Friday, July 17, 2009

The sky is probably falling

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


Anonymous said...

If the US can't afford to drop its protections, how can little ol' Australia?

If enough people make noise about this, perhaps Mr Rudd will ride in at the 11th hour, and save us all. It worked with the recent Let's Close Ayers Rock to Tourist-Climbers. Let's hope his MO continues in a pragmatic fashion.

On the other hand, if he's getting too many supportive, we-love-yous (for promising cheaper books) from Dymocks Book Club members, we're stuffed. He'll do what seems more popular.

Now is not the time to sit back. If we thought breaking into publishing was hard before, it'll be impossible from hereon. Publishers won't wait for the full impact of the recommendations to take effect. They'll start scaling back NOW.

(It's happening already in other suddenly-insecure industries. Coal-fired power stations are holding off on major MAINTENANCE works (worth $1.5M upwards) until they know which way the ETS argument will flip. Currently, they're doing cost analysis on running billions of dollars of infrastructure into the ground & going offshore. This is no rumour, but fact. Other industries have also been skeletonized by recent public policy didn't-see-that-coming outcomes. Manufacturers of wind farm equipment, for example. Water Tank industry...) Empty promises always cost something.

While we're busy stepping over the corpses of other industries, let's at least get up and fight for our own. Writers are supposed to be bold defenders of freedom and culture. At least, historically so.

The PM now has his own blogsite. Write him a nice letter. Write to the ABC. Write to your favourite federal member. We're writers, so write!

Anonymous said...

I have been a Dymocks Book Club member, but renounce membership as of today. I have written to my federal MP. You're right. We need to make noise! Not the quiet ruffling of pages with which readers usually content themselves, but the kind of slamming and thudding that can only be achieved by throwing books at the wall. If we don't, the Productivity Commission's recommendations will throw the industry against the wall.

MEWriter said...

Thank you for this post. I have linked to it on Twitter, and I have written to the PM and my local MP.

Anonymous said...

After reading the PC release report in The Aus, I have been waiting for your post, dear Agent Sydney. How can the PC hand down such a report based on the absolutely passionate letters written by very well-known industry heads and, importantly, pleading letters from some of the best writers this country has seen? It's extraordinary.
I banned Dymocks months ago when I read they were actively involved and I used to do a tonne of online ordering from them as I live OS. No more.
And cheaper books? Does the average consumer think a big business like Dymocks has their interests at heart and is going to drop a dollar off a book just for them? The 'big' in big business is there for a reason and it's not because of slashing prices off key products left, right and centre either. I mean c'mon.
Mr Rudd likes to banter about the term ''the everyday Australian'' - well this will hurt the everyday Australian - from the reader, to the author, to the editor, to the agent, to the publisher, to the independant booksellers. I am sure the list goes on. And who it won't hurt? A big old churn-em-out no personality chainstore like Dymocks.
I agree with you Agent Sydney - the age of the internet hasn't been the big scary boogey man as was first widely believed.
Instead, smart media men such as Murdoch - love him or hate him, he knows a business op, but first and foremost he knows who his reader is - is the king of very traditional newspapers with hardcore readerships who are used to picking up their paper off the lawn, from the milkbar or at the train station and have been doing so since a kid. But Murdoch embraced the digital change immediately to launch what are now wildly successful news and social media websites and in the meantime gathered existing readers, new younger readers and the time-poor Blackberry and mobile-phone news readers. He has done this all without sticking up his middle finger at 'the everyday Australian' reading his traditional product.
And we have the kindle - again a love or hate product - which has been spawned out of digital publishing. So digital publishing is just not an issue in my humble opinion.

The Aus' front page story a few days ago when the report was released. Can you industry-types and lit agents get into the ear of other newspaper book editors (The Tele, SMH, Herald Sun, Sunday Mail in Brisbane, Adelaide Addy...) and really put the case forward? Book editors would grab it and run, particularly if the story was run with quotes from someone like Bryce Courtenay who loves to let fly an expletive or two and is not backwards in coming forwards on any issue.

Is there a facebook page we can hook into to get the word out there among 'the everyday Australian' who probably doesn't really know what the PC is and how it will devastate Australian publishing product in the long-term?

OK, off to regulate breathe, steady fingers and then fire up again to write to local MP. And Obama.


Sally Murphy said...

Great post.
I am amazed that so many rational people have been taken in by the words 'Cheaper Books' to the point of not stopping and looking at just who makes up the 'Coalition' and wondering at their motives.
The repeated phrase 'greeday authors' is getting my goat too - how is it that authors are greedy for trying to protect their meagre earnings, but Dymocks et al are not greedy for tryign to boost their mega profit-lines?

Sally Murphy said...

and of course I meant 'greedy; not 'greeday' - but hey, who will care about spelling if PIRs are scrapped?

james roy said...

The Dymocks CEO put it all out there on Lateline, when he said "I don't think that Australian consumers care about the income of authors." I'm sure he's right. But that doesn't mean he should get his way.

He's also right when he says that "we're not in the business of supporting incompetence/incompetents." No, but when did supporting Australian voices count as supporting incompetent writers?

Anonymous said...

I've been saying for some time exactly what Agent Sydney said here: the greatest single service that the government could do for Australian book buyers is to remove GST from book-related products and services.

I'm with everyone else, let's not kid ourselves about this being done for the benefit of book buyers. I'd be very surprised if book prices dropped at all. It's a very powerful line to portray this as 'the consumer v elitist writers' and unfortunately for us it seems to have worked.

