Terrifying…

Guest Blogger: Belinda Jeffery – first-time author of Brown Skin Blue, published by University of Qld Press

Belinda Jeffrey, Queensland author

Belinda Jeffrey, Queensland author

TERRIFYING

As a debut author, the thought that the Australian Government might scrap Parallel Importation protection fills me with dread. There’s been quite a bit of response to this issue from prominent authors like Tim Winton, and they’ve quite rightly highlighted many issues, but I want to raise other points. These are things that I feel will directly affect authors like myself, or writers who are still trying to get their manuscripts published.

To get a book published at all is no easy task. Ask any writer trying to crack the market place. It’s likened to winning the lottery.

Sure there are the manuscripts that really might never see the light of day and just don’t meet publishing standards, but there are many, many excellent manuscripts that just have to find the right place, the right publisher, the right editor, the right time. Getting published can be a fine alchemy. If parallel importation is scrapped, then Australian publishers will find it very difficult to compete in the market. The books they publish will have fight for space in bookshops against the same book published overseas by foreign companies. Publishers will take on fewer books and getting published will be harder. How is this good for the cultural industry? It isn’t.

Ok, so let’s suppose you’ve broken into the publishing industry. You’ve got a book published here in Australia. It now has to be sold into international markets – and this is no guarantee. Australian books have to compete with a large international market. So those authors who already have an international name will still have a market – even if their profit margins have reduced – but for an author like me who does not yet (fingers still very crossed here) have international publishing rights, my chances of competing in my own home market are going to be considerably smaller. Publishing houses have to work hard to get their books into bookstores. They have to spend money, invest time and personnel to promote and distribute books. Not all bookstores take on new Australian books. And the smaller the publishing house, the harder it is to see books in the bigger chains like Angus and Robertson Target, Big W, etc. You probably won’t find Brown Skin Blue in those shops.

Now I am both a writer and a reader and I understand the desire to purchase cheaper books – and sometimes I do. But at the moment at least there is a choice. What consumers may not fully appreciate is that if the laws are changed, this will affect the breadth of books they have access to. It won’t be something noticeable. It will change over time.

Brown Skin Blue is very Australian. It does not just have references – like Vegemite (which it actually doesn’t) that an American publisher might change, it is about Australia. The idioms, the landscape, the characters. I have been reviewed by nearly every major paper in the country and, with the exception of a line here and there, they’ve all been favourable (yes I’m thanking the reviewing Gods).

My point is that a book like mine, that’s been well received in Australia, still has to find a market overseas. It is not a popular fiction title, it is not a thriller, it is not romance, it is not Mills & Boon – all of which are more marketable and likely to be found in bigger book selling chains. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for a book like mine, it’s just that the markets for books like mine are threatened by the proposed changes to parallel importation laws. The Australian Booksellers Association does not support lifting of parallel importation restrictions.

The hidden effects of these laws changing, in my opinion, are about what will happen to publishing choices over time. Publishers may not be so ready to take risks on edgier, experimental books. Or, indeed, books they think are sensational but have niche markets. This is not good for anyone. Even Mrs Jones who only reads Mills & Boon does not benefit from a shrinking culture.

I was selling my book at my children’s school fete on the weekend and an elderly lady came over to have a look. She looked at the cover, read the blurb, smiled and tottled over to the second hand Mills & Boom section to grab a handful for $1. Now I think that’s fine. But imagine if it were a different section of the market that was under threat. Imagine if it was category romance books that were threatened by this legislation and a different genre and style of books was going to dominate the market. Then she would not have access and choice to the books she would like.

This is an insidious attack on cultural expression. It may not be a public burning of books, but the effect over time might be the gradual erosion of something important, something valuable, something that should not be lost. We should be spending our time and resources looking at ways to protect and expand the book industry from all angles. Everyone benefits from great literature – even the Big Bookselling chains.

I am so disappointed that in this day an age – when we think we are such an enlightened people – we would even contemplate such an action. The only people thinking this is a good decision are those set to make an immediate profit in the short-term. It would be interesting to ask them what books they read and if they’ve looked at a broader future through the lens of their proposal. The money they may find in their pockets might buy them a shinier new car, or more stores. But it won’t, in the long term, be able to buy back what was lost along the way.

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8 thoughts on “Terrifying…

  1. Actually, I avoid CDs in general ever since they started lying about producing crap that weren’t standard CDs and the whole rootkit thing.

    If you are paying $30, look harder.

    http://www.jbhifionline.com.au/music.htm

    Wolfmother, Grinspoon etc. all new.

    Music industry = whining bunch of multinationals.

    The local (and everywhere) industry has structural problems – the baby boomers that were going to see bands in the 80s since went real estate speculation crazy. So lots of the venues for live acts turned into housing. Or became pokie barns. Or the same now old people complaining that there is noise because they bought a flat near a music venue!

