Thursday, May 26, 2016

A 'competing editions' market for Australia?

One of the favourite disaster scenarios imagined by publishers once Australia's parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) are removed from our copyright law is the one where no Australian publisher will ever again be able or even willing to buy exclusive Australian rights to an overseas title for publication here.

The theory is that US and UK publishers will exploit the opportunity to sell into the Australian market themselves and thus will only offer 'non-exclusive' rights. After all Australia will have been rendered an 'open market', a market where competing editions fight it out - the US edition, the Commonwealth edition, the Indian edition, and whatever others are out there.

Henry Rosenbloom, owner of Scribe, and a very experienced and well regarded publisher in Australia, clearly articulates this position in his recent blog post here.

There are two main things wrong with this scenario:

1. It rests on the belief that, absent the PIRs, Australia will no longer a be a territory for rights sale purposes. I've written numerous blog posts and articles and given many speeches, presentations and lectures over the years pointing out how absurd this proposition is. It rests on the assumption that everything that actually makes Australia a territory in the first place will, at the stroke of a pen, disappear - our geographical distance, population size, literacy levels, book trade infrastructure, etc.

2. It exhibits a rather quaint commercial naivete. It imagines that overseas publishers and literary agents will en masse shoot themselves in the foot and start indulging in behaviour that would be strategically silly and seriously unprofitable, not to mention bad for their authors.

It has been true for years that UK publishers in particular have been blindsided by the 'open market' terminology. They reflexively think Australia will become one. Continental Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia - these are open to all editions. Selling exclusive English language rights to a new Jonathan Franzen to a Hong Kong publisher makes no sense, nor would a HK publisher fork out for them, because of easy trade flows across borders in the region. Both importers and foreign exporters can 'free ride' without prohibitive costs. It's standard business for everyone.  

Australia, in contrast, is vastly different. Booksellers rarely 'buy around' because their needs are overwhelmingly satisfied by efficient local publishers and it is way too expensive and risky to airfreight in quantities from abroad to satisfy local demand. Overseas editions are therefore kept out commercially. 

The critical point is: this will be the natural way of things when the PIRs are abolished, and it's simply illogical and naive on every level to think otherwise. 

As I write this the Australian dollar is heading for another few years of historic lows. Our book prices today are therefore situated at the right levels. While they were an average 30-40% too high when the dollar was strong a few years ago - and publishers were too slow to reduce them - that landscape has radically changed. 

That actually means that retaining the PIRs or abolishing them now will have no effect whatsoever on trading patterns either way. 

When the dollar strengthens again though, as it undoubtedly will, it is entirely predictable that too many publishers will again be slow to respond and their prices will remain unjustifiably high. 

That's why we should take this opportunity to abolish these protectionist provisions now.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Australian book industry should be declared 'Demented'.

I would hazard a guess that only a handful of authors, publishers and their association representatives have actually read the Productivity Commission's draft report into Australia's intellectual property laws, or the Australian Law Reform Commission's 2013 report Copyright and the Digital Economy, or the Harper Review of our competition laws - much less any of the detailed and knowledgeable submissions that were lodged by numerous parties during the inquiry processes.

You can tell that by the dated and long-discredited rhetoric that's been continually spewed into the media condemning these highly regarded bodies' thoughtful and well-argued recommendations.

The book industry's arguments have been comprehensively dismissed time and again after careful and rigorous analysis, but the industry never learns and never adjusts. We get the same old, same old statements and arguments as if their demolition never took place.

The APA responded to the PC's draft report with this sort of familiar abuse: 'a radical manifesto'; 'one-sided analysis': 'an agenda for sabotage'.

Copyright Agency joined in: 'one of the greatest dangers to Australian-made content in a generation'; 'a wrecking ball'; 'it would lead to serious job losses throughout Australia's creative community'.

Author Tom Keneally couldn't help himself: '... the very medium through which ideas are disseminated in Australia, the publishing industry... eviscerated'; '... the ecology.. will wither'; 'the coming immolation'.

Author Jackie French pitched in: 'One in four Australian jobs are in the creative industries. This report will... abolish most of them'.

When the industry keeps coughing up this sort of anti-intellectual, vacuous bile, how on earth can it be expected to be taken seriously in the ongoing debate? The PC has called for input to help it frame its final report, due in August. How open could it possibly be to empty-headed abuse just restating delusional propositions that it and similar government inquiries have patiently dissected and rejected time and time again?

It's of course to be expected that industry bodies would voice lowest common denominator opinion. They always do - whatever the industry. Their representatives are paid to be shills.

But what I find profoundly disappointing is when our deeply respected and much loved authors indulge in the same sort of mindlessness. When we need intellectual rigour we get sentimentality. When we need calm and sober reflection on facts and evidence we get reckless, apocalyptic, doom and gloom melodrama.

The author community both in Australia and the US has, from day one, got it all wrong on Google's book scanning project. Time and again they've lost their legal battles over fair use. At every stage their arguments have been found wanting. But they adamantly refuse to learn, to acknowledge, to see sense, to respect the right of the wider public to embrace good public policy.

And most importantly, to comprehend what copyright law is actually all about - establishing the social and economic balances that make it work for everyone.

It's not only disappointing. It's shameful.