As the public conversation on the parallel importation of books flares again, three noted authors have entered the fray …
Dear Prime Minister,
In the last four decades Australian writing has grown into a major force, popular with readers in Australia in its many forms — children’s books, young adult fiction, thrillers, romance, fiction and non fiction — and acclaimed internationally.
The book industry is today a multibillion-dollar industry employing close to 20,000 people. Australian writing is Australia’s greatest cultural success story.
The commercial underpinning of the Australian publishing industry that sustains this writing is the protection of writers’ copyright in the form it exists in almost every country in the world.
The recent announcement by your government that it will end restrictions on parallel importation on books will extinguish that protection.
The consequences will be job losses, public revenue loss as profits are transferred overseas, and a brutal reduction in the range of Australian books publishers will be able to publish. Australia will become, as it was in the 1960s, a dumping ground for American and English books, and we will risk becoming — as we once were — a colony of the minds of others.
To see this as a positive economic reform is to misunderstand both the commercial realities of Australian publishing and the accepted trade rules of book publishing globally.
The Australian book industry is not a government subsidised or protected industry. To say otherwise is an ideological fiction. In stark contrast to the film industry which receives in excess of $200 million a year of taxpayer support, or the $17 billion paid to the mining industry, the total amount of direct federal government subsidy to Australian writers is less than $2.3 million a year.
We are not arguing against subsidies to other industries; we do though wish to point out our industry is a free trade success story that doesn’t take from the public purse, but returns much to it in direct and indirect taxation.
The only real subsidy is that made by the writers themselves with their work, who, while the bedrock of an industry, earn, on average, according to a recent report by the Macquarie University, $13,000 a year.
The argument that books will become cheaper if the rules are changed ignores the fact that books have become cheaper within the existing rules because of market forces.
Since this debate was last had in 2009 an average paperback that then cost $25 (with GST) now costs $20 (with GST), a reduction of 20 per cent, which is also a 20 per cent reduction in authors’ income per book. When inflation is added the figure in real terms is close to 30 per cent — good news for the consumer, if not the writer.
A paperback today is the same price as it was in the mid-1990s. In the same period a federal MP’s base salary has almost tripled, from $76,000 in 1994, to $195,000 today — the equivalent of 15 years work for a writer.
Allowing for the dumping of American and English books on our market may make a handful of mass market titles cheaper, but it destroys a large income stream for Australian publishers. It will force them to downsize and slash their local lists. The overall consequence will be a great decline in the variety of Australian books, while those few Australian books that continue to be published will become more expensive to cover rising costs.
If your government is genuine in its desire to make books cheaper it would be acting to exempt books from its proposed GST rise of 5 per cent. If your government is genuine in its commitment to cheaper books it will follow the example of countries such as Germany and allow for a split GST, with books remaining at 10 per cent GST.
If your government is genuine about establishing fair competition it would be seeking that all Australian purchases of books made on Amazon be subject to GST, so that there is a more level playing field for Australian book shops competing with a retail goliath that doesn’t pay Australian taxes.
And if it won’t do these things, what then is the argument for this purported reform?
Is it simply because the book industry is perceived as a soft target that makes a government look like it is making a tough economic reform when it is doing nothing of the sort?
Territorial copyright does not equate to a hidden subsidy to Australian book industry any more than award wages equate to a hidden subsidy to the retail and building industries. It is a right and a right recognised in almost every other country in the world.
We are not arguing for protectionism because the book industry is not a protected industry. We are not asking for money, or for a subsidy. We are asking for the same rules and intellectual property rights that prevail for writers and book publishing in the USA, in Britain, in Europe and in Asia. That is all.
These rules and rights are what allowed us and so many other Australians to become published writers. These rules and rights are what enabled a golden age of Australian writing to occur. And it is our hope that this time of great literary achievement is an early chapter in the ever growing story of Australian literature, and not — if this decision stands — the end. We cannot return to being a colony of the mind.
Peter Carey, Booker Prize winner 1988 & 2001
Richard Flanagan, Booker Prize winner 2014
Tom Keneally, Booker Prize winner 1982