Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Millenium Trilogy

Last January (2008) the first of three volumes in the Millennium Trilogy was published in an English translation of the original Swedish novel by the late journalist/author Stieg Larsson. It was called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I happened upon it in a bookshop in Adelaide, starting reading it and got totally absorbed in the world and the characters it created.

The second volume has just been published. It's called The Girl Who Played with Fire, and it's equally absorbing. Like the first one it's long (569 pages) but you really don't want it to end by the time you've finished it.

Like all popular fiction, of course, the main characters are pretty much larger than life. The goodies are heroic, kind, highly intelligent and competent, and the baddies cruel, violent, ugly, fat and, predictably, respected in establishment circles.

Larson also has a major problem with sex. It's gratuitous and it grates. The goodies are always jumping into bed with one another because they are good at it and enjoy it, and the baddies are always raping innocents, if not children.

Nevertheless, we can forgive Larsson for that, because he's given us such excellent and complex plots, all set in the cities and towns of Sweden, a magnificent country most of us know so little about.

You can't get much better holiday reading than these two novels. I can't wait for the third one this time next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Favorite book of 2008

It was a close tussle between Adiga's The White Tiger and Helen Garner's The Spare Room, but I have to give it to Garner.

In a mesmerising, seemingly quotidian but bile inducing personal narrative Garner creates perhaps the most appalling female figure in Australian literature - the grasping, insinuating, oxygen-sucking Nicola.

God, she's awful!

Buy it and read it over Xmas, and pray to god someone remotely like Nicola never comes into your life.

In non-fiction the prize definitely goes to A.A Gill's Table Talk. Gill is the restaurant critic and food writer for Britain's The Sunday Times and Tatler. The writing is fierce and wild, and blisteringly enlivening. It's just marvellous.

Browse through it in a good independent bookshop (the others won't have it) and read the piece on Starbucks. You'll then understand why that chain is going under. Then read the chapter on America and browsers around you will look at your body shaking and wonder.

I guarantee you'll buy the book and devour it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Richard Flanagan's new novel: Wanting

Wanting is an exceptionally good novel. It's gripping, and stays with you long after you put it down.

Its mid-19th century setting enables Flanagan to explore its themes without the constraints of modern sensibility or political correctness, using the language and concepts of the day ('savages', 'extermination', 'civilised' etc) and with a great deal of sympathy for brutal, order-imposing colonisers as well as the native aborigines who suffered them and died.

This is history, but from the inside. So it's the power of imaginative fiction that brings early Tasmania alive and sucks you in.

A parallel narrative concerns Charles Dickens, but its linkage with the Tasmanian story is tenuous at best. But by itself it's fascinating too.

Buy it and read it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nam Le's The Boat

I've just finished this wonderful book, The Boat, by young Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le.

It's such a powerful, majestic work. A collection of seven short stories, seemingly disparate but deeply linked by Le's haunting vision of human and social fragility in the face of overwhelmingly dark, ancient and violent undercurrents.

Only one story is set in Australia, but this is a peculiarly Australian vision, and it throbs through our literature.

But this one and read it, then buy another copy for a friend.

Favorite crime writers' Xmas offerings

Some favorite crime writers I've read recently:

1. The latest P.D. James: The Private Patient.

This has to be one of the grand dame's weakest. You have to wonder whether, at age 88, she's past it.

It's a very English, fussy, far too homey sort of novel, full of irrelevant personal and domestic detail, how kitchens are laid out, etc, and with the weakest resolution you could imagine. The killer confesses, for god's sake! How poor is that! What, the police couldn't work it out?

The relationships among the characters are cold and impersonal, and frankly, irritating.

As for the too perfect Inspector Dalgliesh. Is he human? Who cares?

Don't buy and don't read it.

2. Ian Rankin's Doors Open.

This is, quite simply, a very weak and disappointing effort from Rankin. Was it an early attempt, done years ago, and now pulled out of the bottom drawer and dusted off? A young Rankin? If so his publisher has done him no favors.

Where is the tired cynicism, the world-weariness, the marvellous sense of Edinburgh we’ve come to expect from the wonderful Rebus novels?

Don't buy and don't read it.

3. Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict.

Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller is way too smart, lucky and successful. Virtually every plot twist happens because he's just so damn clever. Humanising him by giving him drug problems doesn’t cut it. Few people can relate to that. And now he doesn’t even drink for god's sake! Sorry!

