Cheaper books? At what cost?

Richard Flanagan gave the closing address at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival and spoke about recent moves to end territorial copyright in Australia which would allow the sale of overseas editions in Australia. It appears that this move is supported by big businesses such as Dymocks, Coles and Woolworths who apparently call themselves the Coalition for Cheaper Books. Flanagan argues that they should more rightfully be called the Coalition for Bigger Business.

IMG_3462I should put my cards on the table:

  • I buy books.
  • I buy new books mostly.
  • I prefer independent stores but I also use chain stores.
  • Price is an important criterion but is not the only criterion.
  • I like to buy books from knowledgeable staff who are prepared to help me if I’m having trouble.
  • I rarely buy online.

As I understand it the current situation is, partly anyhow, that:

Australian publishers have 30 days to publish a domestic version of any book that has been released anywhere in the world. If the book is published within 30 days, all booksellers are obliged to buy the publication from the Australian publisher and cannot import the book from an overseas publisher. (

I must admit that I don’t fully understand how this territorial copyright really plays out in terms of authors, publishers, booksellers and bookbuyers. How can I? With all the vested interests presenting their cases – and often making diametrically opposed statements –  it is hard to separate out the remainder from the classic. So, who do I support? I guess the main question to ask is, what is broken that this proposal is trying to fix? 

The Coalition says this in their submission to the Productivity Commission:

The Coalition supports the removal of these restrictions because an open market for books will lead to lower prices and quicker availability. This benefits consumers.

Ah, how sweet, they care about us, the consumer! And look, they continue with “There is strong evidence that access to books increases literacy”. I will repress my desire to be sarcastic here.

And then we get to the point: “Without parallel import restrictions [the same thing as “territorial copyright” I presume?] the consumer will have greater choice and pay less because it will be in the interests of Australian publishers to serve the consumer better…”

In other words, this appears to be, just as Flanagan said in his speech, a fight for control between booksellers and publishers. The funny thing is that the Australian Booksellers Assocation (presumably not representing the big boys) has changed its position from the one it held in 2001 and now supports the status quo.

I would love to pay less for books – and here I disagree with Flanagan that books cost about the same in the USA as they do here. In my experience they don’t. But, I am also aware that there has been a wonderful renaissance in Australian writing and publishing over the last couple of decades. If there is any risk that changes to these laws will see reduced publication of Australian authors then I am not willing to support these changes. 

So, let’s have an honest analysis of the problem – I’m still not sure what it is though can guess it’s to do with threats, real or imagined, being posed by the electronic and online world – and canvass a range of solutions. Flanagan puts forward a couple in his speech. Let’s not shoot from the hip with a solution that seems to be currently supported by only one part of one sector of the Australian book industry.

Note: See Australians for Australian Books for the anti-Coalition case.

2 thoughts on “Cheaper books? At what cost?

  1. I agree, the whole situaiton is totally confusing. So, who should I trust? My union, I think, they’re the only ones I can assume have the authors’ best interests at heart. To see the position of the Australian Society of Authors, go to:

  2. Sorry, Lisa, I saw this and had a quick look at the ASA site. The whole thing is a bit confusing really but I suppose it’s logical to align oneself a bit with those you believe in the most. I don’t think that’s totally a copout! I understand the Productivity Commission isn’t talking about doing away with the current rules completely. I guess there is the thin end of the wedge concern though isn’t there.

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