Saturday, May 30, 2009

Richard Flanagan's nutty contribution

As regular readers of this blog would know I have been particularly critical of our well-known Australian authors for their less than intelligent contributions to the parallel importation debate currently exercising the Australian book industry.

In January I awarded the first prize for awfulness to Peter Carey, and predicted that, having descended to such a farcical rock bottom level, surely the contest among authors to write the most appalling drivel was over.

How wrong could I have been!

Richard Flanagan gave the closing address at the recent Sydney Writers festival, and you can get it here.

Apparently Flanagan received a standing ovation for this speech. Jason Steger in The Age described it as 'a beautifully crafted and blistering attack on the proposal to allow parallel importation of books into Australia'.

In my experience (wide, as it happens) it doesn't take much to get a rousing cheer from audiences at writers festivals. Just push the predictable, soggy left buttons and you're there. 'Smash economic rationalism' - cheer!; 'Smash corporate greed' - cheer!; 'Smash John Howard' - cheer! (that always got a big one); 'Smash the banks' - cheer!; 'smash the free market' - cheer!.

Flanagan got all these usual suspects in there, and added some more: 'Smash book chains', 'smash Bob Carr', 'Smash the GST', 'Smash the Woolies/Coles duopoly'. Cheers all round.

As if this wasn't enough, he added spice to the brew with the following visions of apocalypse, guaranteed to get the crowd downright salivating: 'the dying of the Murray or the Great Barrier Reef', 'a theology of the abacus rather than the cross', 'economic malaise and environmental despair', 'a climate system stressed and unstable', 'more people live in poverty than at any time in human history', 'untold damage to Australian culture', 'a remarkable industry crippled'.

The audience is now at fever pitch. This guy is not a top story teller for nothing. They're eating out of his hand, and then he closes with these beautiful words and phrases, far better than anything your average tub thumping evangelist could ever do:

'But as in Tyndale's time, we will need to stand up for such things to happen, for the ongoing right to hear our stories in our voice. And in time I hope we in Australia my even find our own words as remarkable as those words 'beautiful' and 'atonement', new words that not just describe but create a new country and people coming into being, an idea for our language in the shape of these words and the worlds that come forth from them, word and worlds it remains our shared possibility to make and our future glory to know'.

The problem is that the whole argument is rotten to the core. It is based on a lie, namely that the proposed reforms to our importation regulations would destroy the reality of territorial copyright in this country and thus destroy the industry. If this is wrong, which it is, then Flanagan's fine words are no more than empty, emotional rhetoric.

I thought Flanagan's latest novel, Wanting, one of the best novels of 2008, and I said so in this blog (Dec 16). What characterises this novelist's art is his sure grasp of the details of past lives and societies, imaginatively brought to vivid life.

But absolutely none of this propensity for careful research is evident in this SWF speech. He simply accepts at face value the prevailing but wrong-headed notion that ending the parallel importation restrictions would end the possibility of territorial copyright for Australian authors and publishers. Somehow this demon got out of the bag and is scaring everyone witless. But the demon is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. Even the simplest examination of the evidence and the real issues would uncover that. Combine it with a bit of hard thinking, and the demon vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Flanagan's speech ends up a hubristic, pompous, insufferably smug, self-important tirade against a fictitious enemy.

It is also an elitist mish-mash of the most tiresome sort, setting high minded culture against the vulgarity of commerce. The Coalition for Cheaper Books is 'predictably deceitful', 'compelled to so shamefully manipulate its customers', only interested in making 'big business richer'.

He also recycled the nutty, protectionist propositions he first put forward a decade ago: a 'national book commission'; 'a raft of measures, programmes, laws and institutions all with the purpose of supporting Australian writers telling Australian stories'. Few people took them seriously then, and few will now. But it's great fodder for writers festivals. Cheers all round.

I cringe when academics presume to be familiar with the intricacies of the publishing industry - not the best of them, mind - and I have likewise cringed during this debate when authors have presumed to be experts on all aspects of the publishing industry, including its complicated supply logistics. But I must reserve special distaste for Flanagan's commercially naive and simplistic take on corporate realities generally and its experienced players like Alan Fels. His cynicism is unearned, bought on the cheap.