Connelly throws Harry Bosch into the mix to kick the whole thing up a notch, but it's a pared down Bosch and it sort of grates. And the family connection between the two, revealed at the end, is quite unbelievable.

Give us straight Bosch Michael, and for god's sake give Haller a drink or even a drinking problem. Forget the drugs. It doesn't work. Drugs aren't for heroes, they're for losers.

Don't buy it and don't read it.

GST on imports: yet another bad move by the industry

While we're on the subject of protectionism, the renewed calls by booksellers for the GST to be applied to imports, particularly from Amazon, are misplaced.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Australian Bookseller and Publisher a few years ago pleading for the trade to not pursue this as a campaign, but to no avail. The CEO of the ABA at the time, Barbara Cullen, replied with heaps of facts and figures and a re-statement of the official ABA position that it would be relatively easy for the government to do this and it's manifestly unfair, etc, etc. However it essentially missed the point. The point being that a 10% GST imposition is a drop in the bucket and would have absolutely minimal effect on the volume of imports.

Firstly, the dollar has plummeted 30% since mid-year, thus making imports a hell of a lot more expensive than a 10% GST imposition could possibly do. This volatility is a built-in disincentive but it doesn't seem to be having all that much effect on book buyers.

Secondly, Amazon buyers have to pay the freight, and this is very often more expensive than the book itself. But again, this doesn't deter the many buyers.

Thirdly, it's hardly a good look for Australian booksellers to be campaigning for the government to clobber book buyers - their customers - with yet another tax.

Calls for 'a level playing field' in import/export matters are always calls for protection. Australian booksellers have decided advantages compared to Amazon, so they should recognise that and start to more aggressively capitalise on it.

Unfortunately that takes industry collaboration, systems development and significant financial investment. The hard stuff.

Calls to slap a tax on imports is easy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Groupthink in the Australian book trade - the parallel importation debate (cont.)

The notion of Groupthink was articulated and popularised by psychologist Irving Janis in the 70's. He investigated why close knit groups often adopt a common perspective and viewpoint at odds with more rational and grounded positions held in the wider community. The group feels under siege, so the adopted viewpoints are invariably defensive and very emotionally held.

We're seeing a perfect instance of this at present in the Australian book trade on the issue of parallel importation. And it's not a pretty sight.

I thought I'd seen it all in years past, whenever this issue popped up as it frequently did (see my blog entry in October for a history of this tiresome debate). But what's happening now is truly extraordinary. The emotions are so strong, virtually hysterical, and the widely held common view more passionately articulated than ever before. The problem is, however, it is still as profoundly wrong-headed as it ever was, perhaps even more so.

See Henry Rosenbloom's blog entry of November 30 for a perfect example of what I mean. Here is an extremely well written exercise in classic groupthink. Henry lashes out like La Stupenda on steroids at every conceivable enemy real or imagined. There is blood everywhere. Not once however does he address the real issue (I get to that below).

Today's Weekly Blue Newsletter reports on the recommendations from the Leading Edge group of independent booksellers who've held meetings on this issue over recent weeks. They support the current 30/90 day protections but have triumphantly come up with a 'compromise' - 'let's reduce the 90 days to 30 days'! As if this hasn't been thought of before! Another exercise in intellectual confusion from within the bunker.

Here is the essential truth that the book trade proponents for continued protection need to get their heads around:

The 30/90 day provisions do not establish and have never established Australia as a rights territory. Australia is a natural rights territory because of its population size, distance, literacy and affluence. The provisions provide additional protection for a rights holder, but they do not establish the possibility of buying rights in the first place. Therefore their abolition will not destroy Australia as a rights territory. Their abolition will simply remove that additional level of protection which only serves to protect over-pricing and under-servicing. Publishers who price and service competitively have absolutely nothing to fear.

God, how often must this be said! To me it's so self-evident.

There is really no need for this paranoia in the trade, this awful, miserable 'we'll all be ruined' defensiveness. No wonder economists throw their hands up!

Another point: with the fluctuation in the dollar over recent years one thing has become abundantly clear: overpricing of imports was rampant when the dollar was strong, and now that it's weak again, pricing is reasonable.

The Productivity Commission will certainly take this on board. They'll conclude that the provisions aren't warranted when the dollar is strong, as they prohibit price competition, and aren't necessary when the dollar is weak, because competition from potential bookseller importing could not provide any consumer advantage. So on balance it's better not to have them.

