Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why the Booksellers Comprehensively Lost.

When the history of the parallel importation debate is written, as I'm certain it one day will be, what with so many publishing courses and academics sprouting like mushrooms across the country in recent years, there will be a judgement made on precisely why the nation's booksellers, big and small, chain and independent, got this debate so profoundly wrong, ill-judged the political zeitgeist, and so comprehensively lost on every conceivable front.

Even given that the Rudd government gave up and played dead on the issue, which is not stopping the APA from insufferably championing its campaign winning brilliance, the booksellers, both the ABA and Dymocks, misjudged their fundamental strategy and therefore tactics so badly that the sorry saga needs to be recorded by an expert commentator such as myself before the caravan moves relentlessly on and we all get back to business.

1. The campaign run by the authors and publishers was based on a Big Lie (not an intentional one, so it would be more accurately labelled a 'big untruth', but that phrase has no poetry or power so let's stick with lie). The central thesis was that it was all about maintaining territorial copyright in Australia, because without it this great and successful industry would collapse.

2. The ABA and particularly its independent bookseller members swallowed this lie hook, line and sinker. I remember the sheer terror I felt when the booksellers, at various meetings around the country last year when the issue first arose, decided to support this publisher thesis and ditch their previously long-held position in support of a deregulated, open market. There was also a misguided belief that any gains from abolition of the restrictions would go mostly to the hated chains who could flex their purchasing muscle to gain more competitive advantage over the little guys.

3. This blog is littered with references to this 'sublime delusion', much to the chagrin of many of my bookseller friends. But the fact is the ABA's adoption of this posture hamstrung them from day one and neutered them in the unfolding political campaign.

4. The one sad fact of this campaign was that the lie was never nailed. Never ever nailed, except by me, a lone, irrelevant and pretty irritating voice. But imagine what could have been, if the ABA, united with Dymocks, had focused their energies in the media, in Canberra and elsewhere on nailing the lie, the absurdity and illogicality of the publishers' line.

5. Every crazy utterance could have been pounced on, and there were literally hundreds of them through the course of the debate. The madness of the printers, for example. Of all the nonsensical propositions put forward the printers' fantasies were some of the most exquisite. But the ABA never had the enemy in its sights. It never even knew who the enemy was.

6. As for Dymocks, what a mess. Their campaign was built around the premise of 'cheaper books' for western suburbs' punters. But they never nailed the lie, didn't even see it. Thus their campaign had no power or momentum. You can't position yourself as an enemy of culture and win any debate in Canberra. You just can't. Because you make it way too hard for the politicians. If you're demanding they nix a thriving and vital cultural industry you've lost them totally. Dymocks had to nail the lie, but they didn't.

7. The APA ran a superb campaign - focused, passionate, constantly on message, and very simple: preserve what we have or see a vital cultural industry die: It's all about preserving territorial copyright. There's the lie right there. And where are the voices saying it isn't so? Even the Productivity Commission was sucked in. It refused to engage and argue this point. In my memorable phrase it endlessly quoted submissions articulating the lie, but left them on the page 'like stinking turds'. It made itself utterly vulnerable.

8. In the final stages of the campaign the ABA and Dymocks, scenting defeat, came up with a compromise plan which was full of holes and could not possibly get up, as I explained in recent blog posts. You just can't propose something that breaches international treaties on one hand, and is utterly impractical in the real world on the other. This was a real low point.

9. Now the booksellers are lamenting the lost opportunity. They should be celebrating what they campaigned for - continuing protection; the continuance of 'territorial copyright' - but they must know they got it wrong right from the start. They are also promising to continue the fight. Oh please! IT'S OVER!


malcolm neil said...

Far be it for me claim a deeper understanding Peter, but you are factually incorrect on one rather important point.

The ABA has maintained the same position since it's submission to the productivity commission, we did not come up with a compromise plan, that was our position plain and simple.

Can I also reveal that the legal advice from government, both Treasury and Attorney-General's department came back with the possibility of a less than 30 day solution.

The last point will probably surprise you but that was the verbal advice and included all the points you have raised previously.

As for the rest of your argument, I'll let time pass and others comment.
My neutered mind could do with a beer.

Peter Donoughue said...

Thanks Malcolm

I stand corrected on the point about the ABA compromise position. You are right. The ABA kept the same position throughout. It was really Dymocks who adopted the compromise by joining you at the last moment.

I'm surprised about the A-G's toying with the 'less than 30 days' position. It just doesn't gel. Could this be an instance of the public service being 'hollowed out' by years of staff cutbacks, and therefore losing corporate memory. I'm certain the higher-ups like Helen Daniel and long-time copyright authority, now consultant, Chris Cresswell, wouldn't have approved it.