Monday, July 20, 2009

Fighting for Author Rights Down Under

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Many of you may not be aware but there's a battle brewing down under - pitching Aussie publishers and authors against the chain booksellers and the government - all in the name of cheaper books. Now as a reader I am all for cheaper books, particularly in Australia where book prices are (in my opinion) ridiculously high (typically about $45 for hardbacks; $25 for paperbacks).

Recently the Australian government asked the productivity commission to evaluate the current restrictions on the parallel importation of books into Australia. Basically this law protects publishers and authors who hold the Australian rights to a particular book from competition by suppliers of foreign editions of that book. On July 14th the productivity commission released its report. The recommendation? Screw territorial copyright for Australian authors and publishers. Although the commission backed away from full abolition of parallel importation restrictions they recommended that territorial copyright last only 12 months from date of first publication. I'll spare you all the boring legal details, suffice to say that if this recommendation is accepted and the copyright laws in Australia are amended it could have significant ramifications for the Australian publishing industry as well as Australian authors.

Many of my fellow mystery and thriller writers in Australia have warned that they may lose their Australian publishers all together, see a significant decline in income and feel that it will be even harder for Australian writers to get published...all so that the big chain book stores can import cheaper books (even with no guarantee that they will actually drop book prices to consumers as a result). Sounds a little like madness...and it is yet another reminder of how precarious our author rights can be. It's hard enough to get published, even harder still to make a living at it - and without full copyright protection, even harder to hold on to the slim opportunities we have...

So this is Monday's rant - and a reminder for us all to support the Aussie writers down under who are facing this very real threat to their livelihoods. If you want to learn more here's a link to a great website: http://www.ausbooks.com.au/ It also provides perspectives from authors such as Tom Keneally and thriller writer Michael Rowbotham.

And one question - How do you think places like Australia should go about trying to balance the demands for lower book prices (and they get no argument from me on this) and the desire to maintain a thriving local publishing and writing industry?

7 comments:

  1. Having just taken a Lean Six Sigma class, my first thought is that publishers need to examine their processes and find out what's driving the costs so sky high. They may have identified what they think is the issue, but it may not be what they think.

    (For those who haven't heard of Lean Six Sigma: Lean reduces waste; Six Sigma reduces variables; and a third part Theory of Constraints reduces bottlenecks. For example, if you look at a lot of processes to get something through the pipeline, there's usually a lot of waiting when nothing happens. That's waste).

    My paperbacks are $7-$9 where I'm at, and I think that's too high as it is. I'm not buying as many, and I'm getting books from the library where I can. If a paperback was $25, I'd get all my books from the library. Truthfully, I'm surprised the publishers aren't trying to fix it because they've got to be losing customers over it.

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  2. My Trade Paperback comes out in a couple of weeks in Australia for a recommended retail price of $32.95.

    I honestly wouldn't blame anyone for not wanting to pay that much for a novel from an unknown. And, I suspect this is one of the reasons why it's so tough for Aussie authors to break through with fiction over here.

    I don't blame the publishers for the high prices. We have a goods and services tax that bites at every stage of the publishing process.

    I haven't entered into the debate into PIR as yet as I don't fully understand all of the pros and cons. For example, I haven't been able to gain enough information on what it would mean for an author who has sold their worldwide rights to a publisher (as I have).

    JJ

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  3. I sense that I don't fully understand the issue. Is it that the territorial copyright law benefits the Aussie publishers by keeping prices artificially high, and that its abolition would create downward pressure as a result of competition?

    If so, I would think that the law has to go. I'm a free-marketer down to my bones, and I can't think of a single circumstance where competition has harmed the consumer--who, by definition, is the party whom a business is in business to serve.

    Am I missing something?

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  4. Thanks everyone. I don't profess to be an expert on the issue myself but I doubt that copyright is the reason book prices are high in Australia and reducing author rights in my mind should be the last thing rather than the first thing to be done. Book prices have always been high in Australia and you'd think the government would look at tax issues as well as the industry's competitiveness within Australia before opening the PIR gates. You certainly don't see the US or the UK considering abolishing territorial copyright...but the situation is crazy. I mean $32 bucks for a paperback - JJ, you're right who's going to buy that?! I think that the issue needs to be rethinked but from all I've read in the Australian press the productivity commission report's so called answer is just going to make matters even harder for Aussie authors and publishers.

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  5. I'm a little confused, too--are books by non-Australian authors significantly less expensive, because they're not protected? That is, is an Aussie author's 32.95 book competing against an American's 19.95 book? That would make me see red, if I were an author living in Australia. I would want the price of my book to be in line with the competition. But maybe I'm misunderstanding the issues at hand...

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  6. Kathryn - what you describe is exactly what might happen if the copyright laws change. It means cheaper versions of books can come in and compete with the Austrailan edition (which is more expensive) - so no one's going to buy the Australian edition and for books published by Australian authors by Australian publishers they will probably never be able to compete with the cheaper imports. It is a confusing issue but I believe that's the basic bottom line.

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  7. If my $32.95 Australian book is published in the US or UK at a far cheaper price, booksellers could import the exact same book from the UK and/or US publisher at a far cheaper price and pass on the savings.

    I believe most are saying this has major ramifications on the Aussie publisher (and those putting the books together) as the bookstores would most likely go straight for the cheaper overseas version and import it onto the shelves.

    JJ

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