    That has nothing to do with parallel importation. Without it, they’d be worse off.

  2. CD’s aren’t much cheaper? I remember when they were close to $30 each. You aren’t much of a music fan. 🙂

    The music industry is largely to blame for its own reductions – and this is the same everywhere, it has absolutely nothing to do with being Australian.

    They stopped selling singles (or charged ridiculous prices for the tiny handful that they actually did) – sued Napster – overcharged for CDs for years – made people hate them.

    Not a recipe for continued growth.

    • You must be buying the el cheapo, ‘Best Hits from the 70s’, or the ‘Best of Madonna’ type of CDs because the ones I’ve bought lately have been in the $30 range.

      Anyway it’s obvious that those cheaper imports (that you’re referring to) have come down in price because digital downloading and copying … as Mark Seymour from ‘Hunters & Collectors’ says … The reality is that the Australian music industry is in deep trouble. It has halved in size in the past five to seven years and the fall in the price of CDs is directly attributable to a spectacular decline in demand as a result of digital downloading and copying — it has nothing to do with the removal of import regulations.

  3. Hasn’t the Music industry been free of restrictions for years? Why is the Publishing industry such a sacred institution?

    Surely its time for some more innovation, rather than the -“here’s my book, give me a deal?”

    Trust me, I’ve worked for the big retailers. You are a now a unit. How I can I shift thee? Yes, books are special, but the average bookshop employee doesn’t care. They merely want collect their minimum wage.

    It won’t kill the publishing industry, merely finally make them think of how to change an archaic model.

    Fashion/electronics/computers/homewares-all have come up against PI (I’m speaking from a New Zealand point of view), and none have had massive effects.

    Lets let the consumer decide.

    • Dear cleetusnz,
      I urge you to read more information about the effect of PI on the NZ publishing industry – unfortunately, it is not as cut and dried as you think. The NZ Society of Authors and the Book Publishers Assn of NZ sent their own submissions to the Productivity Commission in Australia against the lifting of the Parallel Import Restrictions.
      Here are the points they made:
      * Lifting PIRs has had a detrimental effect in NZ.
      * The consumer has not benefited from lower prices in the shops.
      * Retailers actively increase the selling prices of books above the RRPs.
      * The chains are also limiting the range of titles they offer.
      * A number of large multinational publishers withdrew their distribution infrastructure.
      * Resulting in reduced employment within the industry.
      * Local authors receive reduced royalties or no royalties at all on re-imported overseas editions of their works.
      * Overseas publishers supply remainders (especially children’s books) directly to NZ booksellers when local publishers represent those titles.

      And here in Australia where Restrictions were lifted on CD in 2001, Mark Seymour from the band, Hunters & Collectors has spoke out vehemently against PIs. He says the PIs have almost destroyed the once-vibrant Australian music industry – many Australian bands are finding it much, much harder to get anywhere in our own country. And I know from personal experience the CDs I want to buy aren’t all that much cheaper than before.

      I don’t buy books from Woolworths, Coles, and retail discount shops that treat books as a commodity to be sold. They know nothing about book selling – that’s why it’s important to support independent books sellers who know books, who can recommend books and who care about what Australian books have to offer. That will all disappear if book-sellers are forced to close because of cheap, overseas, and changed editions of books published in the US are allowed into the country.

      You have to ask yourself why neither the US nor the UK allow Parallel Imports – it’s prohibited by law. Yet, you think it’s fine to allow our publishing, printing and distributions industries here to be decimated. My feeling is, if bookloving and buying Australians were given all the facts about the threat of PIs they’d decide on the side of keeping the status quo and protecting the future of real Australian books.

  4. It doesn’t make sense. You’re right, Katswhiskers. Like Belinda, I’m a debut novellist, but I’m with a New York publisher. My book is set overseas. The novels I’ve written that are set here in Australia, are already languishing for want of an Australian publisher. They will probably stay forever in my bottom drawer if PIR is scrapped.
    Maybe when the current crop of government ministers retires from office and we can see which of them get board positions at Dymocks or Big W, it will all make sense at last.

    • Graham, have a closer look at who is on the board of Dymocks now. You will find a NSW former state premier. Dymocks together with Coles and Woolies are behind the push for the lifting of PIRs – they hide behind the name ‘Coalition for Cheaper Books.’ Yeah, more like bigger profit margins for them.

  5. Very well said, Belinda. This is all about loss – loss of choice, loss of stories, loss of culture. It’s OUR loss. The readers, the writers, the Australians – and those from other countries who experience a taste of the REAL Australia through the books that they read – all will be the losers.

    For what?

    Greater market monopoly and greater financial gains for a few dominant Retail Giants.

    It just doesn’t make any sense…

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