What then would happen? Well, groupthink has postulated positive ruin all round. Australian publishing will collapse, independents won't survive, culture will be at serious risk, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

How absolutely ridiculous and juvenile is this! I'm ashamed of the industry I love for sinking so far to the bottom intellectually on this simple issue. It's really not rocket science.

But at the end of the day the groupthinkers need really have no fear. The Rudd government will not reform the current system. They will ignore the predictable recommendations from the Productivity Commission, and we will, or at least future generations will, have to stomach this appalling debate for decades to come.

Get me a very strong drink!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Christmas Cards

I'm sorry, but here's one of my pet peeves coming up!

It's Christmas time, and we're already starting to see an awful phenomenon that seems to have infected the Australian publishing industry in recent years. Perhaps it's infected all industries, I don't know.

It's the announcement in the trade Newsletter that so-and-so publisher will not be sending Xmas cards this year but will instead donate the money to charity. Perhaps they'll follow up later with a Xmas email.

I can't help myself. Every time I read one of these miserable announcements I have to head for the bar fridge to quieten down.

Can't these people do both? By all means contribute to charity, which you should be doing on a regular basis anyway as a matter of company policy. But to do it INSTEAD of sending Xmas cards, a long tradition of acknowledging community and friendship, and expressing thanks to customers, authors and colleagues in a very personal way? Is business so bad that it's a question of cost, for God's sake?

It's Calvinism. As an Irish Catholic, I'm offended!

But if you're going to send Xmas cards then make it genuine. There's nothing more insulting than getting a pre-printed corporate card with absolutely no trace of a human hand anywhere on it. Or one that simply simply says 'Fred'! How lazy is that! Instead of that meaningless excercise it probably does make sense to stop doing it and send the money to charity!

I've always thought we should take time out to make some personal contact with each other at this time. Christmas cards are an ideal opportunity. They don't have to be sacrificed for some 'higher good'.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Booker winner The White Tiger

This year's Man Booker winner The White Tiger by young first-time novelist Aravind Adiga is a wonderful, enlivening read. It's a fierce denunciation of India in all its social, cultural, religious, political and economic dimensions. Apparantly the Indian authorities were not happy with it winning the prize, and no wonder.

No part of this sprawling society is spared. It is not primarily about the new, emerging and materialistic middle classes. It's a far more wholesale condemnation than that.

Adiga paints an India riddled with curruption, where murder and abject cruelty are commonplace and part and parcel of class, caste and power relations. Even India's famed democracy 'is a fucking joke'.

Adiga's art is the slow build. The central protaganist, the narrator, transitions from awakening, through mild resistance to outright fury, propelling the novel to its explosive ending.

Buy it and read it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Google Settlement (again)

Radio National's Book Show this morning featured a discussion on the Google settlement with ABP Publisher Tim Coronel and media lawyer Nic Pullen.

The problem with the dicusssion was that both guests seem to think that the giant, thieving, rip-off merchant Google had somehow muscled in and secured a satanic victory against the poor little publishers and authors!!


Google caved. Capitulated. Paid out US$125m plus in order to get the license to continue scanning (and pay for it!), and will hand over 63% of ALL revenue from any commercial exploitation of the content including advertising revenue on display pages which publishers in their wildest dreams would never have thought possible!!

Fuck! Must we always perceive ourselves as victims?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Google Settlement

The settlement of the legal dispute between Google and US publishers and authors is quite remarkable.

It's hard not to read it as a virtual total capitulation by Google. They have agreed to cough up US$125 million to establish an organisation called the Book Rights Registry which will manage the creation and exploitation of all the digital rights involved in Google's scanning of library holdings. Google will retain 37% of all revenues collected through the commercial exploitation of the book content, including from advertising on Google's display pages. Part of the money will also be paid in compensation for scanning that has already taken place prior to this license (permission) being in place.

Google's claim had always been that it didn't need permission under the Fair Use provisions of the US Copyright Act. The impending litigation was to settle that.

Either Google realised its case was weak, or it has played it smart and bought a seat at the table for what is shaping up as one of the biggest games around.

The Book Rights Registry reminds me of our own Copyright Agency Limited (CAL). Both are non-profit collecting and distributing entities and the boards have equal weightings of author and publisher members. CAL's distributions to content owners last financial year were well over A$100 million. The US model could be distributing very large sums indeed once it gets up and running.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Remix - new title on copyright from Lawrence Lessig

For anybody who is interested in the 'copyright wars' - corporations wielding huge legal sticks against innocent consumers downloading stuff for personal use - Lawrence Lessig is essential reading.

