UWA Publishing has helped take Australian poetry into the world. Its closure would be catastrophic for poets



Some of the many poetry books published in recent years by UWA Publishing.
UWA/Shutterstock

John Kinsella, Curtin University

I start with a disclaimer: I am a UWA Publishing poet. I have published a book of poetry with them (as well as a novel), and have two books forthcoming with them in 2020 — The Weave, a collection of poetry co-written with Thurston Moore, and an edited and introduced volume, The Collected Poems of C.J. Brennan, the great, Sydney-dwelling, symbolist poet (1870-1932).

Now, with UWAP on the verge of being shut down, partly through what I and many others see as a misguided sense of what constitutes an interface between universities and the broader public, the fate of these books is unclear.

The University of Western Australia has proposed that “UWA Publishing operations, in their current form, come to an end” to be replaced by an open-source digital publishing model. The jobs of its employees and director Terri-ann White would likely be “surplus to requirements”. In a statement released late last week it said

Current publishing works already in train this year and next year are expected to continue, as will consultation on innovation that will assist UWA Publishing to adapt to the demands of modern publishing, with options to examine a mix of print, greater digitisation and open access publishing.

But even if contracted books are published, the closure of this publisher would be catastrophic for Australian poetry. It would be as if those books didn’t exist as something connected to a future vision of writing with purpose and community. It’s a way of killing a humanistic, inter-cultural conversation. It ignores the people who do so much to make these conversations happen.

Many voices

UWAP, especially since 2016, publishes many poetry books a year — a very unusual act of creative support and belief. Its dynamic list includes such essential voices as Ania Walwicz, Candy Royalle, Peter Rose, Quinn Eades, Kate Lilley, David McCooey, and so many other voices of the now, along with collected and selected “greats” like Francis Webb, Lesbia Harford, and Dorothy Hewett.

Yes, I speak here from the inside, as an author. Yet I also speak from the outside as a reader of poetry, and with the incredible feeling of loss I get as a reader, at this ill-thought out proposal.

UWAP publishes many “big name” writers and scholars, but also many marginalised voices and/or voices that might find it hard to publish through purely market-driven publishing houses. It is part of the country’s literary and scholarly collective conscience.

Poetry is an active ingredient of social justice not only in what it can say and talk about, but in the way that it places language under pressure, and questions how expression is used in general discourse, and why. Words of oppression are so easily accepted — poetry questions the uses and “deployment” of language.

UWAP, under Terri-ann White, is part of a clutch of poetry publishers in Australia — and there are not many — who make a commitment to poetry beyond the canonical, and with a strong sense of the need to enact this scrutiny of language. What is said in poetry is seen to matter, and I believe it does.

I will never forget speaking to the late Fay Zwicky in 2017, in her last weeks, about her forthcoming Collected Poems (UWAP, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin) and her discussion of proofs and the book itself. A life’s work — one of the great bodies of poetry produced in Australia.

Zwicky had published volumes of poetry with other vital publishers in the Australia poetry community, University of Queensland Press and Giramondo. And then the collation of a life’s work — a big project that required so much attention and goodwill. It was clearly necessary, if not essential, to her.

One of the many titles on the UWAP list that had a remarkable effect on so many readers, and which I noted in the Australian Book Review’s 2018 Books of the Year feature, was a collation of Lisa Bellear’s poetry — Aboriginal Country. As I said then, “the emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through.” Not to have had access to Bellear’s work is unimaginable now we have encountered it gathered in this way.

There is huge engagement in seeing such a work through to press. It was edited (by Jen Jewel Brown), supported and seen onto the shelves via UWAP. An act of belief and support, among many such acts in a given year; all necessary.

Vitally, UWAP’s poetry list effectively manages that seemingly complex interaction between local work and that from the rest of the country. It seems too often assumed that a WA publisher will necessarily only publish WA work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a total believer in local publishing, but there’s also a strong necessity for a publisher that brings many localities together, as Magabala Books in Broome does with Australian Aboriginal writing.

UWAP publishes poets (and writers in general) from all over the country, and brings in some overseas titles as well. Terri-ann White actively takes her lists to readers and publishers outside Australia, and is an energetic and steadfast voice in international publishing for her authors, and for Australian and world literature.

To close UWAP would be a damaging of shared difference, of making community and discussion out of diverse voices.

While I have had the good fortune over the years to publish with some of the major poetry houses around the English-speaking world, I am especially proud and excited when a book of mine is selected for the UWAP list.

Shutting down UWAP would sever many ties and disrupt many conversations just begun, or prevent other conversations, especially of conscience, ever taking place.The Conversation

John Kinsella, Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University

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

The open access shift at UWA Publishing is an experiment doomed to fail



Open access publishing enables free and easy dissemination of work, but this does not meant that it engages with literary culture. Titles are isolated from bookshops, reviews, and cultural conversations.
Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Emmett Stinson, Deakin University

There has been no shortage of bad news for Australia’s literary and publishing sector in the last year. Major literary journals Island and Overland have been defunded. Only 2.7% of Australia Council funding went to books and writing. The Chair in Australian Literature at University of Sydney is not being renewed.

