Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Productivity Commission - part XXVI

It feels like part XXVI, even though I haven't made that many posts on the subject.

I believe there is some rallying of the pro-Productivity Commission troops going on. 'Cheaper books' is the cry. Yawn. YAWN. Since when did a public company give cheaper anything? Since when did you all start believing that Coles, Woolworths and Dymocks are going to do something that benefits their customers? How are those petrol prices working for ya? How's your toilet paper? How's your 'home brand' product range - about the same price as everything else, right? That's how they roll.

And since when have we forgotten that tried-and-true chestnut, that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Well, folks, those so-called cheaper books are the free lunch. Which means there's a price somewhere ... oh, wait, here it is: you can have cheaper books, sure, but just don't expect them to be Australian. Don't expect to get your Donna Hay cookbook or your Michael Clarke Captain's Diary or your Lote Tuqiri tell-all, because there won't be anyone around to produce them. Why not? Nope, not because publishers won't exist - because writers won't.

There is bugger-all money for writers as it is; if retailers like Dymocks pound the publishers for more and more discounts - they already pay less than half the recommended retail price for a book, which means that anything they charge above the discount is money straight to them - then the publishers have to squeeze it at the other end. The other end is the writer. If Dymocks will only pay $5 for a book that used to cost them $15, how much money do you think there is for the writer after the publisher has paid for production, distribution, sales, marketing and publicity?

Of course, I've heard that writers are all members of an 'elite' - thus, they must all be trustafarians who don't need the money. Yeah, right. The writers I know come from all sorts of backgrounds and live all sorts of lives. Some were cops; some were actors; some were journos; some work in bookshops. Most of them don't have anything approaching a Masters degree. Most of them work bloody hard for a living and then do their writing at 3 a.m. with a crying child, or late at night after a shift, or they sneak it into a lunch hour. They're not elite in anything other than talent. And since when did having talent make someone 'elite'? It just makes them talented.

So let's turn to those other so-called 'elites': people who work in publishing. Hmmm, let me see ... public high school, public high school, private school on a scholarship, public high school. I personally started working the day after I finished my HSC and kept working throughout university. Guess I wasn't elite enough to get by without the money. Maybe I should leave the industry. Except you know what I spent a lot of my money on back then? Books. I bought books because I couldn't breathe without them. I bought books because they were my whole world. They fired my imagination and made me laugh and cry and dream.

Writers wrote those books. It sounds facile to say it, but let's go over it again: writers wrote those books. Without writers, there are no books. There are no stories. So how dare anyone - ANYONE - imply that they are not worth every cent they are paid, and more. How dare anyone say that they should be paid less. How dare anyone - let alone the CEO of Dymocks, who makes his money off the products of writers - call Australian writers incompetent. I'd like to see him write a book. But, no, he can't - he's not elite enough. He's just the CEO.

There's a lot of misinformation going on in this debate, and it's centred on this mantra: 'cheaper books'. Australian books are not expensive compared to books in the rest of the world. And anyone crowing about the cost of books overseas and the price they'd fetch here under this new world order has failed to factor in the enormous cost of actually getting those books here. Who do you think is going to pay for that? Do you imagine that Dymocks will absorb the cost of freight so they can bring their customers cheaper books? If so, let me resurrect a phrase from the 1980s: that, my friends, is Voodoo Economics.

The Coalition for Cheaper Books has also managed to divert attention away from another truth about writers. agents and publishers: we are all book buyers too. But we are 'super-user' book buyers. We understand the economics behind the price of a book. Don't you think that, as folks with a heightened interest in buying books, we'd be the first to support the idea of 'cheaper books' if we actually believed they weren't as cheap as they could be? The Coalition members have not seen costings for books; I have. I can assure you that the profit margins aren't big. I can also assure you that most books never earn out their advance. Publishers take the risk that they won't. They take that risk on some books that they're fairly certain will never earn out - like first novels - because they believe in what they're doing. They believe in books. Yes, they're mostly public companies but there is this weird thing in the publishing industry: we believe we're all involved in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in the mission. And to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'the mission is what matters'. Why else would we put up with these woeful salaries?