This US law professor at Stanford has just released Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. A pretty ordinary title but a fascinating read. Lessig is a passionate advocate for copyright reform. He argues persuasively for a legal regime which recognises current technological realities and doesn't cast as a felon every teenager who downloads music, TV shows, movies and other copyrighted content from file sharing and other sites because it's free but mainly because it's available and accessible.

Don't read this title however before you read his earlier book Free Culture. This is a wonderful, invigorating, stimulating, provocative, angry and superbly argued treatise on everything that's wrong with our current copyright regime and the way media and publishing corporations abuse their power by abusing their customers and the very essence of creativity.

Both books are pubished by Penguin in the US. Get them from Amazon. Shamefully, they're not available in Australia (read my blog piece on parallel importation to find out why!)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The lamentable state of publishing industry statistics

As part of the industry compensation package negotiated between the federal government and the Australian Democrats after the introduction of the GST in 2000 the government funded four years of statistics gathering by the Austalian Bureau of Statistics. The ABS surveyed publishers and booksellers each year from 2001 to 2004 inclusive.

Prior to that, from 1994 to 2000, the APA had funded the ABS publisher surveys themselves, but at huge expense. Collections were done every two years only.

The detailed picture of the industry that emerged over the ten year period from this endeavour was invaluable. No other serious and authoritative attempt to collect accurate data from the total industry had ever before been attempted. The APA had struggled for years to get its members to submit their annual stats but eventually gave it up as a bad joke. The ABA, as far as I am aware, had no better luck and in fact minimal resources to fund and manage the process.

The ABS charged the government for the years 2000-2004 around $200k each year for each collection. At the end of the period the industry pleaded with the govenment to authorise the ABS to continue the collections as part of its general mandate but no funding was ever forthcoming.

This is a real shame. Not only did the ABS bring a highly professional process to the task, all companies surveyed were obligated under law to provide the data, and on time.

The most valuable aspect of the data was the trends that could be clearly observed over the years. We could see what was happening to sales, margins, expenses, royalties, exports, staff numbers, etc. We could see how local title sales were faring compared to imports. We could see how all parts of the industry - trade, primary, secondary, tertiary, professional, etc, were faring. A fascinating tale was being told of the effect of the GST on sales, and the impact of the plummeting dollar (worth looking up again?).

I've just prepared an overview of the industry for a lecture I'm giving next week at the University of Queensland, and could only quote detailed stats for the 2003-2004 year. Embarassing!

Over the last five years though the APA has been collecting similar sorts of data from a select group of publishers, mainly the largest 20 or so, but these are available (at considerable expense I might add!) only to the participants, which is a crying shame. Retired publisher Bill Mackarell was charged with collecting them, and he did a superb job. Bill's given the game away and someone else (I forget who) has been given the job. However here we are in late 2008 and we still haven't got the 2007 stats! Not good.

These APA stats from 2003 to 2006 show real and interesting trends too. Fundamently that the publishing side of the industry has been doing very well. Sales have grown every year as has profitability. In fact publisher profitabilty is now the highest it's probably ever been. In no small part this can be put down to the recovery and resurgence of the dollar, and.....publishers not lowering their pricing in response. (Not a good place to be, I would have thought, when the Productivity Commission starts examining industry pricing practices as part of their impending enquiry into parallel importation).

The last ABS survey into bookselling, in 2004, found the opposite was happening to bookseller profitability. From 3.6% in 2001-02 to 1.9% in 2002-03 to 1.3% in 2003-04. What is the situation now? Who knows?

So, where does the industry go from here? We can't just do nothing! The Howard government refused to fund any more ABS collections, so let's not hold out any hope Rudd will do any different, especially with the huge strains on the budget likely over the next few years. I think the only realistic way forward is for a joint industry approach to CAL.

CAL is obligated under its charter to put aside 1% of its collections from the educational statutory license for what is loosely defined as 'cultural purposes'. I was ten years on the CAL board and I know that that amount of money is a challenge to spend responsibly. Outlaying $200-300k each year to fund the ABS to collect indispensable industry statistics would seem to me a valuable and justifiable way to spend part of this fund. It would be a significant contribution to the development of the cultural industry of Australian publishing/bookselling, a worthy use of these monies.

The APA and the ABA should get together and prepare a submission to the CAL board. I would expect it to be received sympathetically. What have we got to lose?