The standing ovation, therefore, was for a weak and emotional rant, nothing more than bluster and wind, supremely unworthy of one of Australia's greatest authors.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism

Digital Barbarism, A Writer's Manifesto is a new book by American novelist Mark Helprin, that exuberantly and passionately defends the notion of copyright against the 'new barbarians' of the digital age.

The book arose from the extraordinarily negative reaction he received from his 2007 op-ed piece in the New York Times which proposed an extension of the term of copyright beyond the current 70 years after the death of the author. Within a week the article had received 750,000 angry comments. He was shocked by the 'breathtaking sense of entitlement' demonstrated by the commenters, and 'appalled by the breadth, speed, and illogic of their responses'.

Helprin writes beautifully and angrily, like a poet on heat. I found myself re-reading paragraphs over and over, savouring the rhythm and balance of the phrasing, and the frequently electric similes and metaphors.

Here's a few examples:

'The saving graces and the fragile institutions of humanity depend upon our humanity itself , which in turn depends absolutely on the discipline or rejection of certain appetites. We have many a resolution that separates us from the other animals, many a custom, practice, tradition, and taboo, and if we do away with these in the pursuit of power, the worship of reason, or the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes'. (p.16)

'The entries in the bloggy-type wikis are often so quick, careless, and primitive that they are analogous to spitting on the street. Their authors write the way Popeye speaks, though with less polish. This is because there is no investment, risk, or accountability, and thus no matching labor or probity.' (p. 65).

'It would be one thing if such a [digital] revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels, but it doesn't. It produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world won't end; women who have lizard tatoos winding from the navel to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age, that speaks in North American Chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question at the end?' (p.57).

That last quote, however, is telling. Helprin writes from the top of the mountain, distant from the realities and dynamics and sheer ordinariness of contemporary society. There is a strong whiff of elitism, and a palpable disdain for the cut-and-thrust of young lives lived in our technology-infused culture.

He has nothing to say, for instance, about the power of publishing and music conglomerates, and their copyright wars against innocent, innocuous and quite reasonable consumption. He vigorously defends their rights as owners, but stops well short of critiquing their frequently appalling behaviour.

Having no sympathy for the young or their technologies, Helprin's arguments in the end descend to eccentricity and quaintness, the mad rantings of an old notable whose comfortable world is long gone.

This is a pity, as the book is stimulating, immensely literate, highly enjoyable and well worth reading. One thing is for sure though: anybody under 30 won't touch it with a barge pole!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Melbourne: Cosmopolitan and Cosy; Big and Small.

I've lived in Tokyo for 2 years, Rome for 4 years, Sydney for 10 years, Brisbane for 26 years and Melbourne for only 8 months.

Of all these humming, throbbing metropolises (don't laugh about Brisbane) Melbourne is starting to characterise itself in my mind as a rather extraordinary mixture of rich sophistication and rank provincialism. Australia's most European city has an underside. Its denizens seek out the comfort and warmth of a small town community, and do their level best to ring fence it from the unwelcome intrusions of a vulgar modernism.

Victoria has always been the manufacturing heartland of Australia, grown fat over most of the 20th century from government policies of economic protection. Close industry, government, political and media relationships have fostered a culture of collaboration and mutual support, and cemented networks of influence, power and status. The Melbourne Club, the Atheneum Club and other exclusive bastions of privilege still hold preeminent places in the social architecture of Melbourne, unlike in any other Australian city.

There is a palpable conformism in Melbourne. You see and experience it everywhere. There is one football code, and everyone follows it. Everybody eats brunch on weekends, which means breakfast is available all day and it's not really the thing to order lunch at 12.00 (you want what? at 12.00?). Women all wear black all the time, summer and winter (well, mostly, and anyway, I quite like that. Melbourne women are uniformly beautiful, honest!).

If they hold a marathon or charity run or bike ride, which they do every other weekend seemingly, half the bloody population gets involved and half the city streets are closed!

Attendances at outdoor events are enormous and legendary. Melburnians love being outdoors and love doing it together. Any old cafe on a windswept street will have outdoor tables and chairs, choc-a-bloc full of young and old. It could be freezing, with a ball-tearing southerly blowing in from the Antarctic and reversing all notions of adverse climate change - but there are our Melburnians, together again!

