The survival of Australian books written & illustrated by Australians

The Australian Productivity Commission has been asked to review the 1968 copyright act which restricts the parallel importation of books, with a view to ditching this restriction. This would have a severely detrimental effect on the Australian publishing industry – resulting in thousands of poor quality, irrelevant importations being dumped here and a huge drop in the number of Australian books published – particularly those on speciality subjects (kiss goodbye to books on Australian agricultural subjects, apart from those that are self published).

It’s already difficult enough for Australian writers to become published, with most aspiring authors now being forced to go through literary agents rather than approaching publishers directly; and virtual bookselling monopolies via one huge chainstore network, one massive bookshop franchise, and one airport bookselling monopoly that refuses to deal with anyone other than a tiny handful of the largest publishing companies (last time I spoke to the buyer, they had 57 newsagencies/bookshops, most in airports, yet they only bought from 7 suppliers and used a manual stock control system. Bizarre in this day and age, but true. Hence virtually every Australian airport book/newspaper shop features precisely the same, immensely uninspiring stock that has absolutely no specific connection to the particular location it is being sold in. They miss out on a vast amount of profit that would otherwise be made on selling specifically local books, but they save a few bob on administration & filing. This airport monopoly is also something the Federal Government should be looking into, but that’s another subject…)

So instead of our kids reading Australian terms and Australian spellings, we’d be stuck with primarily American material (as if having our televisions tell us to ‘dial 911 in case of emergency’ isn’t enough). And of course Australian books wouldn’t be cheaper – anyone who believes that must believe commercial businesses are actually charities – retail prices for imported and Australian books of similar quality would remain about the same, and middlemen would laugh all the way to the bank (mostly overseas banks, to boot), with their extra profits, thanks to our naieve government.

Four industry groups – the Australian Publishers Association, The Printing Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Literary Agents Association & The Australian Society of Authors, have set up a website called Save Our Books. The website contains some interesting statistics:

– Australian publishing sales are estimated to be between $1.7 billion and $2 billion annually. Exports and rights sales are estimated to be $220 million.

– Australian publishing employs more than 5,000 people

– 60% of books bought in Australia are Australian in origin (I think this percentage would be far higher, if bookchains supported smaller-run specialty books & self published authors, and much wider variety, instead of concentrating on shoving a ‘top 100’ of ‘bestsellers’ down our throats).

The above four companies that are campaigning for the laws to remain as they are now, do have vested interests in doing so, just as the multi-nationals pushing for change are only thinking about their own company profits (for them to suggest that they’re pushing for change because they believe Australian books would & should be cheaper, is atrocious – they aren’t running charitable organisations, and why would overseas companies care what Australians are paying for books anyway; so they should stop insulting our intelligence by pretending they have the best interests of the Australian general public at heart.)

But the bottom line is – it is absolutely essential that Australians have access to as broad a range of books as possible, written by Australian writers and illustrated by Australian illustrators. We all want the best quality Australian books and as wide a range of possible. We want real choice, from as wide a selection as possible. From beautifully illustrated childrens books, that feature Australian wildlife, landscapes, and cityscapes, and use Australian spellings and terms; to autobiographies and biographies featuring ordinary Australians in all walks of life, not just the most well known ‘best seller’ types; Australian non-fiction that is 100% relevant and useful (not requiring currency, measurement, law or jargon conversions by the reader, and relevant to our way of life), and Australian fiction – not just by authors who are already well known, but by a constant stream of first-time authors; and not just the books that will sell tens of thousands, but specialty books that sell in much lower – but even more vitally important – quantities. Australian books with our landscapes and placenames, our history and culture, our colloquialisms and our humour.

I wonder how many great Australian books have already missed out on publication, simply because they couldn’t find a publisher to take it on. Tom Cole famously carted his ‘Hell West & Crooked’ manuscript to publisher after publisher – before finding someone smart enough to take it on – and laugh all the way to the bank, because it became a best-seller reprinted a multitude of times. If Tom had not persisted despite rejection slip after rejection slip, his fabulous book on a unique part of Australian culture would never have been read by anyone else. How many good quality books haven’t been published already, and how many more wouldn’t be published in future, if the publishing industry for a population of just 21 million, isn’t looked after?

If the Federal Government goes ahead and scraps the ban on parallel imports and copyright protection, then they can kiss goodbye to Australian book exports. Wouldn’t the Australian public rather see fabulous Australian books being exported around the world, quality that we can be proud of and that tops up the Federal coffers with overseas cash, rather than cheap rubbish being imported, stuffing up our balance of trade and filling our rubbish tips with pulp for whiteants to snack on?