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!


Anonymous said...

Knox has an article on this in today's SMH:

Peter Donoughue said...

This is a pretty ordinary piece from Malcolm, certainly not up to his usual standard.

It recycles the usual refrain, eg, that the 30/90 rule establishes Australia as a copyright territory; that the introduction of the GST caused book sales to plummet, etc.

Both these statements are wrong. Australia is a natural territory (as are the US and the UK) where exclusive rights agreements are able to be entered into by publishers because they make commercial sense; and the so-called GST slump was a statistical aberration, clearly seen the following year when the 19% drop was reversed.

Knox also retails the essential illogicality of the groupthinkers: 'Thousands of Australians in printing, distribution, retailing and publishing could be put out of work so that consumers can pay $30 rather than $32 - which is not guaranteed anyway.' If prices wouldn't come down much, if at all, then what would propel the industry collapse? Massive importation without a rationale?

This is standard chicken little stuff, and quite pathetic.

Anonymous said...

It might not establish a copyright territory, but surely the 30/90 rule at least strengthens author rights?

And as for the price drop from $32 to $30, wouldn't the impact on the Australian publishing industry (re jobs etc) depend on whether those books sold were imported or not?

Peter Donoughue said...

Re 'strengthening author's rights': On the face of it you could argue this, but I contend it's an illusion. If we privilege authors at the expense of all other players in the industry, and especially readers, then over the longer term authors will lose out.

Re imports, I presume you are referring to the possibility that Australian originals would be killed off by imported remainders of their foreign editions.

I address this possibility in my original blog piece on parallel importation posted in October.

Basically my view is it would happen hardly any more frequently than it happens now, which is rarely. The mainstream booksellers wouldn't do it as a matter of policy, and if they did they would expose themselves to a very public 'naming and shaming' response from the local author/publisher community; and it mostly only happens now because these editions are caught up in a remainder deal job lot.