THE FO­RUM

BOB CARR ON THE CASE FOR CHEAPER BOOKS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Saktor

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