep: the book trade needs more than parallel import restrictions

Jason Ensor, Western Sydney University

The Australian book trade has a long history of tension between books produced at home and books imported from overseas. But our contemporary age may be the first in which parallel importation is undertaken not by booksellers in competition with each other, but by individual consumers in competition with local booksellers.

Known in the trade as PIRs, parallel importation restrictions are a feature of Australia’s Copyright Act and can be summed up as two rules:

1) For a title where no Australian published version exists, any overseas editions may be imported.

2) Once an Australian edition is available for purchase, booksellers are barred from importing overseas copies, unless the title becomes unavailable in Australia for more than three months.

The simple ability to import overseas books into Australia by downloading purchased titles via Amazon’s “fast, free” global cellular network or ordering online via Book Depository has had many effects.

It has not just removed the need to visit physical bookstores; it has also undermined the economic benefits and protection that formerly accrued to Australian publishers, printers and booksellers through the general legal prohibition on the parallel importation of books into Australia by members of the local book trade.

Closing the market

Parallel importation occurs when a product protected by intellectual property rights is imported into Australia after an authorised locally-published version has already been made available for sale in Australia.

As a form of border protection for companies operating in the Australian market, the Australian edition of a book can mean a version of a title which has been solely manufactured in Australia by the owner of the copyright in the work. It can also be an edition by someone who is permitted to manufacture it in Australia under an exclusive licensed arrangement.

It can mean overseas published editions of the work which are allowed into Australia with regards to a contractual arrangement about who is authorised to import, sell and distribute copies locally. Importantly, it can also be about who is not allowed to sell copies.

Restrictions on parallel importation provides protection for the publication of books in Australia by local firms and protection for overseas publishers who wish to maintain a “closed market” in Australia for their editions of titles only.

This prevents local Australian booksellers from sourcing cheaper editions of these same titles from alternative overseas sources. It stops booksellers from obtaining stronger local sales by passing the savings to the reader or from obtaining stronger profits by not passing on the savings.

Shane Lin

For booksellers, “closing the market” is seen to restrain competition at the wholesale level by limiting the choice of suppliers for physical books to authorised channels only.

For the consumer, the lack of access to cheaper imports in the local market places little pressure on local retailers to reconsider book prices.

Each major technological advance in copying and distributing text has historically been viewed as a potential threat to the economic equilibrium existing between publishers, printers, distributors and booksellers.

But in the current climate the new technology has also allowed readers to develop new purchasing behaviours with respect to digital and overseas sources of books.

In 2009, the government considered removing copyright restrictions on the parallel importation of books under the view that their continuance increased local book prices. While Australia’s literary communities were responding to the Productivity Commission’s 2009 inquiry into this, readers could already parallel import cheaper books into Australia by way of their internet browser or Kindle.

Australian parallel importation laws certainly protected the local book trade from potentially anti-competitive practices by other bricks-and-mortar businesses. Critically, it did not protect them from the practices of several hundred thousand individual readers.

The combined volume of eBook purchases in Australia in the year following the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry was around 3.4 million sales valued at A$35 million.

At the close of the inquiry in 2009, the government stepped back from altering the nation’s regulatory framework. The protections seemed less and less important to individual consumer’s book buying behaviour. It released a statement that acknowledged the key issues while also distancing itself from the Australian book trade as a future source of support.

A recurring debate

The issue of parallel imports will not go away. It has been a regular point of debate since the first Australian book trade inquiries at the start of the 20th century. Then, as now, the issue was that the price advantage accorded to imported texts worked against the sale of Australian manufactured books, which seemed unreasonably expensive in comparison.

The added pressure today is that the book trade is now competing with its customers.

In 2013, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle Content, David Nagger, acknowledged that the company’s early success in the US digital book market could be credited to a business model that set it apart from all previous e-reader experiments. Unlike other devices which could only display content that had to be manually loaded onto them using a computer, with the Kindle you were always “holding a bookstore in your hand”.

The Kindle bookstore was always available through the company’s own “whispernet” data network, regardless of whether you had access to another internet connection.

