Friday, November 13, 2009

The price of books: on the one hand this and on the other hand that, and anyway, nobody knows

In the wake of the federal government's decision the day before yesterday to reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation on Australian books and maintain the status quo on parallel importation, there's a fair amount of passionate discussion around -- here, for example -- about whether or not it was a good decision.

The free marketeers are really going to town on it, apparently unable to see it as anything but a straightforward market issue -- books as pure commodity, as in 'I'm not giving you a book for Christmas, you've already got a book'. Most of their arguments are based on the unspoken assumption that the producer/consumer relationship is at once symbiotic and fundamentally adversarial in literature (as it truly is in so many other activities), something they would know to be far from the truth if they had enough interest in literature to hang about at a few writers' festivals and observe the behaviour of the crowds.

I've always had a lot of respect for Allan Fels, but if he has anywhere actually addressed the concerns of those who feared damage and loss to Australian literary cultures, subcultures, infrastructures, practitioners and readers, instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, then I have yet to see it.

The free-market types are scornfully trashing the articles, essays, explanations and submissions from authors and publishers (including this particularly lucid piece by Text publisher Michael Heyward) as mere expressions of self-interest and therefore to be ignored. But whatever self-interest might have been involved (as if it were necessarily desirable, or even possible, to be both knowledgable and neutral on such a matter), these literary types addressed a broad range of concerns and explored various intricacies: of national and international publishing; of publishing contracts; and of the probable effects of the proposed changes on the ability of Australian writers to make a living -- and on the probable survival, or not, of the Australian literary culture that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish, maintain and expand.

Since reading, writing, teaching, scholarship, reviewing, editing, interviewing, anthologising, prize-judging, blogging and what-all else inside said literary culture have been my life's work, I did have and still do have just a bit of a stake in whether or not, in literature as in so much else, the local and the national get subsumed in the global and every aspect of Australian history, landscape, cityscape, vernacular and regional variation disappears from our literature in an attempt to compete in the global market.

(I myself, for example, am working on a pitch to publishers involving the tale of a teenage sparkly vampire from Rivendell who finds an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed with mysterious mathematical formulae, wedged into a secret panel at the back of the wardrobe in the Master of Ormond College's bedroom, which is guarded by a T. Rex and an albino hippogriff called Layla, creatures past which she manages to slip with the combined aid of Heathcliff, Mr Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, such were the arguments of authors and publishers and they looked pretty reasonable to me. Among the submissions to the Commission I can see the names of at least 40 writers, booksellers, publishers and agents I've known and respected for decades -- Frank Moorhouse's submission is worth reading for its own sake just as an exceptional piece of writing -- but then I read this most excellent blog post by that most excellent blogger Bernice Balconey, who has written several subsequent posts on the subject, and is an energetic participant in the discussion at Larvatus Prodeo linked to above; Bernice's original post was the first argument for change I'd read from someone with insider knowledge of the Australian book industry and it is still the most persuasive. Some of her points have been convincingly answered by various commentators but the one I can't go past is her summary point: 'the cat is out of the bag. The consumer exists in a truly global market'. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for metaphors about cats and bags. There are some things there I don't agree with and others I wish I didn't agree with but Bernice very clearly knows whereof she speaks and as a blogger and commenter over the years she has given me every reason to trust her judgement, especially in such matters as this.

So once I'd read Bernice's post I gave up any ambition to take up a position on this. There are too many variables and too many unknowns, and the issues are too numerous and too complex and in some cases too self-contradictory, and there are too many possible computations and permutations and too many things have been brought into the argument, things that may or may not turn out to be relevant -- though I was struck by the clarity of two very different points made today on Crikey in a piece by one Michael R. James:
E-books. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. [My emphasis.] As bloggers have shown, [Guy] Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

As James suggests, many of the arguments being made on both sides are to do with the unforeseeable changes in the technology -- imagine yourself in 1985 trying to explain to someone else what a Kindle was. But the only thing in the whole tangled web of argument that seems even remotely clear is that nobody really knows what will happen, or would have happened, either way.

Even the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (among other things), Craig Emerson, who was behind the push to lift the restrictions, admits (all quotations from here) that
The Productivity Commission report acknowledged that removing these restrictions would adversely affect Australian authors, publishers and culture.

He also went on to say
The Commission recommended extra budgetary funding of authors and publishers to compensate them for this loss.

Yeah, yeah. Show us the money, Craig. Core promise, is it?

And furthermore,
The Government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers. The Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance.

So yah boo sucks to you, eh? This sounds like a totally empty retro-threat to me -- "We'll say we were going to, although we didn't tell you that, but now we're not, so you've bitten off your noses to spite your faces. Or maybe not. You'll never know now, will you, so nyerdy nyer." This particular dummy spit looks to me like the words of a man whose ego has been bruised by the failure of his pet proposal to get up.

