I’ve been meaning to write another post on the issue of parallel import restrictions (PIR) in Australia, but I’ve been putting it off because, well, I just can’t decide where I stand on this issue. Anyway, when I found myself commenting on this post, Parallel importing and ebooks in Australia, over at bookbook blog, I decided to move my comment diarrhoea here instead. Before you read any further, you should check out that link as this will be a response to that post.
I have to confess, I’m on the fence with this one. I agree that book prices in Australia have to come down. I recently spent $55 to buy a hardcover. I’m crazy, I know, and it gives new meaning to the term “book crack”. But I also don’t think an open market is the solution.
First, let’s talk about price
I believe the abolition of PIR will probably result in lower wholesale prices. Will these savings be passed on to consumers? Maybe, but if Angus & Robertson admit to pricing above the RRP now, it’s certainly not guaranteed.
But let’s assume competition will force prices down. In that situation, I have to wonder at the fate of independent bookstores. As a reader, do I really want those stores to perish just so K-mart and Target can offer me slightly cheaper books? Sure, we’ll save a few bucks, but to be honest, I don’t go into most bookstores to get the cheapest price—I go there to get book recommendations and an entirely different buying experience than I’d get online. (And incidentally, I’ve not found Dymocks to be very good at this.) I was impressed by the Australian Bookseller Association’s (ABA) submission and I think some of their suggestions are very good.
I have a problem with Dymocks’s position, which cloaks its economic interests in a veneer of “we’re doing it for the readers”. I’ve blogged about this before, but essentially I don’t think Dymocks foresees a future in bookselling. I also think the Coalition for Cheaper Books sees books as commodities, and as a reader I don’t (well, not always).
If price were the only issue, then readers have nothing to worry about. The Book Depository (UK-based) offers books at UK prices with free shipping to Australia. From a consumer standpoint, very little stops me from buying from them. We also have locally based online bookstores, such as Booktopia and Fishpond, that offer very competitive prices. Why doesn’t Dymocks try to match those stores? If you look at Dymocks’s online capability, it’s almost ridiculous how hard it is to find the books you’re looking for.
What else is there besides dollars and cents?
Physical bookstores have a different competitive advantage—convenience, personal customer service and the ability to skim through books and titles at leisure. When I buy books at Kmart or Target, which offer no service, I do care about price.
I like Kinokuniya’s arguments against PIR because they don’t just talk about price but about convenience for the reader and inefficiencies in the local publishing industry. As a reader, these issues are more likely to sway me. Why, for example, can’t Kinokuniya advertise foreign special editions of locally published titles? As a reader, that’s something that I might want to buy that can’t be considered as the “same” as a local copy.
Territorial copyright shouldn’t apply to ebooks
I think there’s a strong argument for easing restrictions on ebooks—it’s ridiculous to police territorial rights for something that, by definition, transcends physical location—but to compare print publishing with epublishing and not acknowledge the differences in buying and reading experiences is, I think, misleading. Australia does have some local ebook retailers, such as Dymocks and ebooks.com, but as far as I’m aware they’re not as popular as US sites, their catalogues aren’t as extensive, and although some books are comparable with Kindle prices, you can still find some rather astounding price discrepancies against foreign ebook sellers.
At the very least, I think digital rights should be given its own distribution territory. This makes sense not only because its distribution mechanism is very different from physical books, but also because it would go some way to acknowledging that the rights associated with selling and buying ebooks are not the same as those for print books.
I’m not convinced that publishers are, as bookbook blog claims, “trying to tighten up territorial rights management around ebooks”. Certainly, some are trying to impose DRM, much to the dismay of ebook readers. But with respect to territorial rights, I think this is more a case of contract law and government regulation not yet being aligned to the markets created by emerging technology. I think publishers do have an obligation to fulfil their contractual agreements with authors, and if that means that digital rights need to be segmented into territories, then I think this is something that publishers, authors, agents and lawyers need to look at. And they need to do it right now or they’ll miss the boat and readers will decide it for them—either by circumventing current restrictions or procuring digital books through illegal means.
