BOB CARR ON THE CASE FOR CHEAPER BOOKS
WHY does Australia tell its bookshops they cannot import books to sell at the cheapest price? That is the only question before the Productivity Commission as it opens the sixth inquiry into the subject since 1988 and I hope, at last, the last.
This issue has nagged me for a long time. In 1993 I wrote to the prime minister because our copyright laws then forced Australians to buy British editions of American books. So when I wanted Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of my heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt, I was told I had to wait until an English publisher got around to printing it and putting it in Australian shops, and at a higher price than Americans could.
It matters to me because I grew up in a house without books. Sure, our train-driver Dad and housewife Mum always gave the four Carr youngsters a slew of children’s books at Christmas and birthdays. And Randwick Council invested in a mobile library which, from about the age of 14, I enjoyed looting on a weekly basis. Still, the only adult books in the house were a few Reader’s Digest condensed books and some of my father’s army annuals given to World War II servicemen.
When as a university student I visited middleclass homes I looked at the bookcases with envious awe: volumes lined up, spine next to spine of captured knowledge, stories and wisdom. I instantly came to prefer a wall of books to paintings or antiques.
More brimming bookshelves in more Australian households will lift Australian literacy.
A 1991 study on the literacy of 14 and nineyear-olds in 32 countries found the highest scores in countries offering greater access to books in homes and schools. In 1996, the Australian Bureau of Statistics surveyed aspects of literacy and found the highest achievers had more than 25 books in the home. Only this month an Australian study showed boys read if they see their fathers reading.
Think of your childhood. You are challenged by an adult book. It stretches your vocabulary, your comprehension. You may give up on the first try but return later. Experimenting, you achieve, through trial and error, the discrimination of a reader. You soon recognise quickly this kind of book, that kind of author.
But the present law rations those magic encounters. A new edition of the young adult bestseller Twilight sells for $ 24.99 in Australia but only $ 16.90 in the US and $ 16.52 in Britain. I have converted to Australian dollars for this and following comparisons.
The winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, The White Tiger , sells for $ 32.95 in Australia, $ 21.53 in the US and $ 30.70 in Britain.
Without the present restrictions, a parallel import edition of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird could be sold in Australian bookshops for $ 13.95. But the protected Australian edition sells for $ 21.95. A parallel import edition of Ian McEwan’s Atonement could be sold for $ 13.95, yet the present Australian edition sells for $ 24.95. A parallel import edition of Memoirs of a Geisha could be sold for $ 13.95, whereas the Australian edition sells for $ 23.95.
These best-selling books are unnecessarily more expensive because bookshops cannot buy from overseas if an Australian publisher expresses an interest in publishing it here.
The publishers have engaged lobbyist Hawker Britton to persuade the federal Government to keep this restriction, pushing the argument that this higher price subsidises Australian culture. The argument has been repeated so often, without any supporting statistics, it should have fallen like a dead bough from a wilting tree by now. It reached its most extreme manifestation when a spokeswoman for one Australian publisher told The Weekend Australian on July 26 that it was a shame to submit the books of Tim Winton to the base scrutiny of price.
A shame, except if you’re a working-class household where price — even at the margin, especially at the margin — means everything. And to choose Winton is to lose the argument. Australians will always read the writer of Cloudstreet . He requires no subsidy in the form of artificially higher prices. When lower prices result in more sales, as they assuredly will, he will receive more in royalties.
Two recent developments should firm up the Rudd Government’s consideration of this reform.
First, despite book publishers fussing about their protected market, Australians are increasingly buying books online. Australian consumers can buy cheaply from overseas; for example, they can buy P. D. James’s Private Patient for $ 23.36 from Amazon or $ 28.86 from www. comparebookprices. co. uk, but their bookshops cannot do other than sell the same book for $ 32.95.
And the internet underpins a growing $ 100 million a year trade that produces no flow of GST to the federal Government.
Second, there is the experience of New Zealand, which in 1998 opened its book market. In 2004 a report from Network Economics into how this affected NZ’s creative industries concluded that there was no evidence that the removal of the restriction on parallel import had had an adverse effect on investment in the book industry. And a report last year showed New Zealanders enjoyed domestic book releases within one to three weeks of Britain, instead of three to six months later.
Export of books from NZ rose substantially. Of the 3600 domestic titles published in 2002, nearly 2100 were exported, especially educational books. The income of NZ publishers increased substantially. And the publishing and promotion of NZ titles has not been affected.
Last year, of the 115,000 books released to the Australian market, about 12,000 were Australian-published works. On the NZ experience, this number would not diminish when our market is opened.
All expect reform to happen, the Productivity Commission to say, ‘‘ Open the market’’, and the cabinet to agree. The internet sale of books and the NZ experience blow the last bits of resistance across the landscape.
Lower prices mean more sales. More sales mean more books in Australian homes. Pick an argument with that. Bob Carr, a former premier of NSW, is a board member of the Dymocks group. His book, My Reading Life, was published this year.