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Bill Henson Saga

Have just finished reading David Marr's new book on the Bill Henson controversy. It's a calm, measured, lucid telling of an appalling story of hysteria, philistinism and downright ignorance.

And a fine piece of publishing yet again from Michael Heyward of Text.

I was amazed at Marr's self-control. Personally, throughout the whole saga, I was as angry as hell. I tend to favor more shakespearean renderings - constant references to 'stinking mobs', etc!

Marr criticises Rudd who rushed to judgement calling the pictures 'disgusting' and 'revolting' when shown them briefly on the Today show. He should have condemned him in no uncertain terms for his abysmal lack of leadership, and the effect his immature views had on constraining all comment from government and government-funded bodies thereafter, including Arts Minister Peter Garrett and the National Gallery and Library heads.

The book is a damn good read though. Marr's nothing if not dependable.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Parallel Importation

Parallel Importation: the current debate in Australia

‘Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge’
Winston Churchill


In July this year the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), representing the Federal, the six State and the two Territory governments, took the Australian book trade completely by surprise by initiating yet another review of the provisions in the Australian Copyright Act that restrict parallel importation. COAG authorised the Productivity Commission to enquire and make recommendations.

The groan around the industry was audible. ‘Oh my God, here we go again!’ said David Gaunt, owner of independent bookshop Gleebooks in Sydney.

This debate has raged since November 1988 when journalist Robert Haupt wrote a series of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald arguing that it was high time Australia cast off her last colonial shackle and allowed the free import of books. 1988 was Australia’s bicentennial year. The mood was republican.

The cry was taken up by competition czar Allan Fels whose Prices Surveillance Authority, later to become the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), strongly recommended to the then Hawke Labor government that the very restrictive importation provisions in the Copyright Act since 1968 be totally abolished and an open market established.

As it was in many countries the 1980’s was a decade of wide-ranging economic reform in Australia, propelled by the realization that the country needed to rejuvenate its stagnating industrial, financial and commercial infrastructure to far more effectively compete in the world economy and raise its living standards. The whole panoply of industry protection that had been built up over the previous century needed to be dismantled. The high tariff wall was brought crashing down, and quotas and most other regulatory barriers to imports and capital flows demolished.

One major principle guiding these reforms was the need to provide vigorous and effective competition at all levels of the economy. COAG initiated a series of enquiries which ultimately led to the Competition Principles Agreement. This set binding targets on all governments to break monopolies and establish open and competitive trading regimes and practices across the entire economy.

Intellectual Property laws were not isolated from this agenda, particularly the parallel importation provisions.

What has become known as the ‘30/90 day rule’ was the eventual legislative outcome, coming into effect in 1991. Publishers had 30 days to bring a title first published overseas to Australia or lose territorial copyright protection. If they subsequently went out of stock they had 90 days to replenish, after which time booksellers could freely import. The 30 days concept was the technical definition in the Act of ‘simultaneous publication’. It was the only way Australia could give protection to local titles and still fulfill the Berne obligation of treating local and overseas titles equally. (It was erroneously thought by some commentators that the government was forcing publishers to airfreight in all stock. At that time air freighting was certainly not the norm, as it is now.)

The Australian Publishers Association (APA) fought long and hard against any reform, only very reluctantly embracing the 30 day concept when all else was lost. The Australian Booksellers Association (ABA), led by respected independents David Gaunt, Mark Rubbo from Readings in Melbourne, and Tony Horgan from Shearers in Sydney, had lobbied for an open market.

The Debate:

Over the last 20 years the debate has flared on a number of occasions – particularly in 2001 when the conservative Howard government opened the market for music CDs and software and wanted to do the same for books. The APA and the authors once again vigorously opposed it, and the ABA supported it. Opposition to the move was strong in the Labor party and within the minor parties who had the balance of power in the Senate, however, so it didn’t progress.

To me, an active participant in the debate since day one, this was profoundly disappointing. I have always supported the abolition of the provisions, having been a strong supporter of the economic reform agenda of the previous Labor government. I was also hoping we’d abolish the simple awfulness of the debate! As I wrote at the time:

Occasionally this particular sleeping dog gets kicked into life, usually by Allan Fels, and when it does, you can be sure that our penchant for rhetorical overkill will get a real workout.

Over the last few months we’ve seen some genuine hysteria, especially from authors, and some publishers new to the debate.

