The link below is to an article reporting on supply issues hitting the book publishing industry.
As people seek to educate themselves in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sales of books by black British authors, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Bernadine Evaristo, have topped the UK bestseller lists. Several recent prestigious awards have also been won by black writers, including Candice Carty-Williams who won book of the year for Queenie at the British Book Awards. Although proud of her achievement, she was also “sad and confused” on discovering she was the first black author to win this award in its 25-year history.
While these firsts must be celebrated, they also shine a light on publishing’s systemic practices, which have maintained inequalities and under-representation for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and diverse books. Despite awareness of its shortcomings and years of debates and initiatives (diversity schemes, blind recruiting practices and manuscript submission processes) the industry has generally failed to achieve lasting change. This is because they fail to address the broader systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, which contribute to ongoing under-representation in the industry.
A substantial market
Our research on diversity in children’s publishing included an online survey of 330 responses and 28 in-depth follow-up interviews with people working across the sector. We found that a key barrier has been the engrained perception among industry decision-makers that there is a limited market for diverse books. This is a belief that books written by black and diverse authors or featuring non-white characters just don’t sell.
This perception is seen across the industry, including in children’s literature. This is despite evidence of substantial markets. For instance, a third of English primary pupils are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. However, a report by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education revealed that although the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists in children’s books had increased from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018, there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.
What we found was that the lack of role models in the books read by children and young people of colour meant that they were less likely to aspire to careers in the sector. From those we spoke to, this was compounded by the lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles, in publishing. For those who had pursued a publishing career, experiences of everyday racism and microaggressions were widespread. This added to feelings of frustration and a sense that they were not welcome or did not belong in the industry.
This all has a knock-on effect on what gets published. Authors of colour that we spoke to expressed frustration about the commissioning process. This included quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.
Reliance on “traditional routes” to publishing also disadvantages black and working-class authors. Publishers reported receiving high volumes of submissions and heavy workloads led to them relying on established writers rather than seeking out new, diverse talent. This has the impact of narrowing the pool of authors from which books are published.
Our participants – including authors, illustrators, editorial assistants and agents – widely reported that a lack of cultural understanding can also lead to the view that diverse books are a riskier investment. They explained how limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand. From their experience, miscommunication at subsequent points along the supply chain about the demand for and availability of diverse books means that those that are published may not even reach bookshop shelves.
These interconnected factors (among others) create a negative cycle which perpetuates the lack of representation of minorities across all parts of the sector, including the lack of authors of colour being nominated for prizes and awards. Recommendations from our research include ensuring diversity on selection panels for events and awards and some good work is already taking place. However, more systematic collaboration and commitment from the sector will be required to produce lasting and meaningful changes and achieve equality and representation.
Our research participants pointed out that social media was allowing individuals to more effectively come together and raise their voices in support of diversity and representation. They expressed hope that this may help to drive forward meaningful and lasting change in the sector. There are signs that this may be the case with recent campaigns emerging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The #publishingpaidme campaign highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances. The publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to multicultural voices, ran the campaign #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower to draw attention to black authors and book professionals and demonstrate the market for these books. The newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, including many of Britain’s best-known authors and poets, wrote an open letter airing concerns and demanding immediate action from publishers. The hope is that these campaigns can focus the industry on bringing about meaningful change.
Although the fact of its ownership is muted, Hazlitt magazine and the new “indie” Strange Light are both owned by Penguin Random House. Penguin and Random merged in 2013 to become Canada’s largest book publisher and the world’s largest trade book publisher. Seventy-five per cent of the shares of Penguin Random House are owned by Bertelsmann, a German multinational media corporation.
Instead of its corporate identity, the magazine’s mission emphasizes its open, experimental, creator- and reader-driven environment.
“Hazlitt is a home for writers and artists to tell the best stories about the things that matter most to them … Hazlitt is … humane, diverse and committed to stories and writers not heard anywhere else.”
Random House Canada launched Hazlitt as part of its digital strategy in 2012. According to Brad Martin, then president of the company, the goal was to use websites for more than just the traditional purposes of sales and marketing.
