Australian authors on Clown Street over book prices
Tim Winton is the master of fiction. But his latest tirades prove he doesn’t understand when reality kicks in.
Last week Winton won a fourth Miles Franklin Award for his book, Breath. And to celebrate he used his moment in the spotlight to attack the Productivity Commission’s review to scrap protection for Australia’s book industry.
Parallel import restrictions require books sold in Australia to be produced in Australia. It’s an idea so bad the New South Wales government could have thought of it.
The PC is releasing its final report at the end of the month. The draft recommended partial-liberalisation, because exposing Australia’s book industry to competition is a bridge-too-far.
And even that recommendation has caused alarm bells. Fellow author, Peter Carey, has attacked liberalisation as a form of “cultural self-suicide”. And Winton has previously slammed liberalisation arguing it will result in “great bitterness” amongst Australia’s authors.
Authors have been whipped into a lather by the publishing and printing industries, which want to ensure books are more expensive than they need to be.
The publishers and printers argue that import restrictions stop competition that would crush the industry, while guaranteeing jobs stay in Australia; and the minimal extra cost is added to the price tag of a paperback that can be significantly cheaper overseas.
And in arguing their case, they’ve convinced authors that liberalisation will also diminish their copyright. They clearly don’t understand the nature of copyright.
In a book there are two property rights. The first is the physical book – the paper, binding and printing ink. The second is the copyright, which is basically the idea expressed through the arrangement of the letters printed on the pages.
Without the copyrighted text a book is just something to jot notes onto.
Import restrictions exist to protect the physical book, not the copyright. So long as the book is produced in a country where Australian copyright is respected and royalties are paid, Winton’s copyright is safe. And if it doesn’t, the book’s a fake in the Australian market and can be pulped.
Similarly the authors claim the industry will stop seeding new talent with cross-subsidies of the profits from existing authors.
But the evidence doesn’t support them. In my recent study, Unbinding Book Barriers, industry data is analysed to assess the impact of removing import restrictions in 1998 on copyrighted sound recordings, read CDs.
The results are clear. The total funds distributed are up. The total number of recipients of royalties is up. And the wholesale price of CD albums is down by 32 per cent.
Winton’s real beef is that authors get paid diddly-squat. And he’s right. But most earn diddly-squat because they write things people don’t want to read.
And Winton knows it. In his submission to the Productivity Commission’s review he says he has “enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success”. He does so because he produces fiction that people want. Not because of any import restrictions. They just go toward beefing-up the salaries of publishing executives.
But the greatest irony of Winton’s criticism is that in his own submission he uses evidence of the failings of import restrictions to justify their perpetuity. Winton argues that when he first started being published Aussie authors could be “edited and published in Australia and forego a British readership entirely, or to have work originate from London and have Australian(s buy) imports”.
He’s right. That was because of market segmentation through import restrictions that were partially liberalised in the early 1990s.
Australian authors, publishers and printing companies will do well when they adhere to the simple principle of ‘supplying’ what consumers ‘demand’ – and that’s an interesting read.
In the meantime authors seem happy to enjoy protection that author, Di Bates, hails as essential to stop Australia being “flooded with cheaper book(s)”. Because the income streams of our less-talented of authors is a higher national priority than making tools for education more affordable.
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