An aside: the future of publishing and why authors and readers need a little distance from each other
To digress a little…
Where I think epublishing benefits the local industry is in giving it access to an international market for the same effort to release the book locally. (At least, I’m assuming that’s the case. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!)
As an example, if Disco Boy were available as an ebook, I would already have bought copies for overseas readers and fellow bloggers that I think would enjoy it. As it is, I’m stuck with having to pay $30 for a trade paperback, plus postage to send it to my friends—forget overseas bloggers.
I’d also argue that epublishing can provide a more efficient method of altering books to suit the local audience. So instead of having to calculate if it’s worth the effort of changing US spelling to UK/Aussie and vice versa, epublishing could do it once and then control the version as part of the purchasing process.
I don’t agree with bookbook blog that “the closer that readers and writers can get to each other and cut out the greedy publishers and booksellers then the richer the literary culture of this country will be.” I think that publishers play a significant role in preparing a book for the reader. We often forget that books are actually products of a good deal of collaboration between authors, agents, editors, artists and sales people. Yes, perhaps we need to streamline this process, but I think if we want to produce good quality writing (and yes, “good quality” is subjective and will vary) and find a way to promote these works so that readers can find them, then we’ll still need some sort of intermediary between authors and readers—whether or not publishers, in their current form, will continue to play a key part in the process remains to be seen.
What’s the solution?
So, back to PIR. I don’t know what the right solution is. As I mentioned, the ABA’s submission is, to me, the best compromise. It suggests changing the 30/90 rule to 7 days (if I recall correctly). As a reader, asking me to wait a month for a new release is madness. A 2-week window is the most I’d be willing to wait; 7 days is better and competes with Amazon’s delivery times. The ABA also has other suggestions, such as capping prices. I’m not sure how practical that would be to implement, but again, I think it’s worth considering because not only does it address price, it encourages publishers to make better decisions about which books are worth publishing locally and which are not.
I’m baffled by the Commission’s draft recommendation to lift PIR after 12 months
The Productivity Commission’s draft recommendation to lift PIR after 12 months doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like a half-baked attempt to please both camps, and it’s going to end up pissing everyone off.
First, because the report admits there’s a lack of reliable data on the book industry. What, so the solution is experiment and hope it works? That doesn’t make sense!
Second, because the majority of submissions—from publishers, authors AND booksellers—support the existing PIR. What’s the point of asking for submissions if you don’t take into account what the majority are saying?
Third, most authors—and particularly those who are making a career out of writing—will tell you that the bulk of their income (royalties) don’t happen in the first year of a book’s release.
And finally, I don’t think there’s been enough consultation with actual readers (given the lack of reliable statistical data).
So yes, I remain on the fence. But sitting here doesn’t mean I can’t see when people on either side are going too far in trying to advance their own agenda. I think the Commission’s review should be treated seriously, rationally, and without the kind of political propaganda that I’ve seen Dymocks engaging in or the hyperbole that I’ve seen from some authors and publishers (on both sides).
What the open market won’t give me
In the end, although the price and convenience arguments are very important to me as a consumer, the cultural argument is a very valid, very important one, too. I mostly read in the romance genre, and it’s dominated by books published in the US for US audiences. When I discover local authors like Bronwyn Parry, Melanie La’Brooy and Dominic Knight writing romances that reflect the culture and society I live in, I seriously have to pause, take a deep breath, and just feel grateful that, somehow, these books have fallen into my hands.
They can’t exist outside of the Australian publishing industry. Parry, as far as I know, still hasn’t been able to sell As Darkness Falls to the US. La’Brooy has had 1 US release, according to Amazon. I’m assuming Knight, with The Chaser credits under his belt, has a better chance of cracking the overseas market, but who knows? (And even then, will references to Khe Sahn survive the process?)
There’s something magical about books that attract avid book readers (and, by assumption, buyers). When an author crafts words together to form a story, when it’s polished and edited and made to shine its brightest, when readers buy it and talk about it and give it to other book lovers, we’re creating something that’s more than just a commodity. We’re acknowledging that there’s something very precious about these words, about how they relate to us as people and as a community, and I think that’s something we absolutely need to protect.