Where competitors had failed to gain mainstream consumer interest with various devices, such as the Apple Newton (1993) through to the Sony PRS-505 (2007), Amazon recognised that:

the e-book market would rise or fall with consumers’ ability to get the books they wanted, at an attractive price, and with all the convenience they had come to expect from their increasingly powerful mobile devices.

For David Nagger, Amazon wanted to sell books during those stretches of personal time at home or on the train that were unreachable by the physical book trade. Being able to at any time tap into Amazon’s digital bookstore, which launched with more than 88,000 titles including 100 of the 112 New York Times bestsellers for November 2007, was considered by many commentators of the time to be the Kindle’s single most revolutionary component. You could “think of a book, and have it in less than 60 seconds”.

Strengthen exports

Conveniences like this have transformed the book trade. It will be important therefore not to rehearse past arguments in the current debate. From embargoes to tariffs, in order to create a book culture that is both native and international it would be useful to set aside these kinds of protectionist ideas.

We might instead consider strengthening an export market for Australian books. As British publisher Walter Harrup put it in 1945, in the Sydney Morning Herald:

what Australia needs more than the sale of Australian books in Australia is the sale of Australian books in other parts of the world. What is the good of a country having something to say to the world and yet being unable to communicate those ideas to the world?

It was a comment that implied the many ways in which the business of home and imported books were interconnected. Members of the Australian book trade in the early 20th century certainly seemed prepared to discuss how to restructure book imports and exports to greater local commercial advantage.

The question remains whether that is still the case today.

Would you like to write on the PIR debate? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

The Conversation

Jason Ensor, Research and Technical Development Manager, Digital Humanities, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Parallel importation and Australian book publishing: here we go again

Peter Donoughue, University of Melbourne

You may have seen news, or read commentary on Twitter and Facebook, about the likely repeal of “parallel importation restrictions” and what that means for publishers, writers and readers in Australia. My own view is that we are in for a fight and that the repeal is far from guaranteed – more’s the pity.

For those who don’t know, parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) are part of our Copyright Act and prohibit importing by booksellers for resale where an Australian publisher who has acquired exclusive rights and publishes the title within 30 days of original overseas publication. The bookseller can import an overseas edition from then on, but only if the book is unavailable from the local publisher for longer than 90 days.

The Final Report of the Competition Policy Review led by Professor Ian Harper was released in April this year. Its draft report last year had recommended the abolition of all the remaining PIRs, including those in the Copyright Act applying to books.

The government yesterday announced it had accepted that recommendation, subject to a review by the Productivity Commission (PC) into Australia’s intellectual property regime generally, and particularly any recommendations it may have regarding transitional arrangements.

In a lengthy discussion about parallel importation generally, and what previous reviews have recommended over the years, and after assessing all the submissions on the issue from publishers and others, Harper’s conclusion was this:

On the basis that the PC [Productivity Commission] has already reviewed parallel import restrictions on books […] and concluded that removing such restrictions would be in the public interest, the Australian Government should, within six months of accepting the recommendation, announce that [..] parallel import restrictions on books will be repealed.

An old story

Harper’s reference to the hated PC and particularly its analysis of book prices in Australia compared to the US and the UK once again inflamed the local debate, but it’s a debate that’s by now tiresome in the extreme. The PC looked at industry practices in 2008/9, a long time ago in this internet age.

Harper seems unaware that things have changed rather dramatically in pricing and importation practices since then. In response to a surge in online ordering by consumers from Amazon and The Book Depository given the strong Australian dollar, publishers finally reacted and the high markups on imported titles have been virtually eliminated. (I wrote in detail about this on The Conversation last year.) 

The real question today is: should we be at all bothered about this issue any more? The Australian Booksellers Association thinks not. It’s completely moved on. It considers other competition issues, such as GST on low value imports and high Australian postal rates, far more significant.

Even the Australian Publishers Association submission (APA) considers the PIRs today “low impact”. Their removal would provide “no benefits to consumers”.  

Nathan O’Nions

My view is we definitely should be bothered. The PIRs should finally be abolished, buried and cremated so they don’t rise like zombies in a quite different future. Many individual publishers operating in the Australian market are adamant they play a vital role and need to be retained.

