Friday, 18 February 2011

The news that Borders and Angus & Robertson

are in receivership should come as no surprise but it should make Australians angry. Australians pay high prices for books - unless they import them.
If we do the right thing and buy locally we can end up paying much more. I needed (not wanted but needed) a language text recently. I inquired at a major bookseller associated with an academic institution. Yes, they could get it for me. It would cost $48.95 and would probably take about eight weeks to get here. Then the assistant (who knows me) said quietly, "But Cat you could get it from the Book Depository."
Yes, I could. I did. It cost me $23.95. I had it in five days. I feel guilty. I am not supporting local business. At the same time I cannot afford to spend another $25 and wait weeks.
Recently I was given a copy of "Puffin by Design" by Phil Baines. This is a look at 70 years of publication of Puffin Books - the children's department of Penguin. Inside there are many illustrations of book covers. I am familiar with a lot of them. I own quite a number of them. Others I have seen in bookshops or on library shelves over the years.
There are others however that I do not know at all. I am familiar with some of the books through reading about them but I have not read the books. They have never been available in Australia. I have not been able to pick them up and say, "That looks good. I will choose it."
At this point anyone reading this who lives elsewhere in the world will probably be saying, "Well I know a bookshop cannot stock everything but what is going on? This is a major publisher and the titles are part of their list?"
Yes, that's right. The problem is we have what are known as "parallel import laws". These allow publishers who have representation in Australia to decide what we will read. When a book is published by them overseas they have 30 days in which to decide whether they will produce an Australian edition. If they do decide to do that (and it often depends on how well something is selling overseas) then booksellers cannot import it into the country. They must wait for the Australian edition. When the book does reach the shelves it will almost certainly be at least double the price it would be if it was imported. Sometimes it will be more than that.
All this was once supposed to protect Australian authors and Australian publishers. The reality is that many Australian authors, usually those who are known internationally, are now published by international publishers. Many small Australian publishers have long since been swallowed up by larger ones who, in turn, have been taken over by the international publishers.
Parallel import restrictions also mean that there are other books Australians will never see. Central buying regulations for libraries mean that they are supposed to access Australian material first. Understandable yes but it costs more and that means fewer books on shelves and other books that will never be on the shelves.
All this is supposed to save jobs in Australia publishing and printing. (We will ignore the fact that almost nothing gets physically printed here.) It is supposed to make it easier for Australian authors to get published.
I did what I supposed was the right thing. I sent my precious children's book ms off to an Australian publisher recently. Now I rather wish I had sent it to an overseas agent instead. The reality is that, if it is good enough to be published, I want a much wider audience than the small Australian one. The book business is international, not local - at least I think it is.

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