Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Parallel importation: a disaster for Australian writers

Update: The Australian Publishers Association, the Printing Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Literary Agents’ Association and the Australian Society of Authors have banded together to form Australians for Australian Books. Those concerned at the proposed changes can sign their petition online, which is a counter to Dymock's aggressive campaign which misleadingly claims to be about cheaper books for consumers. I urge everyone interested in Australian literature to do so, and before this Friday, the deadline for responses to the Draft Proposal.

Below is a slightly extended version of my submission to the Productivity Commission, which is presently
conducting a study on the copyright restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Parallel importation is the practice of importing overseas editions of books which are already available here through Australian publishers. The recommendation in the present draft report is that copyright restrictions are dropped after 12 months. The commission claims, on its own admission on slender or non-existent evidence, that this will make books cheaper for consumers.

By effectively removing ownership of the copyright of a book in a writer's home country, this would have a devastating effect on Australian publishers. And also on Australian writers. Publishers, agents, authors, unions, many readers and most booksellers are overwhelmingly against changing the present situation (their submissions can be read online here and here).

I would like to register my opposition to the proposal to lift restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Such a move would have a significant impact on my ability to earn an income as a writer.

I make my living from the sales of my popular fantasy books, and am now - for the first time in two decades of writing - earning an independent income. This means I no longer apply for grants from the Australia Council to support the production of my poetry and prose. The income from my fantasy books subsidises my poetry (I am a prize-winning and internationally published poet) and the theatre criticism I write on my blog Theatre Notes, both time-consuming activities I pursue for reasons other than financial reward.

My fantasy books are published first in Australia, by Penguin Books Australia, and overseas publication follows in the UK, the US and Europe. This means that there are at least two English language editions of my books sold overseas, as well as the Penguin editions.

There is a small but significant fact that is being glossed by booksellers’ blithe claims that authors “still earn their royalties”. I earn a significantly higher percentage of royalties from books sold in Australia than from those sold overseas. Books that are published and sold here earn me the full 10 per cent royalty of the cover price. Books that are sold in overseas markets often have a smaller royalty – ranging from 6 to 8 per cent – and after that, under the agreements from my original publisher, I lose from 25 to 50 per cent of the gross royalty to the original publisher. This is a standard agreement which publishers all over the world use to ensure that their initial investment in an author is financially recognised.

This means that for every book sold in Australia that is NOT published by Penguin, I could lose up to half – or more – of the income I would earn if it were published by the local publisher. Worse, if a foreign publisher decided to dump remaindered copies on the Australian market, I would earn precisely nothing.

The Australian market is a significant proportion of the income that I generate as an author. And this is why territorial copyright is important to my financial independence.

Territorial copyright is a right for all authors in the United Kingdom and America. Neither of those countries, for good reason, is considering abolishing this protection for their own authors. Under the Productivity Commission’s suggested changes to the copyright law, Australian writers will no longer be able to compete on the same terms with writers in these countries.

My books are selling much more strongly now, seven years after they were first released, than when they were first published. The 12 month rule would only punish their further success, and would provide no protection for years of hard labour to writers like myself, who depend on a book’s steady longevity rather than a burst of sales.

The argument as presented by those who seek to lift restrictions is that it would make books cheaper for the consumer, and that those who oppose it are greedy corporate publishers. This is a populist argument with little regard for facts: the relative expensiveness of Australian books is far from proven, and it is less than certain that removing restrictions of parallel importation would make books any cheaper. And it certainly ignores the potential impact on authors.

The best way to make books cheaper for consumers would be to make them exempt from the GST. It was always a scandal that books were included in the first place.

This proposal would have a devastating impact on the local publishing industry – it certainly had negative effects when it was introduced in New Zealand, where the publishing industry now struggles to survive – which, on top of cutting my income, would have indirect effects as well on my ability to continue to write and publish in this country.

The only benefits that seem likely are increased profits for some retailers, from being able to import cheap or remaindered copies of books. This limited benefit would come at a heavy price to our presently healthy and competitive publishing culture, and would significantly affect the diversity of the books available to consumers.

My situation is far from singular. Artists are routinely urged to become self-sufficient, but parallel importation would make this goal even more difficult than it already is. If the Rudd Government claims to be backing a Creative Australia, why is it entertaining a proposal which would make it much harder for authors to earn a living, in a profession in which earning a decent living is already a rarity?

April 9, 2009

Alison Croggon is a poet, novelist and theatre critic based in Melbourne. As a poet, she won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes, and has been shortlisted for several Premier’s Poetry Awards. Her critically acclaimed fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor is a popular success in Europe, England and the US and was shortlisted in three categories in the Aurealis Awards, as well as being a Children’s Book Council recommended book. She is Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian newspaper and runs the theatre blog, Theatre Notes.


Shadowjhunter said...

This is a disgusting injustice to Australian writers and publishers. Do they not realise that by taking away a writer's source of income, novels are far less likely to be written? Are they trying to stub the Australian Literature industry?

