Book debate is absurd when we’re buying them overseas
Everyone in Australia knows that books cost a whole lot more than they should.
The absurdity in the debate about whether to make books cheaper is that politicians who will make the final decision – some of whom are beating their chests about our cultural heritage – are voting with their mice and buying books online from cheaper online retailers overseas.
Our website The Punch is surveying the nation’s MPs about their media consumption, including the use of new media, the type of technology they use, and how they buy movies, music and books.
Tellingly, around half of the MPs who have responded so far have told us that they have used sites such as Amazon to buy books.
I don’t blame the politicians for doing it. Most of us do.
But it is a bit rich for members of the Rudd Government to position themselves as defenders of local writers and plucky Aussie publishers when the realities of life in the digital world show the medieval protection racket over book prices is an unenforceable farce anyway.
All consumers need to know is that book prices in Australia are consistently around 10 per cent higher than in the UK and as much as 30 per cent higher than in the US because the parallel importation restrictions determine how our bookshops source their books.
By law, bookshops must buy their stock from local Australian publishers (most of them foreign-owned anyway) unless after 30 days the local publisher shows no interest in publishing the title.
The Productivity Commission is advocating that the laws be scrapped so that bookshops can get their books from the cheapest source, which may well be overseas.
One of the fears is local printing jobs – and it’s here where the bigger retail chains which want the import restrictions scrapped have a human story to deal with, as any loss of printing jobs would be a devastating result.
But these jobs are likely to be protected by the fact that it’s cheaper and quicker for retailers to source locally printed books – and, if anything, it’s the loss of Australian retail jobs as Aussies buy books from ovsreas websites that’s the more urgent concern.
And the culture argument put by authors – and most of all by the publishers, who wield enormous control over the writers and smaller bookstores – is sentimental rubbish which ignores the benefits of freeing up the market.
If books are cheaper people will buy more books.
Music fans will recall the time not long ago when it had been decreed from on high that every compact disc, new or old, should cost exactly $30.
When the Howard Government relaxed the parallel importation restrictions governing the sale of music in Australia, the local music industry – at the behest of the all-powerful record companies – predicted our cultural world was about to come to a hideous end.
They warned that discounted top 40 music and cheaper back catalogue records would kill local bands. The opposite has happened. The Australian music scene is flourishing as the ARIAs demonstrate every year.
And the downturn in compact disc sales hasn’t been fuelled by cheaper CDs – if anything, the cheapness of CDs has stemmed the drift to sites such as iTunes.
And the rise of iTunes, as with the rise of sites such as Amazon which even our overtly protectionist MPs seem to secretly enjoy, showed that the former restrictions governing music sales made no sense in 20th century. Just as the current book laws which make it harder for people to access stories, opinions and ideas make no sense in the 21st.
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