They huddle, that's what they do!

The Age had an article on the weekend about a group of people of influence in Melbourne wishing to start a new...wait for Intellectuals, corporates, sporting administrators, politicians, celebrities - all coming together. A provincial clubbiness is part of the way of life. We'll be members, we'll be insiders, we'll all think and do much the same thing. Can you imagine such an event in Sydney or Brisbane? The robust cry would be - join the bloody RSL or RAC clubs, for god's sake! Get over it! We know the Melbourne and Atheneum clubs are prehistoric in their anti Semitic and anti women attitudes, but starting a new club? Where does that impulse come from?

In my own industry, publishing, Melbourne-based publishers and authors have provided the intellectual leadership (I use 'intellectual' and 'leadership' loosely) to the campaign against the possible reform of the importation provisions governing the book industry. The champions of reform, Don Grover, CEO of Dymocks, and me, are from Sydney and Brisbane respectively. This is interesting. Is there anything to it? Yes, I think there definitely is.

Still, small communities are generally full of nice and homey people. Melburnians are definitely nice. They are warm, relaxed, unpretentious and friendly. Perhaps, ironically, the most traditionally Australian of any of our cities in that sense. Nonconformists can be humoured and safely ignored.

Madness from Jason Steger of The Age

The literary editor of Melbourne's The Age has today tossed aside his even handedness and come out swinging against the Productivity Commission's review of Australia's parallel importation restrictions:

This is my calm and temperate (for me) reply, which hopefully will be published tomorrow:

Dear Editor

It's a pity that Jason Steger has swallowed hook, line and sinker all the illogical and misinformed arguments of publishers and authors against introducing a greater level of competition into the Australian book industry.

The reforms will inhibit overpricing and underservicing in the local market, and plenty of that happens now. This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the retention of territorial copyright, much less copyright in general, as Jason blithely maintains.

Dymocks' propositions are sound and sensible, and will contribute to a more dynamic and healthier industry. Hardly 'madness', Jason.

Peter Donoughue
Retired Managing Director of publisher John Wiley.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How the Productivity Commission Could Usefully Spend its Additional Time

As I've repeatedly pointing out on this blog, this whole parallel importation issue is about...wait for it...importation, and under what conditions it takes place, and should be allowed to take place. It is not about territorial copyright. Let's repeat that: IT'S NOT ABOUT TERRITORIAL COPYRIGHT! (I so wish I had a button I could hand out!)

Therefore we can comprehensively ignore all but about 10 of the 552 submissions received by the Commission, including all the publishers' and all the authors'. These were universally off the point.

Easily the best submission, apart from my own of course, was Dymock's. It actually focused on the real issue and had some interesting things to say. Since Dymocks is currently about as popular in the trade as the Taliban, I happily rise to its defence.

Underpinning the logic of those who think territorial copyright would cease to exist is the presumption that booksellers would widely and at every opportunity import direct from overseas and bypass the local supplier.

Here's what Dymocks has to say about that:

'The volume of books brought in under the new arrangements direct by
booksellers may increase in the short term but over the long term will be
roughly consistent with what it is today. It is likely booksellers will
continue to buy the majority of their stock from local publishers and
distributors if their prices, service and stockholding is competitive. It is
simply easier to do so. As publishers adapt to the new conditions they will
be competitive and will ensure they continue to hold the market shares
they have today.

As has been the case in New Zealand, individual publishers will offer lower supply prices and strong marketing support to retailers in return for exclusive supply. Lower prices on international titles will enable all booksellers to be better able to compete with international online sellers such as Amazon. Independent booksellers particularly will have the opportunity to differentiate their stockholdings with more flexibility on international purchases therefore offering a wider range to customers.

Multinational Publishers and Distributors will be forced to re-evaluate the way they do business in this market. As was the case in New Zealand, it will be likely to lead to improved customer service, more timely publishing of new books and better stockholding, knowing that the bookseller has alternatives if they do not.

International publishers will be less able to double dip on profits in getting titles to the market and will reduce their prices. Again, as has been the case in New Zealand, although it has been threatened, none will reduce their operation size, promotion of international or domestic titles, or commitment to local publishing. Most, if not all, will continue to perform profitably'.