I’ve never been able to understand why the book industry finds it so difficult to grasp the basic economic (and hence, copyright) facts surrounding this issue, and why, when Allan Fels, Henry Ergas, Paddy McGuinness, Imre Saluszinsky (economists) and others point them out, albeit clumsily sometimes, and without the specialist trade knowledge familiar to practitioners, we resort to a very familiar but ugly bunker, and lash out at all who dare encroach with their rationalist nostrums on our “cultural” terrain.

This time around the ABA seemed determined not to fall into this trap. It decided to review the
arguments dispassionately and honestly, and not resort to the rhetoric and name calling of the past. It issued a statement which basically proclaimed that the proposed abolition of the 30/90 day rule was a fairly innocuous move, and perhaps it was time the trade moved on. In my view it was equivalent to announcing that removing the remaining dingo fence from around suburbia would probably not do much harm to our lifestyle. We don’t live on Fraser Island any more.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It seems we do live on Fraser Island. We’re surrounded by savage booksellers hungry and desperate to indent everything in sight. Their whole perverted purpose is quite simple – it’s to eat us until we die.'(1)

The Federal Government had set up the Intellectual Property and Competition Review Committee, led by noted economist Henry Ergas. It had strongly recommended abolishing the provisions.

Removing the restrictions is one effective means of integrating the Australian market into larger, more competitive markets such as the United States, and bringing the advantages of strong competition to the Australian market. (2)

In 2005 the debate flared again, this time prompted by an article written by the new CEO of the large bookstore chain Dymocks, Don Grover. Grover was re-stating Dymocks’ position of support for an open market, but this time with a new twist. Instead of the abolition of the provisions being a fairly innocuous move, it would allow booksellers to buy much cheaper from overseas thus improving margins, and to offer consumers lower prices. By this time the Australian dollar had strengthened considerably and publishers were enjoying high profitability on imports. Booksellers were being denied a share.

On some key titles, we have found an enormous reduction in the net price for the same product overseas, compared to the price at which it is being offered locally. However, within the current copyright regime and the 30/90 day rule, we have little leverage with local suppliers.

There is simply little scope for booksellers to improve margins.

Peter Field, then President of the APA and CEO of Pearson Australia, responded with his famous cane toad analogy:

Sugar cane farmers had a problem in 1935. Beetles were destroying crops, so experts decided that a smart solution would be to import 101 cane toads from Hawaii to control the beetles. That was an experiment that went disastrously wrong. Changing copyright legislation, as Don is demanding, would prove just as catastrophic for our industry – and just as impossible to undo once the door has been opened to invaders. (4)

You can see what’s happening here. Some booksellers are starting to overstate what benefits an open market would bring, and publishers what apocalyptic disasters. But interestingly, today’s booksellers as a whole are not united any more. Not too many independents are as gung-ho as Dymocks. Even the ABA’s official position is softening. At their annual conference in June 2007 they sought accommodation with publishers, seeking a middle ground or at least a shared understanding. Chris Burgess, General Manager of Leading Edge Books, Australia’s largest buying group of independent bookstores, put it this way:

In an open market where there is no guarantee of demand from retailers, wouldn’t publishers find it even harder to effectively predict stock holdings? Wouldn’t this make a case for publishers to risk less local editions with a consequent shrinkage of the depth and breadth of titles available to booksellers at a price and in a format suitable to their market?

There are enough concerns to prompt a rethink by those who strongly advocate the removal of the current rules. I have real concerns that the baby would leak out with the bathwater.

So in 2008 the flavor of the debate has shifted. What seems to have happened is that independent booksellers are being more and more persuaded by the publisher and author arguments. David Gaunt has decided to absent himself from the debate this time around, and Mark Rubbo is in two minds:

It’s a really complex and difficult situation. There’s arguments on both sides. I have sympathy for the authors and publishers but probably less sympathy for books that come from overseas. The concerns of Australian authors are valid.

In the last 20 to 30 years, Australia has built up quite a book industry. It’s the most successful cultural industry we have … you wouldn’t want to jeopardize that. But obviously the world is changing and what was appropriate in 1991 may not be now. There probably does need to be some adjustments, since things have changed quite a lot.

But if Australian publishers don’t have excusive rights to a book, they’d be reluctant to spend money to market it and to create a demand for it, which is what’s good for us … It will take quite a few years to see the effect. The cultural impact is potentially harming, that’s my greatest concern.

To me this new bookseller uncertainty is profoundly disappointing. The arguments from the authors and my fellow publishers are still uniformly superficial and overblown and demonstrate little appreciation of supply realities or even, at times, fundamental economic literacy.