It's bizarre to see the free-market types joining forces with consumer advocates like Fels (apparently not an advocate of consumers of Australian books) while sneeringly dismissing the other side as 'economically illiterate', a phrase many of them are using to mean 'they don't share my world view, which is, of course, the only possible one'.

In my own case, why yes, it is indeed perfectly true that I know next to nothing about economics, having, like most people, spent my adult life studying and practising other things. And that is why I have refrained from forming, much less expressing, an opinion. What a shame those who know nothing about literature don't think they need to take the same precautions. The culturally illiterate blithely using a metaphor about reading skills to diss their perceived opponents is a very neat irony, the more so since -- being fundamentally uninterested in literature and its effects -- they're not equipped to notice it.


TimT said...

A good post. Two small points:

I think James may be wrong in saying that e-books have nothing to do with the debate; Terje suggested (over at Catallaxy) that there are restrictions on what literature people can get on their Kindles precisely because of our parallel importation laws. Sometimes they may result in books never being published in Australia/sold in Australian bookstores, too.

Certainly according to feedback by the LPers, the PI laws seem to have a particularly bad effect on the price and availability of academic books in Australia, as compared to overseas. If that's the case then it has obvious negative ramifications for the future literacy/education of Australians.

I'd fall into the category of free market type, but I hope I don't dismiss others as economically illerate. And in fact I too come from a cultural/literary background, albeit I've never had much at stake in the areas covered by PI laws. I've fiddled around a lot with zines and blogs and internet publications and poetry, performed or otherwise, but I've never ventured into anything like mainstream publishing/novel writing. Which in part leads to my suspicion of the laws - because they seem to me clearly to be designed with the culture of four decades ago in mind - they privilege one particular type of cultural expression while ignoring new forms. Anyway, that's what it looks like to me.

Zoe said...

I also have two points, although I will leave it to you to decide whether they are small or not

(1) that free marketeers feel able to criticise people's opinion on the basis that it is self interested seems to me to be an excellent argument against the rationality and consistency of economic thought in general, and

(2) while your vampire story seems excellent, it's lacking something really important

(the doorbitch is ladnet, which is surely a post or two too late)

Tatyana Larina said...

I fall into the category of 'nurture local publishing and local culture' category, so the arguments that strongly suggest an erosion of our literary culture and activity seem pretty convincing to me. Yes, they'd never do it in the US or Canada. While in France there are government subsidies supporting their local publishing products. Unthinkable here.

There was another article covering 'the economy' aspect earlier in the year, to add to the mix.

Regarding this by TimT: 'the PI laws seem to have a particularly bad effect on the price and availability of academic books in Australia, as compared to overseas'. This is, in part, related to the protection of locally published academic books, which are almost an extinct species. Rather than having a negative impact on the future education of Australians, these laws are enabling the production of our own educational resources. I personally would be appalled to see repackaged US or UK education/literacy books massively thrown here for our children's only use.

Creating and selling content in a very small market is a challenge, but definitely worth supporting and nourishing. It's interesting to note that over this issue independent publishers, as well as some larger ones, booksellers and authors are pretty much united.

Also, good luck with the teenage vampire proposal. Sounds fascinating.

Dave said...

Nice post. In a lot of ways you have encapsulated my own somewhat disjointed thoughts on this subject; part of me is wondering if it is some kind of special concession to a privileged cultural elite and another part says that local publishing does an extraordinary thing to support our writers so why destroy them so we can buy Dan Brown's latest masterpiece for a few dollars less.

Good luck with the vampire story, I heard something the other week about how a literary trend to vampire stories often coincides with periods of radical social change so whatever...

Bernice said...

I hadn't seen Emerson's comments til I read this - jeezzzusss christ. In a highly polarised debate, this sort of governmental response is mindlessly stupid. I thought the role of government was to provide governance and regulation that balances econonic management with social outcomes.

*sound of crickets*

The Australian publishing industry should be supported, but the current arrangement needs modification. Whether it is new funding arrangements to support publishing or modifications to PIRs. Emerson seems to be suggesting "well we're too lazy to think about it now, but we'll come back and do you over later."

I read Heyward's piece when it first came out; and am extremely puzzled as to some of his statements re copyright. And examples. He referred to a royalty-free edition of an author's title selling in Aust. WTF? Is it a pirate edition? Or has the author signed a contract allowing it? Or is it a remainder? Dunno. Would love to. If there are illegal eds. coming in, then they should be pursued legally either under the Copyright Act or other relevant laws. Legal redress exists to deal with such matters now - if they are not be pursued, why not? If its a remainder, PIRs don't deal with them anyway. A remainder has been defined as out of print so flies under the radar.

Currently reading Miles Franklin's diaries - I think you might find some very useful material for the sparkly vampire there. Jill Roe was very kind.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Bernice, yep, I'd say the sticking point is the contract. I dunno whether you've ever been in this situation, but it's very very hard, unless one is a big name or has a really good agent, to negotiate contracts with publishers. The one time I seriously tried, I was made to feel like an ignorant fool (maybe I was an ignorant fool) and sent away with a flea in my ear. One way or another any kind of writer with any kind of contract is so pathetically grateful to be being published that they will sign away their first-born. And I suspect very few understand the international stuff in the contract anyway.

