Update - after some more information provided by Garth Nix, I'm feeling a bit of a dummy. I dove into this debate without doing as much research as I should have, and I'm now feeling like I should offer an apology to the Aussie authors with whom I've been debating these past weeks. So, here it is:
I'm sorry. I straight up didn't know what I was talking about.
I'll leave the post here anyway, just so's nobody can accuse me of pretending to have not been wrong. The parallel importation debate is much more complex than anything a single blog post or television interview could cover, and since all my experience in the debate comes from behind the desk of a shop, I don't think I'm ready to really weigh in on it yet.
Again, apologies for having been been so arrogant, and hopefully I can put together a more reasoned blog post in the future.
Read on if you want to see the old post:
Parallel importation of books in Australia has been a bit of a hot-button topic these past weeks, what with the Australian Productivity Commission doing a big investigation into why books in Australia cost so bloody much. I've been getting requests from fellow authors to sign petitions, and Aussie author Garth Nix went on Lateline last night to debate the issue with the head of Dymocks, Don Grover. So yeah, it's getting a bit popular.
For all those who've never heard of the issue before, parallel importation is what a retail outlet is doing when they order a product from an overseas company while that product is also being produced in their home country. In the case of books, it's when bookshops, large and small, order in boxes of cheap books from the US, because Aussie books from just down the road are FRICKIN EXPENSIVE.
There are laws currently in place in Australia that say that a retailer can't order in books from overseas if a local publisher picks up the rights to publish that same book within 30 days of the international release. This means that Aussie publishers can get their hands on great titles from overseas and sell them without having to worry about the competition. It also means that they have a free license to sell these books at exorbitant prices, because the retailers don't have the option of bringing in cheaper copies.
The argument of the bookstores at the moment is that our parallel importation laws should be scrapped, so books can be sold cheaper to Aussie consumers. Aussie authors, on the other hand, say we should keep the laws, because they prevent stores from bringing in US versions of their books and undercutting the Australian versions (thus flooding the market with Americanised texts full of "Mom" and "sidewalk" and every other word you love to hate).
I have an opinion on this which stems from my working in a small bookshop that survives on imports from overseas. My opinion is:
These rules do nothing for authors and nothing for bookstores. The only people they protect are the publishers.
If I order thirty copies of Garth Nix's latest book from the local Aussie distributor and sell them, Garth Nix makes about thirty bucks (according to what I've been told by local authors). If I order thirty copies of Garth Nix's latest book from his American distributor and sell them, Garth Nix still makes about thirty bucks (again, according to local authors with US contracts). Sure, those books will be filled with Mom and Sidewalk, but the author is making pretty much the same dough. So what's the difference?
The difference is that those thirty books from the US will cost us about 2/3rds as much as the ones from down the road, and even with a $7 markup we can sell them for 2/3rds as much as we would the Aussie versions. Therefore, we sell more copies, and the authors make more money.
For people who think it's the Aussie bookstores adding a huge markup onto each book? BULLSHIT. Ten minutes looking at a bookshop ordering system disproves that. When we order from the US each book costs us about $7-8 US, minus 40% (because we're a shop), plus shipping. Which works out to about $11-$12 Aussie per book, including shipping. We sell the books from the US for $17.95, make a decent profit, order in more books. Everyone wins.
Aussie publishers, on the other hand, sell their books to us at Aussie RRP ($22.99 for a paperback) minus 30%, plus shipping. Which works out to about $17 per book. To repeat - bookshops pay Aussie publishers per book the same as an Aussie consumer would pay an Aussie bookshop for a US book, including exchange rate, shipping and markup.
As a result, we don't sell many Aussie books. They're too expensive to order in in large amounts and the consumers don't want them because they're $5-6 more than the US prints. Aussie publishers are pricing themselves out of the market, and it's the consumers that are paying for it. As Don Grover said during the Lateline interview: Aussie consumers are subsidising incompetence.
There is no reason for Aussie publishers to be demanding so much, and there is no reason for Aussie consumers to have to take up the slack. If they don't want to be priced out of the market then they need to get off their arses and start producing and marketing more efficiently.
Naturally, this is a biased point of view. I'm a seller of books at the moment, not a published author. Maybe my opinions will change in time. After the Lateline show ended, I shot off a quick message to Garth Nix, asking "Should Aussie authors instead be campaigning for their publishers to bring down prices, even if our import protectionism is maintained?" Garth, who is not only very talented but by all reports a lovely guy as well, replied very quickly:
"We should really all be campaigning for the GST on books to be removed to make them more affordable, because they are not like other products and books are not taxed in the UK or most of the USA... That said, if we could also get rid of sale or return and got to firm sale, that would remove a major cost and bring prices down.
Removing territorial copyright is a baby with the bathwater solution unfortunately.
It's a good argument, and it's the first time I'd ever heard anyone mention removing the GST as a solution. After some consideration I find myself agreeing more and more. What's the next step? What are other people's opinions or potential solutions? Just because this doesn't affect me (or you) at the moment doesn't mean it won't in the future.