What can we do to stop this? Nothing, of course (thanks Rudd!). But this case, unfortunately, is not a stand alone issue in the literature industry. Google has somehow claimed the right to publish books online, old and new. If you do not fill out a form exempting your work from being published, it will be available the world round, for free! Great idea, Google. Idiots.

I fear we have entered an age of decline for literature, where only those of reasonable renown will be able to write books. Thanks to the new laws, aspiring authors will forever struggle in the dying industry. Dreams of having a life as an author will be shattered.

It's sad injustice and should be stopped.

Alison Croggon said...

It's potentially very bad indeed, SH. To be honest, it might not affect me so badly - I have good UK and US publishers who are unlikely to dump their books on the market, and who don't do cheap editions. But someone like Toni Jordan, who was just shortlisted for the Miles Franklin with her book Addition, could be devastated. Her publisher is just bringing out a shiny new edition (for the prize) and at the same time her British publisher has remaindered thousands of copies, due to a dispute with UK amazon. If they could dump those copies in Australia, she would lose out big time.

And it would make it much harder for new writers like yourself to get published.

The bizarre thing is that most people think the existing arrangements are a pretty good balance between consumer needs and industry needs. The report certainly doesn't seem to understand the book industry very well...

But there are things you can do. You can make a submission yourself to the Productivity Commission (if you go to the webpage links above, it tells you how). And you can write, as I just did today, to the ministers concerned - Chris Bowen (whose department ordered to initial report, Kevin Rudd (PM), and Peter Garrett (Arts Minister). And your local member. The more voices are heard, the less likely it is to go through.

Shadowjhunter said...


I will most certainly be throwing my view into this argument. My only hope is that with enough voices, they will see the error of their ways. If this proposal is passed, it will literally spell 'doom' for Australian Arts.

It is a sad day indeed when we see our Nation's leaders supporting these acts. As you stated, when Rudd was elected, I too thought he was in favour of a creative Australia. I guess we can add another page to his book of broken promises.

Good luck to us all.

Ellira said...

I think this atrocious as well. It would certainly impact me as a reader, as many of my favourite authors are Australian (I think you guys have something in the water ...) and with this, well, it's likely many would be gone. Is there anything non-Australians can do to help?

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Ellira and SH! Good to hear of support from overseas - you are very correct that it would impact badly on authors you admire, especially the new ones we are yet to hear about!

I have just posted a link to an online petition against the proposals.

Anya said...

UGH. Google people are idiots with the whole "lets let people read free online books! the authors won't mind if we plagerize their work!" Were'nt they paying attention in school to the multiple lecture about NO PLAGERIZING every flipping time before a book report or essay was assigned?! (me, I still have to put up with those lectures)

Ok, THAT rant over, lots of my favorite author are Australian too! You should NOT be cheated out of royalties that are justly yours! *runs off to sign petition*

Shadowjhunter said...

Hey Alison.

Hope you are well. Lately I have been trying to promote your book in my Borders store with shelf-talkers and staff recommendations. But also, we have been in discussion about getting in an author for a book signing. I, myself, would be terrified at the idea of a book signing, but if our Borders representatives got in contact with your agent, would you be interested in a book signing/reading of a passage from your book? I in no way expect you to say yes, since you're incredibly busy with your theater notes and poetry, but I thought I would ask anyway. Hope to hear from you soon!


Alison Croggon said...

I'd be delighted, Pat! Although you never know if anyone will turn up... email me at ajcroggon at gmail dot com and we'll talk further.

Shadowjhunter said...


It's always a gamble to whether people will turn up or not. But I'm sure that if there is enough advertising in store and out, people will turn up and buy your books -- especially if they are signed. I figure that even people who have never heard of the Pellinor series will turn up anyway, just to hear you speak.

Anyway, I'll get on it first thing Monday morning and see what can be done. I'll be in contact with you shortly.




Northen Light36 said...

Wow, you would think Toni would have brought this up in class. I knew this was a terrible idea, but I had no idea of just how bad it could be for someone like Toni, who I like and respect.

You'd think we at RMIT Prof. Writing would be hearing more about this.


Ashley [ Huixian ] said...

Hi Alison,

Just stumbled across your blog :) I'm a huge fan of The Treesong Books! Indeed, I was very sad when I finished the last book cos there won't be anymore! I was wondering if you were going to release a BOX SET of ALL the books :D :D :D :D
Since I came across them from the library, I really want to own them as I keep borrowing them out :P

Love your work! Don't worry, I won't be one of the readers to read 'free online' books from google. We must support our Aussies!


Summer said...

This comment isn't exactly applicable to this post. I just wanted to tell you how much I loved The Singing. I finally got a hold of it at my local library and devoured it. It was the perfect ending to the quartet!

I get completely engulfed in your story telling! I hope there are more stories in your head to come!