I'm not fooled by all the angry shouting from young male bloggers being vile about the horrid old Boomer gatekeepers back-scratching cultural elite dead tree blah blah blah (translation: nobody will publish me), either, because they would would climb over their best friends' dead bodies to have a book published if they got the chance.

Re Miles F, it must be very hard for biographers. I remember Barbara Hanrahan's diaries being published during one Adelaide Writers' Week and there being a run on copies in the book tent, and then a lot of white-faced Adders literary types frantically leafing thought the Index looking for their names, after which there was a bit of a rush to the bar. Elaine Lindsay, who edited the book, said that obviously it was an edited version of the diaries and she was very upfront about her own Christian agenda (she'd been a good friend of Hanrahan's, also a Christian) -- Elaine said that of course she'd left out all the truly awful things Hanrahan had said about other people. By the time I'd finished the diaries I found it hard to imagine what the left-out bits could possibly have said that was worse than what was left in.

Bernice said...

The contract issue is soooo important for an author. And I'd agree it is for most people a really uneven power relationship. Perhaps we should be demanding that, I don't know the ASA?, gets funding to offer authors support when assessing and negotiating contracts. Agents can be a life-saver but how many people will ever actually have one? pffttt

And the grateful bit is horribly true too. Laughed for about two weeks after hearing a publisher once tell an academic not to "so fucking grateful" that their book had been accepted. Am constantly astounded at conversations I have with academic authors about the contract they have just signed; the number of times I've heard "oh I don't care about all of that, its the work that's important...."

Copyright also isn't just about protecting income or broadening income sources, it also enables the author to protect the integrity of their work. Without Richard Blair's vigour in protecting Orwell's legacy, I can well imagine that a publisher from Ayn Randia would have published '1984' as part of their Great Right Wing Works of the Twentieth Century. With a foreword by Christopher Hitchens.

To the young male turks certain their genius is being repressed, well there's always

I haven't read the Hanrahan diaries, but MF induces a pendulum motion between repellency and immense sadness at her plight. At least most of her victims were dead.

feral sparrowhawk said...

I'm not an economist, but I do find it really interesting when some of the people who accuse others of economic illiteracy are those who argued thinks like bubbles, depressions, liquidity traps etc were all impossible these days.

To be fair, some of the opponents of PIR were not devotees of that particular form of witchdoctoring. But the abuse seems mostly to come from people whose idea of economic literacy is believing everything that has ever come out of a Chicago economics faculty, no matter how crazy it may have proven to be.

Ampersand Duck said...

I'm so confused about this whole issue, even though I've had Bernice explain so much of it in person for months... I just haven't got a brain that can tease any of this out



And I'm spluttering in my keyboard that Bernice hasn't read BH's diaries. That will be remedied ASAP. I know a number of people who looked themselves up in it and came out with lemony lips; I'd kill to see some of the unedited bits.

Tatyana Larina said...

A little bit late, but just to join in on the publishing contract business: I agree that it's important to go over the contract and understand its implications before signing, as much as that is possible for a non-legal and non-publishing person to do. Having an agent do that is a good idea, otherwise a one-off legal consultation is worth paying for as well. Although, there is a bit of an implication here that publishing contracts vary enormously, and that each is quite unique, while in fact most standard contracts are pretty similar. Most serious publishers are not in the business of duping their authors, and authors and publishers have a mutually dependent relationship (the basic mechanism of which somewhat protects the authors). Checking international rights is a good idea, of course. In what I've observed, publishers will at least be bothering to make sure they get a slice of any international deals; most authors will benefit from this via a standard publishing contract (which usually provides for a share of royalties from international deals, and protection of their international rights). I'm not implying that authors can't lose their rights, but a reputable publisher will not be selling off their international rights without making that specific in the contract (translation rights, etc). I've seen quite a number of academic authors with immensely developed negotiation skills, able to achieve quite excellent deals for their publications. I guess they've learnt it with practice, or they have a natural business acumen, always fascinating to observe in an academic person. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not all 'us poor naive authors' and them 'greedy treacherous publishers trying to fleece us'. The shades are a bit more subtle.

Regarding Miles Franklin and her victims: Jill Roe covers this very nicely in her latest biography. (The review of which I enjoyed very much in ABR, earlier this year.) Marjorie Barnard, apparently, discovered that Miles called her 'fat', while Colin Roderick found out 'what she really thought of him'. Both were still alive at the time. I was pleased to learn about CR, but sorry that MF did not have the final word here, or maybe she did? Anyway, it kind of explained, to me, Roderick's 'demolishing' of Franklin in his now old biography. Roe paints a very complex picture of MF; an admirably bold woman.