Monday, November 10, 2008

Free trade for book trade?

Thanks to changes to the Copyright Act, US booksellers can now freely ignore territorial copyright restrictions and import all overseas editions of any US book in whatever quantities they want.

Don't expect to read this sentence in Publishers Weekly any time soon - there would rightly be an uproar at the mere suggestion, I'm sure. But such a situation may soon be a possibility in another English language market.

In Australia, the Productivity Commission - a Government-funded think-tank whose ominous goal is 'achieving a more productive economy' - has decided to look at the book industry. More specifically, the Australian Government has asked it to report on whether Australia should become an open market for books - whether large scale parallel importation of competing editions should be permitted.

A little history: this isn't a new idea. The industry addressed this question in the early 1990s, resulting in amendments to the Copyright Act that gave booksellers a little more freedom to import what their customers wanted, and put more pressure on publishers to import books promptly if they wishes to enjoy exclusivity. A decade later, publishers found themselves again successfully preventing the market opening up.

Thus, having the whole issue rear its ugly head again is rather like seeing the garlic-strewn, silver-bulleted, heart-staked vampire springing to life one more time in the final reel of the horror film. The hue-and-cry has gone up and the pitchforks have been handed out. Printers, literary agents, authors and publishers have joined in a coalition to argue for the current system, with one notable exception.

The Australian Booksellers Association on the other hand has taken a more considered position, commissioning a report before deciding that, yes, an open market was in their best interests.

I'm in two minds about the whole thing. Evidence from New Zealand, which has had an open market for a decade, suggests that local publishing and distribution has been seriously affected. Kevin Chapman, who runs Hachette's business in New zealand recently called it a 'cancer, an insidious thing.' Ironically, New Zealand's loss has been Australia's gain: distribution for New Zealand (a few hours by plane to the south-east of Australia) is now frequently done from Australia and several local distributors have closed. This has arguably given NZ consumers less choice about what they can buy from a bookseller.

On the other hand, we almost have an de facto open market in Australia already. Consumers can buy from anywhere in the world (and choose Amazon, invariably), and many booksellers order more books from US wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor than they do from most local distributors.

So, what would be lost if there was an open market? Well, firstly, it's unlikely Australian publishers would buy as many rights from US and UK publishers as they currently do. Without the protection of territorial copyright, who would be willing the make the investment? US and UK publishers would also probably find it harder to get direct distribution for their books in Australia. The net effect might be that less international books are published and distributed in Australia. Currently over half of all books sold in Australia come from overseas.

Would Australian books take up the slack? Large publishers argue no. They say overseas bestsellers help subsidise local lists. Smaller publishers, most of whom rely on the sales of locally-authored books, might feel that there would be more space on the bookshop shelves for local books in such an environment, and that the dominance of the large multinationals might decline. While my own business buys most of our books from overseas publishers (mostly in languages other than English), I doubt the move would change our publishing program that much, although I might be more wary of buying books that had already been published in the US or UK.

No one knows for sure what will happen, and that's enough of an argument for some. For them, the 17th century English politician Viscount Falkland's conservative advice is sufficient: 'When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.'

Booksellers, on the other hand, see an opportunity to be more entrepreneurial, and to have more say in what is stocked on their shelves.

It's an interesting debate, and one you can follow by signing up on the Productivity Commission's website.


Brenda said...

which local distributors have closed down in New Zealand.

They're not retail chains that i've heard of. Distributors only? I'd love some names to check out this claim

Tim Coronel said...

Brenda, Andrew was referring to book distributors, not retailers. Forrester Books went bankrupt earlier this year (; Penguin closed its Auckland warehouse in 2006; the Reed warehouse went after the Penguin takeover; Thomson Education closed its warehouse in 2007 ... In the past five years or so virtually all the distribution of books from publishers to booksellers in NZ that used to come through local warehouses has shifted to being handled from a few 'big sheds' Australia (and air freighted).