They universally rest on the flawed premise that the abolition of the parallel importation provisions would abolish Australia as a rights territory.

I am surprised there is support for an “open” market in Australia because it would be no such thing. It would actually be a “surrendered” market. The entire publishing world still works on the basis of territorial copyright and it will do so for a long time to come. (7)

The cultural cost of allowing parallel imports is simply too great. It would be a strong disincentive towards the publishing of Australian stories and to the unearthing and nurturing of new talent. (8)

Australian books could be crowded out altogether; forced off the shelves by floods of cheap books by foreign writers. (9)

All these contributors argue that the fundamental dynamics of the Australian trade, underpinned by the ability of publishers to buy and sell rights, will be destroyed. They think that Australia will no longer be a rights territory if the provisions are abolished, and therefore it will be a chaotic free-for-all where competing British and American editions are imported by all and sundry. No local publisher would ever invest in a strong marketing campaign, release dates would not be under the publisher’s control, publishers would not bring overseas authors to Australia to promote their books in the media or at writers’ festivals, etc.

As I have repeatedly argued nothing could be further from the truth. Australian rights to overseas titles will still be bought in similar volumes as now. They will be established by a contract between the overseas publisher/agent and the Australian (or far more frequently British) publisher, just as they are now. Firstly, Australia’s geography won’t change if the provisions are repealed. We’ll still be 12,000 miles from the major English language publishing centres of London and New York. Secondly, Australia won’t suddenly shrink in population to become a market that can’t support economic print runs. (This is why the Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand examples of open markets are profoundly misleading.)

The only thing that will change is that the rights holder will not receive protection under the laws of Australia to indulge in overpricing and underservicing. If this happens they will be vulnerable to buying around, as they should be.

The authors also arrogantly pretend to know how booksellers would act under the changed landscape. Or, in a profound misunderstanding of supply patterns in the trade, how overseas publishers would ‘dump’ massive amounts of cheap books on our shores thus making local publishing virtually impossible. The truth is this: if Australia remains a rights territory, as it most assuredly will, foreign editions can only come here if local booksellers order them from an overseas wholesaler. Overseas publishers can’t dump them. It simply doesn’t work that way. They’ve sold or don’t have the Australian rights and they would be in breach of contract if they did. And the bookseller won’t order them if the local rights holding publisher makes it an uneconomic proposition to do so. Which they would do by fair pricing, competitive trading terms and efficient distribution.

This is not to say that, from time to time, remaindered foreign editions of original Australian works would not find their way back here. They will. There have been and there will continue to be well-known examples, for whatever reasons. But it defies logic to imagine that this prospect would ever be more than an irritant at the margins.

Michael Heyward, Managing Director and Publisher of Text Publishing in Melbourne, in an article riddled with non-sequiturs, focuses principally on this distinct possibility:

By bringing out Australian editions first, our publishers can prevent US or British publishers dumping low-royalty stock here, ripping off our writers and stealing the market.

Let’s be clear about what the unqualified removal of import restrictions would mean. US, British and Canadian copyright law would continue to prevent the sale of Australian editions of Tim Flannery or Geraldine Brooks or Helen Garner in those countries. But there would be nothing to prevent US, British or Canadian editions of their books being sold here no matter what contractual agreements had been made.

We would have the worst of both worlds for our writers if our booksellers, having been allowed to parallel import without restriction, marked up low-royalty foreign editions of Australian books.

According to Heyward, the 30/90 day provisions, strenuously resisted by publishers 20 years ago, are ‘an ingenious solution to the problem of how to protect both the producer and the consumer’.

Heyward well articulates the current and virtually unanimous view of the Australian publishing and writing industry. It’s as if the provisions have achieved a mythological status. They support the huge edifice and successful dynamic of the whole publishing and bookselling trade; they have stimulated cultural forces such as Tim Winton and Kate Grenville; they have encouraged a dramatic increase in the number of Australian titles being published every year, and the emergence of highly successful independent publishers; they have established Australia as a rights territory; they have allowed Australians to enjoy the best mix of book retailers in the English-speaking world; etc, etc.

All this is nonsense of course, but it is highly politically effective. No arid report or recommendation from an economic body like the Productivity Commission is going to be able to dislodge these noble sentiments from any politician’s breast. So my strong sense is that the reform initiative will falter and the 30/90 day provisions remain.

