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No, Removing Book Import Restrictions Won’t Kill Australia’s Book Industry

8334062779_5c50aebb60_oAustralia is going through another of its periodic attempts to reform its import laws right now, and its local book publishing industry is once again opposing the change.

The Guardian weighed in on the debate today when it gave a platform to Australian publisher Susan Hawthorne. Naturally, she thinks that the change in import rules, and the resulting increased competition from overseas, will be the death of Australian culture.

Hawthorne defends her position by babbling nonsense about copyright law:

Territorial copyright, the ability to retain a market for copyrighted products is under threat. It is fundamental to the publishing industry. The book publishing industry is labour and time intensive. While elements of the industry have been technologised, a great deal continues to rely on human interaction and hands-on work that precedes or follows that interaction.

Importantly, publishers in the colonising countries of the UK and USA get to retain their copyright protection. So why would the government want us to hand over Australia’s intellectual property any more than the Kidman land, a sale rejected by the government last week?

Handing over intellectual property rights is banditry. There is already little protection in Australia, and to do away with even this minimal protection as the new report suggests, is suicide for the Australian book industry. The key change is having books available within 14 days of their overseas publication date, or legally making them available simultaneously. Can we really not wait two weeks?

No one is talking about handing over, taking away, or stealing any type of IP rights; that is a straw man argument.

Aside from the name of the country, nothing in The Guardian piece is even vaguely related to the facts of the situation. If you are an Australian, you already knew that. And if you’re not, I can explain why she’s wrong in short order.

Here are the facts of the situation.

  1. The Australian Productivity Commission has released the draft of a report which recommends the removal of parallel import restrictions as they apply to books (other suggestions including adopting fair use, reforming the copyright term, and an orphan works provision).
  2. Parallel import restrictions means that Australian businesses can’t import a book if the title is also being published in Australia.
  3. The recommendation on book imports is the exact same recommendation the PC has been making for over seven years, and it would allow businesses to freely import books from overseas suppliers.
  4. The current restrictions do not apply to consumers, who can import books costing up to $1,000 and not pay duties.

Yes, the PC wants to give businesses the same import options enjoyed by Australian consumers. It’s almost that simple.

What Hawthorne is hoping you won’t realize is that Australians already buy books online from foreign retailers like The Book Depository. Even with international shipping, the books are still cheaper than the copy sold in the local bookstore because the local bookstore is forced to comply with the import restrictions.

In other words, if cheap imports are going to do any damage, it has already been done.

Far from destroying the Australian publishing industry, removing this import restriction would shift purchases from foreign retailers to local Australian retailers. This would save consumers money, increase employment in the country, and keep more money from going overseas.

Sure, Australian publishers may claim that they support local authors who would be harmed by the change in the rules, but the authors don’t see it that way:

I’m an Aussie and an ex-midlist author who had six trad-published novels released here. For decades Australian authors like myself rarely broke even for our publishers. The market and readership simply isn’t big enough for midlist writers. However, for our publishers an annual Stephen King release or (insert the name of any huge author) basically subsidised local writers. The publisher’s main source of income and profit was producing and distributing best sellers from overseas. An unfortunate side-effect of this system was that books were very expensive (and still are). RRP of a best seller could be upwards of $30 in an airport bookstore.

The problem now is that publishers aren’t supporting local writers anymore anyway. Like everywhere else, the publishers are failing to grasp a new business model in the current industry and the first casualty was midlist authors everywhere.

Dire predictions of the local industry being killed off are pointless – opportunities for Australian writers in trad publishing are already non-existent as publishers cut and slash all but the best-selling overseas authors. And no one is admitting that of those Aussie writers who still have trad contracts, only a handful pay their way.
If the legislation provides cheaper retail books in bricks and mortar bookstores, that’s got to be a good thing. Blocking it won’t “save” anyone. We’re already dead in the water.

Australia’s current import restrictions don’t serve the needs of consumers, local retailers, or authors. The only party that benefits are the publishers, who can jack up their prices secure in the knowledge that Australian retailers have no other option.

The benefits of changing this rule clearly outweigh the costs, so it is a shame that the publishers will probably get their way just like they have in the past.

Mark my words; the Australian government will accept the report, and then proceed to ignore it and instead kowtow to the local industry trade group.

Does anyone want to bet I am wrong?

image by RowdyKittens

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Muratcan Simsek May 5, 2016 um 1:49 am

The Book Depository is really great, they ship to Turkey for free =)

But from a legal point of view (lawyer here), I understand their concerns. Parallel importing is a very loaded topic. For a book published in US, Aurtralian publishers need to pay an additional licensing fee and that would make the costs higher. If the same US publisher comes and sells the very same book for a lower price, the problem wouldn’t only be about the intellectual property laws. There is also competition law to consider. And in turn, US publishers would probably stop selling licenses and start selling their books themselves. Which in turn would definitely damage Australian publishing.

So, yes. Parallel importing would damage Australian publishing greatly. But it won’t hurt the reader, would even be better for them. And Australian writers would probably turn to US and UK publishers in the end. This may sound like a doomsday scenario, but not really. This might very well happen when you look at the problem as a whole, with rules about contracts and competition too. Publishers are rightfully scared, but I don’t believe this would hurt the readers and would probably be better for the writers in the long-term.

Benefit of the public is with parallel importing here =)

PS. I might be completely wrong, of course. I only have a cursory knowledge about the actual state of Australia after all.

puzzled May 5, 2016 um 4:06 am

Books in Australia are published under the British pricing, which means that they are usually a lot more expensive than the US version.

I remember buying books from BookDepository, when they had both the US and British editions, and the US edition was usually less than half the price. With free shipping, getting the US version was a no-brainer.

