NICK EARLS ON FOREIGN EDITIONS
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.