Since this is the central issue you would think that the follow up submissions would have addressed it. Wrong. Not one. Not even the teeniest of references!

Therefore my advice to the Commission would be to survey the booksellers and ask them the following questions:

1. If you import now, why do you do it, and in what volume?
2. If the PIRs were abolished, how would your importing behaviour change?
3. What trading terms do you get from the overseas wholesalers (discount, freight, returns, etc)?
4. How do you arrive at an Australian retail price for the import? What factors do you take into account? Would this price be normally lower than that of the local edition? How much lower?
5. What are the problems with importing (eg. foreign exchange exposure, inventory management, etc)?
6. What do you think the local supplier could do to effectively compete?

Then the Commission should conduct follow-up interviews with a dozen or so major booksellers - chains, department stores, independents - to tease out any nuances that may not have emerged from the written survey.

The information obtained from this exercise would be the most valuable contribution to the industry that would have been undertaken for many years.

The ABA should have done this in any case. This should have been the guts of their submission. Regrettably they failed dismally to offer the Commission anything of substance that would have informed its deliberations. This is why the Commission now has to do it itself.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Dymocks' observations, quoted above, will be borne out.

Hence, problem solved. Open market...bring it on! Territorial change!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Climate all fairness!

My last post celebrated climate change sceptic Ian Plimer's Heaven+Earth, so in all fairness I decided I should read a highly regarded view from the other side - the 'mainstream' view, if you like, so I could get an authoritative perspective that might put me right. Barrie Pittock was a lead author of the UN's IPCC reports. He is an Australian scientist who has been closely involved in the science of climate change for most of his long career with the CSIRO.

His recently published book is Climate Change: The Science, Impacts and Solutions. It's a very well written and lucid exposition of the accepted science and challenge of global warming.

The problem for me is that it raises more questions than it answers. It doesn't even try to prove the case that higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are causing the higher temperatures we've experienced throughout the 20th century. It simply asks you to accept that as fact. Plimer states categorically that higher levels of CO2 follow temperature increases, not the reverse. Most of the CO2 increase is natural, not man-made.

Look at these contrasting quotes:

Pittock: 'Scientists believe the rapid warming in the last several decades is due mostly to human-induced changes to the atmosphere, on top of some natural variations.' (p. 7)

Plimer: 'The last thirty years of weather are not in accord with what greenhouse models predict and can be far better explained by natural processes, such as solar variability'. (p. 392)

Pittock: 'Arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than projected in the IPCC report, and reached a startlingly low minimum extent in September 2007. Moreover, permafrost is melting, floating ice shelves have rapidly disintegrated by processes not previously considered, forests are burning more frequently, droughts in mid-latitudes are getting worse, and so it goes. All this leads to the possibility of apocalyptic outcomes, with associated gloom and doom: multi-metre sea-level rise displacing millions of people, regional water shortages and mass starvation, conflict and economic disaster' (p. xiv).

Plimer: 'There is one constant: there is no shortage of self-styled climate experts willing to make diabolical predictions and to cast shadows of doom. Numerous scientific papers contradict the IPCC predictions of increased extreme weather, floods and droughts due to human-induced global warming. All of these scientific studies are ignored by the IPCC' (p. 483)... The slightest change in Nature is viewed as a message that we humans are changing the climate, that this is evil and that we must rid the world of this evil. To many, it is incomprehensible that Nature can change the planet or that humans are an insignificant short-lived recent terrestrial vertebrate living on a planet where natural forces are many orders of magnitude greater than any human force (p. 298).

Pittock: 'The truth is that in the reports by the...IPCC we have the most thoroughly peer-reviewed and carefully written series of reports summarising the science of a major issue that have ever been published' (p. 240).

Plimer: 'After reading a history of the 'hockey stick' no one could ever again trust the IPCC or the scientists and environmental extremists who author the climate assessments. The IPCC has encouraged a collapse of rigour, objectivity and honesty that were once the hallmarks of the scientific community' (p. 98)

I could go on and on with this stuff, but you get the point.

It's a vicious, no holds barred squabble. But when so much is at stake you can understand why.