Well, the Productivity Commission, in its wisdom, has decided to kill the Australian publishing industry. Okay, that's being dramatic - they've decided to cut off its legs and not cauterise the wounds.
A publisher I spoke to yesterday remarked that, between the changes to publishing due to the digital world and the PC's recommendations, we'll all be lucky to have jobs within five years. My attempt at putting a positive spin on it all is to say that at least I've been given three years' notice to find a new career.
This may all sound a bit Chicken Little-y to those who are on the outside of the industry, but the potential consequences of the PC's recommendations - that parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) are removed and that Australian territorial copyright be worthless - are far reaching and devastating. The PC may feel that PIRs are restrictionist and anti-free market (Yay, free market! Free market that allowed subprime mortgages to flourish!) but the fact remains that their removal will benefit only UK and US publishers and will probably mark the end of the Australian publishing industry as any real force. The threat is THAT real and THAT upsetting.
The federal government can do one very simple thing to make books 'cheaper', if that is the real intention of the PC: Mr Rudd could remove the GST on books and anything to do with books. No GST on the book designer's fee; no GST on the printing company's fee; no GST on the freight charges; no GST on the purchase price. That would immediately bring about a drastic reduction in the price of books. But it's not really about that, is it? I wouldn't be the first person to point out that it's a bit iffy that ALP stalwart Bob Carr, the former premier of NSW (that gloriously functioning free-market economy), is on the board of Dymocks. Dymocks were the main driver behind the PC conducting this review, a review which was also pushed for under the previous government but which was mysteriously left alone by those renowned free marketeers John Howard and Peter Costello.
Some people I know are suggesting that the recommendations are actually a form of 'anti-elitist' strike - a 'let's take down those snobby publishing people a peg' thing. Maybe. Human motives are always complex, but I know this for sure: no company (private or public) with shareholders - such as Dymocks, Coles or Woolworths - is going to do anything that saves their customers money. They are businesses. They want to make money for themselves. And that's fine - that's what they are charged to do under the Corporations Act. However, they have been allowed to get away with the argument that evil publishers and greedy authors are just taking customers' money and only they - publically listed companies - are putting the customers' interests first. What I find even more remarkable is that the real media story has not been this landmark event - public companies as charities.
It's been good spin. It's worked - on the Productivity Commission. But don't let it work on you. If the PIRs are lifted, the members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books (Dymocks et al) will pay less for the books they sell, but they'd be in defiance of their duties under the Corporations Act if they didn't try to maximise returns for their shareholders - and that means charging customers whatever they think they can get away with. By that time, it will be too late for anyone to protest that this is not what was supposed to happen. By that time, our industry will be on its knees and the number of Australian stories finding their way into the world will be greatly reduced. And that affects our film and TV industries - who often draw material from books; it affects our radio, TV and print media who rely on authors for stories; it affects our culture, quite apart from the economic ramifications.
There has been some hand-wringing in the industry about digital publishing and the wave of imminent change that faces us. I'm not worried about that - I think it's exciting, and if we could all get on board and embrace the change, there's no telling what innovation may be found. No, digital publishing is not the enemy. Frighteningly - heart-sickeningly - the enemy has come from within. We are all now holding our breath to see whether our federal government - our arts-loving, job-saving government - is going to ensure that we are all out of jobs within five years; whether they are willing to see the immense talent and passion in the publishing industry just bleed into the ground.
I'm not being dramatic, I promise - my mother beat it out of me (not literally) quite young. I was even, initially, trying to be pragmatic about this whole thing. We'll be right etc etc. But we won't be right. We will be far from right. And we will certainly not have cheaper books.
If you feel like you want to do something but aren't sure what, now is the time to write to your local federal MP - particularly if they are in the ALP - and lobby them to not allow these recommendations to go ahead. And if you want to engage in mindful protest, you can join me - and others in the industry - in personally boycotting Dymocks. I'm also boycotting Coles and Woolworths, because of this and their petrol shenanigans. If we all think 'one person can't make a difference' there will be no difference. I'm also going to ask the Empire Gods to give us Barack Obama. Since the PC wants to send the industry back into the arms of empire - they want things to work they way they used to in the 1950s - at least let us get Barack. Because the UK sure as hell doesn't care about us any more. And there's no way Barack would let anyone do parallel imports in his country: he knows it's bad for business.
In closing, I am publishing, with permission, a letter that one of this blog's readers sent to the ABC:
RE: Cheaper Books, Don't Count on it.
Promising something that can't be proven is an old trick.
On the other hand, in government-speak, what can be examined is "demonstrated ability" to deliver. Pray, what precisely is Bob Carr's demonstrated ability? After what he did to NSW, who in their right mind, would let him even preside over a chook raffle?
The Australian Publishing Industry is only asking to keep the same protections that its US and UK counterparts enjoy. Nothing more. New Zealand's abolition of territorial copyright protections and opening up to parallel importation has done nothing good for its industry. Their people are now here, or anywhere, but in NZ.
Mr Rudd, knowing that the Productivity Commission Recommendations will cost many jobs, proposes simply to put more people on the public purse with "subsidies". Why not just leave them alone to keep earning a living and contributing to general revenue instead of drawing from it?
Anyone who believes the Coalition for Cheaper Books really intends books to be cheaper for consumers (particularly after their competition is decimated) is in for a double-take. Cheap, de-regulated milk? Cheaper fuel? Cheaper groceries? Surely, this trick has been done to death.
Theresa Lauf, Brisbane Fri 17 July 09