The members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books do not believe in books. For them, books are a SKU like cat food and Wettex. They believe in maximising their profit. There is a price for this. You pay that price already - it's called a lack of competition in the marketplace. The Grocery Choice website didn't even get off the ground because the major retailers stopped it. This is not a different fight we have here, for books. We want book choice. Currently we have it. And isn't it nice? This is not a fight of 'elites and elitists' versus everyone else. No one is more elite than a member of a board. What's going on now is pure greed. Dymocks et al can charge less for books any time they want - they pay less than half the RRP of the book, so they can just charge that if they want. But they don't want. They want to pay even less than they already do, and then charge the same. It's called making a profit. Making a profit is something most publishing companies hope to do and often don't. It's something most writers will never have the luxury of doing. And they're the elite? Pah. There are about five authors in this country who earn an hourly rate commensurate with their skill.

I could go on and on about this. I already have. But if you're sitting on the fence, let me break it down in non-book, cold economic terms. Whenever you pay less for something than it is worth, someone loses. The loser is NOT going to be the public company that sells you the product; it is going to be the primary producer. This is the lesson our farmers have learnt. This is the lesson Australian writers are about to learn. If you value your Australian stories and the films and TV shows that are made from them - such as Underbelly - you will value the writers who created those stories. They are irreplaceable.


Anonymous said...

It's actually offensive for someone to proclaim that they love books, but so clearly hate the producers of those books. It's Bob Carr that I'm particularly thinking of. (Kevin only reads his own press.) He may as well say he loves babies, but hates mothers.

He wears his "I'm so clever, I READ" badge, yet acts like a complete ignoramus. People should tell him where to go, at every opportunity.

Sean Williams said...

Brilliantly said, capturing all the frustration and madness of this absurd debate. I'd like to stand outside Bob Carr's house tonight and read it to him through a megaphone.

WOW Gold said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
hughesy said...

Cheaper books my arse.
I found mine on a chain shelf for $30 (RRP 27.95), though out the front, by the pallet load, a pile of discounted US thrillers. WTF am I subsidising the importation of cheap crap?

Just asking is all.

SANDY said...

So well put. Everything else aside (and it's much too much to put aside but I have to start somewhere...) even if there are cost savings I can't believe (or understand why anyone believes) that big companies will sacrifice profits in the name of altruism. Cheaper books for consumers? Now that's a piece of fiction for sure!

Sheryl Gwyther said...

So good to read your blog, call my agent! These changes will threaten a thriving and world-class industry. And I can't for the life of me understand why some people are so anti-author too (espec on faceless online blogs). C'mon guys, really, we only get 6-10% per RRP on any of our books sold.
If anyone would like to know about a campaign to SAVE AUSSIE BOOKS, go to

ReadnWrite said...

Sean Williams, I'm with you! (Which goes without saying that I'm with you 'Call my Agent!'.

Read this over and over all through the night so that Bob Carr starts spruking it next time he gets up to talk!

And let's not forget his partner-in-crime, Dymocks CEO Don Grover. He's every bit as bad as Bob, slyly organising easy-access petitions that don't even scratch the surface of the truth.

Dymocks Booklovers went like lambs to the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, they're blind faith will see the loss of Australian stories too.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Correction to information blog on the SAVING AUSSIE BOOKS campaign. It's

Sally Murphy said...

You are spot on CallMyAgent. A wonderfully written piece that had me both laughing out loud AND angry at the same time. I get quite depressed when I realise how many people are being sucked in by the ‘cheaper books’ tag. Never mind the actual issues, or even finding out WHO makes up the so-called coalition – let’s just focus on the word ‘cheaper’ all the way to the annihilation of the Australian publishing industry.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully put by all contributors.

I'm wondering whether this is part of a shift towards eliminating all protectionism from Australian industries, regardless of outcome. It seems to be a trend across several Federal government policies at the moment, and would to some extent explain the vitriolic attacks by the ALP against the union-led Buy Australian campaign. What I don't understand, however, is why the WTO Agreement was signed back in '95 and we weren't in substantial breach of it all this time...why the sudden panic about it all now? Surely our exports aren't in danger because of the bit of protection that the publishing industry enjoys (which is no more than that of our major trading partners).

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