We are currently undergoing an election (it has been triggered, but not called yet even thought the election date has reportedly been determined), so all of this may change by the end of July.

In any case, considering what they charge, Australian publishers should be able to make money publishing Australian authors.

Fjtorres May 5, 2016 um 7:02 am

Without home market protection Australian publishers just might start promoting Australian authors globally. There is no reason why they can’t reach at least as far as Indie authors do.

Fbone May 5, 2016 um 1:17 pm

There is no guarantee that Australian retailers would sell the books at a lower cost if parallel imports were permitted. Nice profit margin.

Nate Hoffelder May 5, 2016 um 6:15 pm

Amazon will do it if they can. Others will forced to follow suit.

Some Guy May 6, 2016 um 1:03 am

By Nate 'All-I-Care-About-Is-Cheap-Books' Hoffelder.

By Nate 'When-Will-Jeff-Notice-Me?' Hoffelder.

By Nate 'Copyright-is-for-suckers' Hoffelder.

Darryl May 6, 2016 um 2:15 am

Parallel importing legislation is protectionism, pure and simple. It is ironic that Australia, a radical supporter of free trade, has let substantial industries die yet clings to this archaic measure to support a few greedy publishers, themselves mostly subsidiaries of the usual suspects. Their are repeated claims about their support for local authors, but these claims are never backed up with facts or figures. The usual technique is to pick one of the more prominent local authors, preferably a prize winner, and claim that that author would never have been published under an alternate regime. It is a very damaging and expensive way to encourage local authors, particularly when there is no attempt to measure effectiveness and no accountability. And of course anyone can now self-publish worldwide.

Similar sentiments were expressed in relation to the music industry here, but local acts continued and continue to thrive. There is no good argument to support this archaic and ridiculous practice.

Susan Hawthorne May 6, 2016 um 8:42 am

Dear Nate, Malcontent at Large,

Interesting that you think I know nothing about publishing or even ePublishing. You also seem to think I know nothing about copyright. Sorry to tell you, but I am pretty well informed in these areas.

You might not have noticed the word territorial in front of copyright. It makes a critical difference to the meaning of copyright. Copyright in Australia is very well protected. I know this because I have talked with publishers from France, Cameroun, Brazil, Tunisia, Italy and other countries. Our copyright is secure. What is not secure is the territorial copyright in English-language markets.

You say that you bought your first eReader in July 2007. My company, Spinifex Press, a small independent feminist press, began producing eBooks in August 2006. We did this because we felt it was important to have our books available in these new formats internationally.

However, as a small press with a very active role in international rights, we know perfectly well how territorial copyright works. Most people don’t understand it. So you are in the majority there. That doesn’t mean you are right.

Read the posts from The Australian Society of Authors if you want to know what many authors think. The author you posted is in the minority.

Read also the article by Kim Williams about fair use. If this comes through it will have a significant impact on authors' incomes.

And do please read the research I referenced in my Guardian article about the incomes of authors. I think you will find it enlightening.

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 5:45 pm

Well, when you write things like this you demonstrate that you either know nothing about copyright or are being deliberately deceptive:

What is not secure is the territorial copyright in English-language markets.

For those just tuning in, territorial copyright is a term for the quirks in copyright law that exist in one country but might not exist elsewhere. For example, Barries' Peter Pan is permanently under copyright in the UK, but is in the public domain elsewhere in the world. Also, some Sherlock Holmes stories are under copyright in the US but out of copyright everywhere else. The difference between the US and other country’s copyright terms is a third example.

Susan, your claim that territorial copyright is not secure, as well as anything else you say about copyright, is simply bullshit. Parallel import restrictions have nothing to do with copyright; it’s part of an international trade issue which extends across industries.

Other products in other industries in other countries have their own import restrictions. Those restrictions frequently take the form of tariffs, or bans. Australia’s "parallel import restriction" is the latter. It is a ban on importing books being published in Australia, and has nothing to do with copyright.

Karen Wyld May 8, 2016 um 12:14 am

As an owner of a small bookshop, a published author and supporter of diverse books – thank you for speaking up against the Goliaths and dinosaurs of Australian lit industry. Too many times I’m unable to help customers connect with the books they want/need – because of the current restrictions. And I want to see more diverse books on shelves. The current Australian lit scene is still far too monoculture. Diversity leads to greater awareness, which leads to less bigotry and racism. Although we lack the might and exposure of the naysayers, I hope to see more people speaking up for the proposed changes.

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 5:22 pm

Thanks, Karen!

Susan Hawthorne May 8, 2016 um 6:00 pm

The ASA expresses the issues nicely and, as I have, they too use the terminology of territorial copyright.

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 6:38 pm

Linking to that statement only proves that the ASA is the publishing industry’s patsy; it does not prove them correct. Instead, they are misusing the term just like you are.

What I see is that they are either being deliberately deceptive or are simply ignorant of the law. For example:

The Australian book industry does not depend on tariffs or subsidies.

Yes, but your industry is hiding behind an import ban. So it is half a dozen of one, or six of another.

And then there’s this:

We simply want to maintain a healthy Australian book industry by allowing our authors to retain the same level of copyright benefits enjoyed by their fellow writers in the UK and the USA

Okay, fine. Drop your parallel import restrictions. We don’t have that in the US, so the ASA doesn’t want it either. There’s nothing stopping me from importing 100 copies of a book from the UK, and reselling them (aside from nitpicky rules about obscenity, etc). There might be duties, yes, but no outright ban like Australia’s parallel import restrictions.

You know, here in the USA we have a group like the ASA. Our version is called The Authors Guild, and it is just as much an industry patsy as the ASA. You should read some of the nonsense TAG has spewed about Amazon and antitrust. It has no basis in law or reality but is still quite funny.

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