THE FO­RUM

NICK EARLS ON FOR­EIGN EDI­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

CHEAP books, that’s what the pro­po­nents of par­al­lel im­ports are promis­ing, and who doesn’t want cheap books? Imag­ine any Dan Brown for $ 12.95. Five vol­umes of James Pat­ter­son’s The Women’s Mur­der Club for a to­tal of $ 15. Tim Win­ton’s new $ 45 hard­back for close to 20 bucks off.

Stop imag­in­ing. We don’t need par­al­lel im­por­ta­tion of books to achieve th­ese prices. Aus­tralian book­sellers have al­ready gone there. Brown’s nov­els were all go­ing for $ 12.95 each at the height of the rush on The Da Vinci Code a cou­ple of years ago, and the other prices are from K mart and Big W this year.

Fans of par­al­lel im­por­ta­tion of books tell us it’ll make books cheaper, but re­tail­ers are get­ting there any­way. Bor­ders, K mart and Big W are grab­bing mar­ket share by buy­ing likely best­sellers in their thou­sands, drag­ging the big­gest dis­count they can out of pub­lish­ers and putting the books on the shelves at tight mar­gins, even at a loss. If your book- buy­ing is all about prices, shop around: there are bar­gains al­ready there. If it’s also about the ex­pe­ri­ence — the brows­ing, the in­formed book­seller who may find some­thing just right for you — you can find that too, though you may pay closer to the rec­om­mended re­tail price for the book.

‘‘ Cheap books’’ is the catchcry of the propar­al­lel- im­ports lobby, while the other side talks of lo­cal edi­tions be­ing white- an­ted by US or Bri­tish over­stocks, with re­duced au­thor roy­al­ties, re­duced re­turns for lo­cal pub­lish­ers and a re­sult­ing dis­in­cen­tive to sign up, edit, pub­lish and pro­mote Aus­tralian books.

But it’s not just about the money or the po­ten­tial harm to Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing. It’s about the books we’d be get­ting, and no one seems to be mak­ing much of that yet.

It’s com­mon for changes, some­times sub­stan­tial changes, to be made be­fore an Aus­tralian book is pub­lished in an ex­port mar­ket, par­tic­u­larly the US. Many Aus­tralian ref­er­ences are lost and id­iomatic lan­guage is al­tered. Th­ese are com­pro­mises we make to be pub­lished in the US and to com­mu­ni­cate specif­i­cally with US read­ers, but it is highly un­likely po­ten­tial pur­chasers here would be made aware of them if the US edi­tions ended up in Aus­tralia. Th­ese books are not the same as lo­cal edi­tions, but they would be sold as if they were.

I’m not sure that peo­ple re­alise how ex­ten­sive the changes can be. With my novel Per­fect Skin, a pho­to­copy of the Aus­tralian edi­tion ar­rived from my New York ed­i­tor with hun­dreds of sticky notes. Work­ing through them took two five- hour phone calls. In the end, I think close to 200 changes were made, be­yond Amer­i­can­is­ing the spell­ing. Uni be­came school, med school or col­lege, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. The Bris­bane sub­urb of St Lu­cia had to go be­cause it might con­fuse Amer­i­can read­ers as it’s also an is­land in the Caribbean ( de­spite be­ing a fiveminute drive from the cen­tral char­ac­ter’s work­place in an ad­ja­cent Bris­bane sub­urb). In­dooroop­illy had to go be­cause, as my ed­i­tor said, ‘‘ We don’t have In­dooroop­illy.’’ She asked if In­dooroop­illy Shop­ping­town could move to West End. I told her if she knew West End, she wouldn’t ask.

Per­son­alised plates be­came van­ity plates. Bi­tu­men be­came as­phalt. Col­lo­qui­alisms had the red pen­cil run through them. The role of pikelets in the US edi­tion was played by a jelly ring. And I think the US ver­sion in­cludes a line about fe­male gym teach­ers, which my ed­i­tor wrote and told me would be very funny there.

It re­placed an en­tirely dif­fer­ent line that, hope, was funny here.

I con­sented to th­ese changes for the North Amer­i­can mar­ket. I hope that book reads well there and maybe the changes have helped. All

I those changes, though, are com­pro­mises I sim­ply wouldn’t have made if I’d had Aus­tralian read­ers in mind.

Set­ting aside the loss of roy­al­ties if it were dumped here at a bar­gain price be­cause the US might have ex­cess stock, and set­ting aside the un­der­min­ing of the lo­cal edi­tion, it’s a dif­fer­ent read from the Aus­tralian edi­tion. For an Aus­tralian reader, it would be full of jar­ring ref­er­ences that would feel un- Aus­tralian ( in the lit­eral, and not overused, sense of the word). There’s hardly a bet­ter way to put some­one off read­ing a book than to do that. If some­thing stands out as in­au­then­tic, it pushes you out of the story and spoils the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Some changes also have po­ten­tial for con­fu­sion; for ex­am­ple, chang­ing ‘‘ when I was at uni’’ to ‘‘ when I was at school’’: they’re sim­ply not in­ter­change­able in Aus­tralia.

I don’t want to read US edi­tions of Aus­tralian books if they’ve gone through such changes. I’d hap­pily pay Aus­tralian RRP to read the real Tim Win­ton, rather than $ 20 less to read some­thing that felt less like Win­ton, even if it had his name on the cover. Any­way, I can al­ready pay close to $ 20 less for the new Win­ton here if I shop around.

And what about Aus­tralian chil­dren’s books? Do we want them com­ing back to us with Amer­i­can spell­ing, and cul­tur­ally Amer­i­can­ised? What’s that go­ing to do for lit­er­acy and for how we see our­selves?

Book ti­tles, too, can change in other mar­kets. My novel World of Chick­ens is called Two to Go in the US, and I’ve heard from sev­eral Aus­tralians who have bought it in the US or on­line only to dis­cover it’s an Amer­i­can­ised ver­sion of a story they’ve al­ready read. A cou­ple of them have given it as a gift to peo­ple who al­ready had World of Chick­ens. Al­low­ing a few thou­sand copies into Aus­tralian book­stores would see this hap­pen­ing a lot more than any of us would like it to.

For th­ese rea­sons, as well as all the oth­ers, I think this is about much more than what we pay for Brown. Who knows where it might end? Do any of us want to save — per­haps — a cou­ple of dol­lars and end up read­ing Opos­sum Magic to our kids? There are rea­sons Aus­tralian au­thors want Aus­tralians to be read­ing their Aus­tralian edi­tions. It’s not just about money, just as buy­ing books isn’t just about price. Nick Earls’s lat­est novel is Joel and Cat Set the Story Straight, which he co- wrote with Re­becca Spar­row.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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