Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Old Idea But Still a Bad One

This press release was issued yesterday by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr.


The Rudd Labor Government is establishing a new Book Industry Strategy Group to help Australia’s $1.5 billion book industry meet the challenges of increased online book sales and grasp the opportunities presented by the emerging ebook market.

The strategy group will bring together representatives from across the industry to map out the way forward for this important sector. It will develop strategies to address the key issues of supply chain integration and developing viable business models for the digital age.

Announcing the strategy group at the Digital Revolution: Publishing in the 21st Century symposium in Melbourne today, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said it will focus on collaboration, transformation and future sustainability.

“The written word may be almost as old as human civilisation itself but this doesn’t mean we can ignore the very real and very rapid advances being made in digital publishing technologies,” Senator Carr said.

“We are moving into an environment in which the printed book is just one platform among many.

“We have a proud and distinguished literary history in this country thanks to the work of generations of talented authors, publishers and local book manufacturers.

“Australia has the only dynamic and growing independent book selling sector in the English-speaking world.

“I want to keep it that way. We must be prepared to seize the opportunities the digital revolution is offering.

“I am giving this strategy group a very clear mandate – I don’t just want a report, I want a way forward.

“I want to see book printers, publishers, distributors and retailers together in one room collaborating with each other and taking responsibility for transforming their industry in a way that ensures its future sustainability.

“The group will be able to tap into our existing $50 million a year Enterprise Connect initiative and a broad range of other programs currently in place to assist business transformation.”

The Book Industry Strategy Group will operate according to precise terms of reference and is expected to report back within twelve months.

Having shamefully walked away late last year from the prime dynamic of industry change, progress and development - competition - the Rudd government now reverts to the oldest of bad ideas - 'industry policy', in order to offer some semblance of actual government engagement with the book industry.

Kim Carr, better known in economically liberal circles as Kim Il Carr, representing in government the remnants of Victoria's once thriving manufacturing base - unionised, organised, centralised - has long been a fevered supporter of the once fashionable but now widely discredited concept of Industry Policy, a complex framework of grants, subsidies, offsets, tax breaks, quotas, tariffs, incentives, marketing boards, mandates, etc, that were meant, when all boiled down, to provide a good level of protection to industries from the chill winds of global competition and technological disruption. Give them a helping hand, so to speak. Ensure, in today's parlance, their 'future sustainability'.  

Look at the press release, interesting on a number of levels. Firstly and superficially Minister, the book industry is $2.5 billion in size, not $1.5 billion.

Secondly, why aren't the nation's authors part of this collaborative 'all together in one room' process? All other players are there: printers, publishers, distributors and retailers. And come to think of it....why not..er.. READERS?

Thirdly, Carr lauds the fact that 'Australia has the only dynamic and growing independent book selling sector in the English-speaking world', and he 'wants to keep it that way'. But he seems blithely unaware that, 'seizing the opportunities the digital revolution is offering' may very well mean a wholesale undermining of the retail bookseller. His protectionist instinct is flying in the face of reality. You can't skewer things so two opposing forces suddenly cease to oppose. The dynamics of the free market will work these things out, not noble sentiments or 'strategy groups' or any officially sanctioned 'collaborations'.

It's not hard to guess what this ominous, Roald Dahl-esque BISG will recommend. It will simply pool all the trade's current obsessions and delusions which have been articulated to the point of exquisite tedium over the last awful year. After a breathless appreciation of the government's wisdom in retaining the parallel importation restrictions, the central recommendation will undoubtedly be to impose the GST on Amazon. Then to empower the Australia Council with more money for literature and 'industry development'. Then all sorts of 'facilitation' stuff that bureaucrats love. All very deep.

Industry programs and proposals going back decades will be dusted off, given a fresh coat of paint and enthusiastically re-presented. To a government that staged a 2020 summit which elicited heaps of recommendations that have never since seen the light of day. (I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the printers re-propose the book bounty! This is Carr we're talking about...)

I'm too cynical, no doubt. But rest assured, I do know what I'm talking about.

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