In 2012, digital self-publishing ventures such as Amazon Kindle Direct loomed large. As Canadian journalist John Barber noted in an article on Hazlitt in 2012, Random House Canada’s forays into digital publishing constituted an effort to stay relevant — and profitable — at the edge of a “frontier pioneered by innovative outsiders.”
The publishing sector has only grown in size since then, as the previously unthinkable success of startups such as Canada’s Wattpad attests.
This year, Penguin Random House Canada launched the Hazlitt imprint Strange Light, a project dedicated to the work of “unpredictable, innovative authors telling personal and provocative and experimental stories, even — and especially –– those that defy easy categorization.”
Strange Light’s debut title, Sara Peters’s I Become a Delight to My Enemies, mixes poetry and prose. In a literary field utterly dominated by prose fiction — the novel — this is indeed “innovative” and “experimental.”
The embrace of generic diversification at Penguin Random House can only be a good thing. Regarding this embrace, however, we might hold our collective breath.
Strange Light plans to release two memoirs, a work of literary non-fiction, and a novel in 2020. Where is the poetry? The prose poem? The graphic novel?
Book buyers in Canada choose novels over poetry. According to Book Net Canada’s statistics, fiction represented just under 30 per cent of all unit sales of books in Canada in 2016. By contrast, poetry represented less than one percent.
Yet even if it could make Canadians read more poetry and mixed genre work, would Strange Light work to serve the diversification of Canada’s literary field, as its mission statement suggests?
When thinking about how to introduce experimental stories and diverse points of view to readers in Canada, the primary issue is not one of genre or form. It is also not exclusively a question of publishing writers from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. Both of these factors matter, but they relate to a larger one.
The main issue is a question of ownership. According to the Book Net Canada statistics for 2016, 95 per cent of fiction, non-fiction (including poetry), young adult and juvenile books sold in Canada were published by foreign-owned publishers.
Penguin Random House Canada is the biggest of these, followed by HarperCollins Canada. Together, these two companies dominate literary publishing in Canada. According to investigative journalist Elaine Dewar, Penguin Random House Canada had cornered 32 per cent of the Canadian trade book market in 2016.
We do not have a diverse literary ecosystem in Canada; its diversity has shrunk rapidly in the past two decades. Two recent accounts amply demonstrate a narrowing of Canada’s publishing activity: Rowland Lorimer’s Ultra Libris analyzes the role of cultural policy in this process, while Elaine Dewar’s The Handover, reveals how “The Canadian Publisher” McClelland & Stewart was sold to Random House despite foreign investment rules that should have prevented it.
Resilience of small houses
Since at least the early 1970s and the introduction of the Canada Council’s block grants to Canadian-owned publishers who are actively producing and marketing Canadian books, a modest small-press ecology has managed to survive in this country.
Publishers such as Kentville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press; Windsor, Ontario’s Biblioasis; and Penticton, British Columbia’s Theytus Books bring Canadians books that would not otherwise see the light of day.
Although now fairly well known as Michael Onddatje’s first publisher, Toronto’s Coach House Books might also be remembered for its early forms of experimentation. The house made its mark in 1967 with b.p.nichol’s Journeying & the Returns, a slim volume in a blue and purple cardboard case that also contained assorted objects to be experienced alongside the poems, including a thumb-flip poem the size of a stack of sticky notes.
More recently, Québec’s Mémoire d’encrier offers us the unique poetry of Joséphine Bacon: French and Innu-aimun sit on each twinned page, giving the reader access to a language few in Canada have any opportunity to encounter.
Perhaps there is room for many different kinds of initiatives committed to boundary-pushing books in Canada’s literary field.
I hope that is the case. But do not be fooled: despite its rhetoric of innovation and experimentation, the indie-style imprint Strange Light is brought to us by a company that is already dominating the country’s literary space and that is clearly not indie.
This is one more sign of the desertification of our media ecology, not its diversification.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at how capitalism has changed American literature.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at conditions and wages for Australian book editors.
African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.
Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.
Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.
The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.
Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?
It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?
All these issues merit concern.
Between the default poles
Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.
Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.
But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.
A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.
There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.
Labours of love
Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.
Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.
These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.
A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.
Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.
In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.
Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.
Small, focused channels
It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.
These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.
Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.
This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.
As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.
There is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.
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.
Regardless 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.