There is one advantage to this, I have to admit. The provisions operate as a sort of psychological crutch, leant on by Australian and overseas publishers/agents alike. They're symbolic. Although they don't establish Australia as a rights territory, where it's safe to do exlusive deals, they clarify its status, for everyone to see. They provide that level of comfort.

In the meantime the huge and critical activity of importation by the Australian trade from the major English language publishing centres of the world will continue to be constrained and shoehorned into buttressing our defense against the infrequent probability of re-importation of original Australian works, works which make up barely 2% of English language output. This is disproportionate, anti-consumer and a major misallocation of economic resources.

Abolition of the provisions would open the doors to higher levels of direct importing or rights buying by Australian publishers, and importing by booksellers, of so much of the richness and variety of US publishing. Australian consumers would enjoy lower prices, higher production values and far wider availability of important titles on retail shelves.

Booksellers would have a chance of improving their share of industry profitability, a share that has seriously dwindled in this decade in favor of publishers. This can only be healthy for the Australian book buying public, and therefore the trade.

The Commonwealth rights funnel would no doubt be weakened as the Australian market became much more challenging for British publishers. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, after the initial shock, things settle within a few years and old rights trading patterns re-emerge, perhaps as strongly as ever.

But this would be an unforced, natural and commercial balance, the best outcome for all players. And the miserable and tiresome debate would finally be over!

Peter Donoughue, August 2008.


From ‘Dingoes in Suburbia: In Defense of the ABA’ by Peter Donoughue, The Australian Bookseller and Publisher, August 2001.
‘Review of Intellectual Property Legislation Under the Competition Principles Agreement’; Final Report of the Intellectual Property and Competition Review Committee, September, 2000.
From ‘Untapped Opportunity, but Significant Hurdles’ by Don Grover, The Australian Bookseller and Publisher, September, 2005.
From ‘Be Careful What You Ask For – You Just Might Get It!’ by Peter Field, The Australian Bookseller and Publisher, November, 2005.
From ‘What the Trade Is Talking About’ by Chris Burgess, The Australian Bookseller and Publisher, August, 2007.
From ‘Writers Throw the Book at Proposed Reforms, by John Elder and Jono Pech, The Age, July 20, 2008.
From ‘No Surrender’ by Garth Nix, The Australian Bookseller and Publisher, August, 2008.
From a letter by Nick Earls to the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, July 8, 2008, posted on the ASA website:
From a letter by Jenny Darling to the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, July 14, 2008, posted on the ASA website:
From ‘Save Their Stories’ by Michael Heyward, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 9-10, 2008.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Costello memoirs

Let's face it...Peter Costello's book is a dud!

MUP printed 50k copies. They will sell barely 20k, possible 25k. That's all.


As soon as Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition - ironically on the very same day The Costello Memoirs was launched - the book's fate was sealed. Instantly Costello became yesterday's man. History.

Such is the fate of many non-fiction titles on politics, business and current affairs. No publisher can ever get the timing exactly right. More often than not you'll be wrong-footed by unfolding events.

But what about the huge success of Mark Latham's book? Well, the zietgeist there was totally different. Labor was in the doldrums; Uninspiring Beazley was back as leader; Howard's poll ratings were good. Things looked depressingly bad for Labor. In this climate Latham's radical and angry polemic was provocative and refreshing.

Of course it sold well. And word of mouth kept it selling for weeks.

How opposite to that is Costello's book. Snooze central, I'm afraid!

ARW's astonishing Espresso adventure

I really fail to appreciate the logic and strategy behind ARW's huge investment in the Espresso POD machine. They intend to roll-out this technology to around 50 of their 200 or so stores across Australia and New Zeala nd.

You have to wonder how much thought went into this. Frankly, while superficially fashionable, this is yesterday's solution to tomorrow's problem.

POD machines in every bookstore - Jason Epstein's vision as articulated in his memoirs of a decade ago - was always a dud of an idea. Investments in printing machines are for printers and possibly publishers, not for barely profitable, main street, high rent paying bookstores. The concept of print on demand is fine, and an everyday reality in the industry now, but it's a specialised business.

Ebook readers are the future - the Kindle, the Iliad, the Sony, and others to come. They'll be a dime a dozen in five or so years, like iPods and mobile phones are now. If you want your book printed buy the paper version or print it yourself.

ARW would be better advised to spend their limited capital on refurbishing their tired-looking stores and - here's a novel idea - buying much more stock of already printed books! That would really be good for business. Doing the basics well will never go out of fashion.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008