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.