I'd hate us all to be here in 3 years telling people 'I told you so' but I'm afraid we will.

One of our top children's authors told me some months ago that if this went through American imprints of Australian kids books will be sold in Australia with American phrases replacing Australian ones. The threat of our children growing up with their literacy undermined by our own government should be enough to bury the 'Cheaper Books' brigade for good. But, I wonder...

Anonymous said...

I noticed in the current Weekend Australian p9 a big banner ad in red "Blinded by Labor: LABOR is cutting the MEDICARE cataract rebate to patients by over $300". Funded by the Austn Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO). In it, it had a call to "REGISTER YOUR ANGER NOW! email... or lobby your local Federal Member via phone, letter or a visit to their office".

Why can't the ASA & affiliated groups get together and do the same? A big colour image of a sad child, clutching a famous Australian book with some hideous Americanism on the front cover contrasted with pictures of wombats or something?

The add goes on to say, "Kevin Rudd doesn't care about protecting the sights of thousands of vulnerable "hardworking Australians". He needs help to SEE clearly. Many more will: have falls; break hips; be unable to work; suffer isolation."

Our version could be "Bob Carr fixed NSW and now he wants to 'fix' publishing. Thousands of every-day people in printing, editing, writing, distributing, transporting & selling books will be added to Kevin Rudd's growing unemployment queue. What sort of a 'fix' is that? Bob Carr says Aussies don't care about the income of writers. Should they care about his massive earnings for representing Dymocks, decimating its competition (with Mr Rudd's blessings) & killing our culture? Let Kevin explain to our children why our books say "Mom".

Could other bloggers put up some more suggestions? My wording is rough & ready, it needs to be more succinct & split over several ads. My polling on other sites indicates that there is no sympathy for writers so it has to be broadened to include others in the industry food-chain. Also, there are many people on the right of politics who would support anything that goes contrary to Bob Carr's wishes. He has that useful stink about him, so use it.

Anonymous said...

Noticed Terese Rein re-stylised in the Australian today, too. Looks like Rudd/Rein are gearing up for an election. That makes them particularly vulnerable & more likely to cave-in on something that’s proving unpopular. At the moment, they’re winning. It’s going to be a sustained & bloody battle. The Actors lost. Will we? Would they join writers in a media blitz?

Another idea for an ad:

[Picture inset of Kevin with speech bubble] "Hi, I'm Kevin from Qld. I'm here to help". Kevin could help by leaving people in their jobs NOT putting them on more of his famous subsidies. Help Aussies get ‘cheaper’ books not by exporting our jobs to India, the UK & US. Drop the GST on books & book-related services, and leave the industry alone. Give the private sector tax incentives to support the Arts instead of borrowing more money from China for extra shut-up subsidies. He says he loves the Arts. But we think he only loves himself. What do you think?

And one more:
Cheap Tricks, Not Cheap Books

Bob Carr & Kevin Rudd are planning your Education Revolution.

You must believe:
• that you will be able to buy cheaper books in Australia, just like your fuel and groceries got cheaper, right along with your electricity.
• Australian children deserve cheaper books that say “Mom”.
• The jobs of other regular hard-working Australians in the publishing, distributing and book-selling industry don’t matter.

Our industry now. Yours next. Don’t let them. Register your disgust now!

Anonymous said...

Brumby blasts 'vandalism' on books

Unknown said...

I do think you are quite correct to call for a boycott of Dymocks, but I don't think that goes far enough. Authors (and agents) are the small-fry in this war. It's really between large publishers and large retail. Large retail are using customers (who won't benefit) as a stalking horse, and large publishing are using authors (who also won't benefit - maybe survive, but not benefit). The answer right now is for Australian publishing to boycott Dymocks or at very least, to withdraw the discounts they gave them as a large client - and withheld from small booksellers.

Anonymous said...

Dave, you're absolutely right, but I think big publishing is unlikely to boycott Dym-cocks or withdraw discounts because they would be bound up contractually. Also, I wonder whether big publishing is already looking at the next thing & figuring out how many limbs to amputate, knowing that they'll still go on but their smaller competition might not. EG. Penguin hasn't come out swinging as far as I can discern. I wonder whether they'll be cushioned by the on-line book-selling alliance that Penguin US has struck with Amazon, once the trade barriers come down. Writing will become a part of the Content Industry rather than publishing - along with music, film, video games & have all the same piracy & copyright issues that those others have. Except of course, writers don't have the same "other opportunities" to make money as musicians (who can do concerts, appearances, sponsorships etc), film stars (appearances, sponsorships, advertising)...

Think GoogleBookSearch current court case with copyright & competition issues; and the fact that Barnes & Noble has just gone into on-line bookselling.

While, like Agent Sydney, I see opportunities and advantages in the online future, I can see a lot of danger too--particularly if some of the bigger players are letting the Recommendations through (unamended & prematurely) without much resistance because there's a push to get more overseas content & Kindles & the like into our market, at the cost of killing local industry, culture & opportunities for new voices.

The Recommendations ought to be rejected in their current form. If the e-explosion is to be accommodated, surely it can be done without detrimentally affecting our writers.

Anonymous said...

iPhone has a free app for downloading Barnes & Noble books. I just tested it, here in Oz.

GoogleBookSearch also still has free content. Does that mean the estates of those authors no longer get anything?

As Dave rightly points out, authors aren't benefiting a whole lot (under any scenario!)

Anonymous said...

Barnaby Joyce, on the Productivity Commission: "I've seen some set ups and this is starting to stink of one."

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