Monday, 22 November 2010

There were two bookshops

in the city when I was child that no longer exist. One was at "ES Wigg & Sons". The shop sold stationery for schools and businesses and, on the upper floor, children's books. These were intended for the school trade. My father would buy the few school library books the School Committee was able to raise the money for from there or from "Rigby's". The latter were also publishers of educational material for schools and for some fiction and nonfiction. The late Colin Thiele published with Rigby. The sales of his work probably kept them in publishing far longer than they might otherwise have stayed.
There is still a list of "publishers" in the local yellow pages but many of them are actually printers rather than publishers. We do have Omnibus. They have produced some respectable books for children, and Wakefield Press which has produced some respectable non-fiction. There are offices for the Penguin Group and Macmillan Educational. Adelaide however is not a publishing mecca and not likely to be. We are small.
Australia is also relatively small. Our current population is around 23m people. There are cities which are much bigger than that.
For reasons rooted in history however Australia has very protectionist laws for publishers. In order to preserve the publishing industry in Australia, or so it is said, booksellers cannot import books until a decision has been made not to publish them in Australia. There is a time limit in which the publishers must decide to do this of course but they are protected from cheap overseas imports until then.
That may have worked once. It no longer works. Once people did not even know what was being published elsewhere unless they read overseas material. With the internet all that changed. Australians are now hearing about books as soon as people in other parts of the world. If they want to read those books and they are not available at the local bookshop they will buy on line. Some people will buy on line anyway.
I am not sure what we are protecting any more. Almost all the printing gets done off-shore. There are relatively few books published first in Australia, apart from small runs of local interest. Oh yes, there are some but the volume may not justify the protection the publishing industry has been and still is getting.
It also makes books more expensive and it means there are many books that we never see. Some we do see only come in because people like myself say to library staff things like, "I think the library should have a copy of Nicola Morgan's latest. While you are at it could you think about getting the new one by Gillian Philip?" If the readers actually like these books and look for more they may be lucky and find one on the library shelves. They are unlikely to find them in the local bookshop unless someone like myself has suggested the titles.
Our local library keeps a list of books they intend to get. There is central buying and the library system is required to buy from "Australian publishers" where possible.
Some months ago I put my name down on the waiting list for one of these books. The library staff left me an e-mail on Friday saying that they would not be getting the book as it was "not going to be published". Now the book has already been published overseas. What the library means is that the book is not going to be published in Australia. They could physically get a copy from overseas but the system does not allow them to do it.
Some people will say that this is a good thing because it means that the library will buy a book that supports the Australian publishing industry instead. The problem is that this is not necessarily the case. Publishers like Penguin are multi-national conglomerates. Australian authors do not necessarily benefit. The biggest names in Australian writing are not published by small local presses.
I will buy the book in question but I will bring it in from overseas. I feel guilty about not supporting my local independent bookshop but they will not be able to supply it for months and I can get it in a week or so with a few taps on the keyboard. A writer in the UK will get a few pence royalty and the Australian publishing industry, the libraries, the reading public and the local bookshop will all miss out.
The question is, have a we a publishing industry worth saving or is there some other way to protect Australian writing?

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