Two major projects by literary academics were recommended for funding by the Australian Research Council’s peer-review process in 2018, but were rejected by ministerial discretion. Melbourne University Publishing’s CEO, Louise Adler, resigned after the university asked for a change in editorial direction.

And now University of Western Australia has announced dramatic changes to its highly-decorated press, University of Western Australia Publishing. These changes involve not renewing the contract of Director Terri-ann White, deemed “surplus to requirements”, and an end to current publishing activities.

It would be hard to blame writers and literary academics for feeling paranoid. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

A decline in literary publishing

In 2006, Mark Davis published The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing.

He argued that between WWII and the 1990s, Australian publishers embraced their role in shaping national culture by subsidising unprofitable literary works with profits from more commercial titles. But by the 2000s, publishers had become neoliberal organisations that sought to maximise profits rather than support literary culture.

We are now seeing this same logic applied by universities.

Universities are increasingly focused on metrics driving enrolments, international rankings and research excellence. This, in turn, supports government funding and research grant income. Universities increasingly prioritise these metrics over cultural contributions that are harder to quantify.




Read more:
Why Australia needs a new model for universities


A statement released by UWA claims the changes will help “to guarantee modern university publishing into the future”, foreshadowing “a mix of print, greater digitisation and open access publishing.”

This statement might appear to mirror recent events at Melbourne University Press last year, but these situations are very different.

A leading literary publisher

Academics had long questioned Melbourne University Press’ publication of works with commercial and political appeal but no clear scholarly or cultural value.

Professor Ronan McDonald summed up this view earlier this year when he wrote that Melbourne University Press was “a trade press irritatingly obliged to publish a few academic titles”.

Melbourne University reaffirmed its commitment to the Press by hiring a respected scholarly publisher, founding director of Monash University Publishing Nathan Hollier, with a track record of producing scholarly titles alongside prize-winning works for a general readership.

UWA Publishing, on the other hand, is one of our leading literary publishers, cultivating authors and significant titles often overlooked by commercial publishers.

It published Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2017; is one of Australia’s foremost publishers of poetry; and has published scholarly works by leading Australian humanities academics, such as John Frow, Ross Gibson, and Ken Gelder. It has also published a series of traditional Noongar stories retold by the award-winning author Kim Scott

It has always balanced commitments to scholarly publishing with a significant literary list.

Open access university presses: a failed experiment

The notion that a respected publishing house can be replaced by open access publishing is disproved by examining other Australian university presses, such as the now-closed University of Adelaide Press, founded in 2009 with a mission to be an open access publisher.




Read more:
Grief, loss, and a glimmer of hope: Josephine Wilson wins the 2017 Miles Franklin prize for Extinctions


While the press generated many interesting titles, it failed to have a cultural impact. Open access enables free and easy dissemination of work, but this does not meant that it engages with literary culture. Scholars can access works freely, but titles are isolated from bookshops, reviews, and cultural conversations.

Sydney University Press, which was relaunched in 2003 after closing in 1987, has employed a “hybrid approach” to open access. It is now returning to a more standard university publishing model, establishing a research series with dedicated editorial boards of academics, and even publishing a novel, Joshua Lobb’s The Flight of Birds, shortlisted for the Readings New Fiction Prize in 2019.

Open access has an important role to play in academic publishing, but it is laughable to claim UWA Publishing’s cultural impact can simply be replaced through open access.

Can it be saved?

There is a campaign underway to save UWA Publishing, including a petition with over 6,000 signatures.

It is hard to know at this stage if it will have any effect. It may be the publishing house is the victim of larger financial pressures currently affecting University of Western Australia.

This, of course, is the problem for the literary sector more generally: when cuts are needed, literature is always first on the chopping block.The Conversation

Emmett Stinson, Lecturer in Writing and Literature, Deakin University

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

Australia: Editor Wages


The link below is to an article that takes a look at conditions and wages for Australian book editors.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/29/the-book-industry-isnt-dead-thats-just-an-excuse-to-keep-salaries-low

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.

Writing is the air I breathe: Publishing as an Inuit writer


File 20170726 28585 1y3tg8v
Cover art from “Annie Muktuk and Other Stories,” Norma Dunning’s first book filled with sixteen Inuit stories which portray the unvarnished realities of northern life via strong and gritty characters.
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, University of Alberta

I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.

I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.

I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.

I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.

Inuit peoples live in two worlds

Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.

Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.

When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.

While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.

Deciding to publish

Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”

The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.

When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.

However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.

I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.

As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.

The ConversationIf my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.

Cover art from
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, PhD candidate, Department of Educational Policy Studies, Indigenous Peoples Education, University of Alberta

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.


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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.