Their basic argument is this: the PIRs construct Australia as a separate rights territory, and this reality is absolutely critical in enabling the purchase of Australian rights to overseas titles and the sale of rights to original locally published titles into export markets.

The PIRs grant exclusivity both ways, and therefore rights trading can be done with full confidence. 

The problem with this argument has always been its profound conceptual confusion. The PIRs don’t make Australia a rights territory at all (referred to as “territorial copyright”). All they do is disallow importation for commercial purposes by booksellers.

Buying around

The territorial rights are granted by contract with an overseas agent or publisher, and it makes sense to buy separate Australian rights because our population size is big enough to support local printings; our borderless, distant continent inhibits “buying around” by booksellers; and our mature book trade infrastructure (distributors, retailers, freight systems, publicity channels, etc.) facilitates immediate availability and sales.   

Protection and exclusivity can be guaranteed commercially, in other words. An arcane importation provision shoved into our Copyright Act 100 years ago under pressure from panicky British publishers is not at all necessary, and for decades now, in its anti-consumer bias, has done way more harm than good.

Publishers should have been forced to gain protection by operational excellence, not by a trade protectionist law guaranteeing over-pricing and under-servicing.

The PIRs have always protected the weak and uncompetitive publishers, and hence disadvantaged those who wanted to play the game fairly and professionally and with a sure customer focus.

But surely, publishers argue, without the PIRs booksellers will be free to import cheaper overseas editions, or even remainders, thus severely undercutting local rights holders. How can that not do enormous damage to local publishing and authors and eventually readers? 


Publishers can quite easily make buying around an unprofitable thing for a bookseller to indulge in. They need to watch their pricing far more actively than they’ve been in the habit of doing. Maintaining a high Australian RRP when a standard US edition is significantly cheaper is no longer viable.

Individual consumers are already able to buy direct via Amazon, and retailers should also be able to exploit opportunities to compete if the local supplier remains unresponsive to overseas prices and exchange rate fluctuations. Retailers have to do everything they can to attract that consumer into their stores.

But they also have to pay freight, absorb currency losses and can’t return overstocks, so importation is never going to be the usual method of supply unless the local offer is simply not competitive.

Under the current regime the “policing” of local retailers, chastising them and threatening them with possible litigation is no way to build and maintain their loyalty. Australian booksellers universally want to support local publishers and the thriving literary and cultural scene on which their livelihood depends.

Unresponsive pricing and stocking, and miserable trading terms, are the culprits, not the retailers who are simply trying to offer a fair deal to their customers.

Peter Miller

The natural protection available to responsive publishers will more than guarantee that their local edition will dominate the market. There will inevitably be leakage at times, but it will be minimal in impact.   

Publishers need to stop indulging in apocalyptic fantasies of doom and destruction. They are the common argot of industry associations across the board who feel threatened by increased competition, and they do the industry no good at all in terms of public image.

Expressions such as “a radical instrument of cultural engineering” have no empirical basis whatsoever and are simply absurd.

They are also illogical. The APA, for example, proclaims that there will be minimal advantage to consumers from abolishing the PIRs, yet such reform will cause Australian publishing to suffer immense damage. Both can’t be true. 

As for the claim that foreign publishers will likely “take over” the Australian territory absent the PIRs (because, you know, no Australian Territorial Copyright!) by demanding Australia be deemed a non-exclusive territory in rights contracts so the foreign edition can compete, I doubt there’s a more insulting interpretation of how a PIR-absent market would work.

Rather than cower toward ignorant UK or US publishers and their insistence on non-exclusivity, Australian publishers will need to muscle up and clearly explain the facts of the Australian market to their colleagues.

In truth, it would surprise me if we see the abolition of these outmoded, unwarranted and completely unnecessary PIRs any time in the near or even distant future, despite Scott Morrison’s embracing of that idea yesterday.

The political battle is still to come and remember that the author community, egged on by their publishers, will vigorously engage as they have on every previous occasion. Authors are the most articulate and powerful lobby group in the country – beloved public figures with ready access to every media platform.

It’s once again going to be ugly, and that’s a real shame.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Peter Donoughue’s blog Pub Date Critical.

The Conversation

Peter Donoughue, Sessional lecturer in the Master of Communication , University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.