Parallel importation is Australia’s boomerang issue. It’s back again right now with the coalition government’s plans to remove PIRs (parallel import restrictions) and turn Australia into an open market. Combine this with proposals to reduce the term of copyright from 70 years after the death of the author to 15 or 25 years after the creation of the work, and you have a veritable bush fire coursing through the Australian book industry.
PIRs prevent booksellers from importing the overseas edition of a title until 30 days after publication. If the book’s local Australian publisher does not make its edition available in that time, then the bookseller is free to import from wherever they like. The aim is to protect Australian publishing.
The argument runs that without PIRs there would be no point any Australian publisher buying rights to an overseas bestseller because booksellers could just choose to buy their copies from the US or India where they would very likely be cheaper because of the economies of scale. The government’s argument is that these cost savings would be passed on to the consumer – it believes abolishing PIRs will lead to cheaper books.
Broadly speaking, authors, agents, publishers and booksellers are opposed, with the notable exception being the Dymocks chain, whose MD Steve Cox believes removing PIRs “will give local suppliers stronger incentives to provide greater efficiencies in their operations, sharpen their supply chain practices and make their prices more competitive. These benefits would be passed on to our customers”.
The debate has some way to run yet. Michael Heyward, publisher at Text in Melbourne, says: “This is the third time in my publishing life that this threat has emerged to destroy Australian publishing. To remove the precisely limited forms of territorial copyright that we have requires legislation. The legislation will need to pass both houses of parliament. For that to happen, a lot of politicians will need to agree that increasingly impoverished writers [because of the lower royalties on export editions] and a shattered publishing industry would be in the national interest.”
The battle between price and what some would term the wider health of the industry has reared its head in Israel too. The so-called ‘Law for the Protection of Literature and Writers’ was introduced in 2014 for a three-year trial period. It prevented discounting on new titles for 18 months and was aimed at tackling the ‘unique situation’ in Israel in which ‘the conduct of the book market is dictated by a duopoly composed of two chains of bookstores [Steimatzy and Tzomet Sfarim] that controls 80% of the market’.
At the time the government observed: “Books and literature are regarded as product[s] of a definitive cultural value that many countries in the western world recognize the need to preserve. These countries rejected the approach pursuant to which a book is a commodity that should be subject to free market conditions’.
But now Culture Minister Miri Regev has repealed the law despite – according to the newspaper Haretz – research by her own committee that showed ‘small bookstores and alternative purchasing channels had been strengthened, additional small publishing houses had opened thanks to the improved market conditions, and a more reasonable balance had been achieved between the publishers and the monopolistic bookstore chains’.
With Independent Booksellers Week (18-25 June) looming in the UK, there was positive news from the US on its Independent Bookstore Day on 30 April. Of the 430 stores that took part, around two-thirds reported a sales lift of “an average of 200%”, boosted by wide media coverage and an active presence on social media. An encouraging 98% of stores said they would be on board for next year.
It was sad to hear of the death of John Gaustad, founder of Sportspages Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and co-founder of the William Hill Sports Book Award. Many publishers will fondly remember the cramped awards ceremonies that took place in the shop – and the eccentric collection of fanzines on display.
And another death too must be marked, that of Peter Owen, the eponymous publisher of Herman Hesse, Anais Nin, Yukio Mishima and many others. The novelist Muriel Spark once worked for Peter Owen, as did the young Dan Franklin, who would go on to become Publishing Director at Cape.
Finally, among those mourning the death of Muhammad Ali will be Jeremy Robson, whose Robson Books published many classic boxing titles. Robson was among those who saw Ali’s emotional photo shoot at Frankfurt in 2004 where Taschen had installed a full-size boxing ring in the German hall to promote its Greatest of All Time book. When Ali managed to slowly raise his fists in a boxing stance the cheers from the crowd could be heard right around the Messe.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.