Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why don’t we care about our literature?

Following is the text of a speech I gave to the South Australian Writers Centre on 27 November, 2008. Many people have asked that I provide a public copy.

Recently the mass media has been full of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Australia. The spin doctors were working over time. I hope the movie does well. Our film industry needs it to do so.
But one of the unfortunate side-effects of the spin that accompanies the marketing of movies is that there is a perception movies have more significance and public appeal than books. In Australia, this certainly isn’t so. Even if Australia does very well at the box office, the vast number of movies we shall watch are produced in the United States. The box office will total about $1 billion – an awful lot of that will have been spent on spin, on attempts to get you and me into movie theatres or to buy DVDs to watch often very lacklustre films.
In August, figures from Nielsen Bookscan revealed that trade sales for books in Australia were worth $1, 250 million for the previous year. This represented sales of 63 million books, an increase of 7.5 per cent on the previous year.
Nielsen Bookscan data doesn't break out Australian books, but ABS data shows that Australian fiction, non-fiction and children's books (excluding educational titles) had average sales of $438.5 million each year over the period 2000-04. This is a major contribution to the Australian creative industries economy and of course a significant proportion of the sales of books in Australia. It’s also a helluva lot more money than Australian movies made.
Not only that, but five of the top 10 Bookscan bestsellers in the 2007-08 period were Australian. One, 4 Ingredients, sold over 600,000 copies. Another was Underbelly.
Unhappily, only one Australian film, Happy Feet, was in the to 50 films for the same period. So why, I ask, did Baz Luhrmann receive a 40% tax incentive to make Australia while the Australian book industry was rewarded with yet another parallel importation enquiry?
We are being punished for being successful and for standing on our own feet. The funding for Australian literature is pretty paltry. In 2003-05, the Australian Government allocated only $27.6 million to Literature and print media. This included funding for lending rights of around $17 million and amounts offered by the Australia Council. This amount is dwarfed by the enormous sums that flow to major performing arts and opera, arts forms that often fail at a cost recovery basis and offer none of the economic returns that can be seen with literature.
Australian literature is making an enormous contribution to our creative industries economy and this is largely unrecognised. This should not be so.
Let's face the fact that, as a post-colonial country, Australia is still strongly influenced by the central points of English-language culture. From about 1850, those points have been the United Kingdom and the United States.
It is sensible that our schools teach using cultural materials emanating from the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also sensible for them to use cultural materials from Australia's Indigneous cultures as well as the many other cultures from which the children in our schools come. This is all representative of where we have come from and what we are, a bit of a mongrel mix.
However, the most unifying and central themes for educating young Australians come directly from Australian culture, that unholy mess that has evolved here since this timeless land has been named "Australia". Our literature exemplifies and demonstrates those themes best because there is more of it than other forms of narrative. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough Australian films and television programs to fill out a curriculum. That's not so for poetry, novels, non-fiction, biography and so on. There's plenty there.
Now let me get a little personal. My book Perfect Timing is about to be published in a Vietnamese translation. It will sell for 20,000 Dong, about A$1.45. I’ll receive 5% of that price on each copy, a princely seven cents, so I’m not about to retire.
But what this makes clear is that books are much cheaper in Vietnam than Australia. I could buy 15 copies of my Vietnamese edition for the price of an average Australian paperback.
So, why is the book cheaper? The paper and print quality will be lower than the Australian edition for one. Another is there’ll be several more thousand copies printed in Vietnam than were ever printed in Australia, but the book will still be a tiny blip in a market of over 80 million readers. And those readers are much poorer than readers in Australia. To them, spending 20,000 Dong on a book is a luxury purchase.
This simply makes it clear that the price of books is relative from one country to another. The return to me from sales in Vietnam will be small financially, but large in the sense that I will have many more readers. I’m assisting with a tiny bit of cultural exchange as well. These are immeasureable benefits with no financial value.
But they’d still be there if I was lucky enough to sell US rights to my book, although the financial implications would be very different. I’d actually make some money – again, not enough to retire on, but enough perhaps for a new computer or new car.
As an author, I can trade my rights in different markets for different reasons. Trading of rights is the commercial basis for life as an author. We can sell Australian publishing rights, rights for translation into Vietnamese or rights to an American edition. This is intrinsic to our continued livelihood. Quite a few authors have different publishers in different markets. Australia, in line with most major book markets in the world, including the United States and United Kingdom, is currently a “closed “ market. Books can only be published here by the entity who holds the rights to the Australian territory. These rights are saleable parts of the bundle of rights that make up an author’s copyright. For example, popular author Jodi Picoult is published by Allen & Unwin in Australia, but by Hachette in the UK and Atria in the USA.
However, there are moves afoot to take some of these rights away from us. The moves are being led by booksellers, particularly Dymocks
Dymocks wants an open market. They wants to take away the right of Australian authors to transact their rights in different markets. Their argument is driven by the profit motive of course. Dymocks claims the wholesale price of books is cheaper in the United States through competition. And there is undoubtedly more competition in the US in the book industry than there is in Australia. The US book market is more than 10 times the size of Australia. Dymocks also claims books are expensive in Australia because the Australian publishing industry is artificially protected from competition.
But the US is by no means an open market. Nor should it be. Both the United States and Australia are separate copyright territories, and books are licensed into each territory by their rightsholders. Few Australian books receive much attention in the US. The Australian market is far more competitive than the US market because Australian books have to compete with those from the US and the UK. Under our law as it currently stands, all books published outside Australia must be made available in Australia within 30 days of their publication, or the rightsholder loses their exclusive licence to publish the book in Australia.
Dymocks is pushing hard to destroy Australia as a distinct publishing territory. In their argument, they ignore the fact that the US and UK are closed markets. They also ignore the fact that book prices in open market territories such as New Zealand and Singapore are equal to or greater than those in so-called closed markets.
Their fallacious argument is designed merely to increase Dymock’s profit margins, not to make books cheaper. Dymocks could make book prices cheaper in their stores overnight, if that was their real interest. How? Dymocks receives a minimum 40% discount on the Recommended Retail Price (RRP) on books it buys from publishers so they have nearly half the price of the book to play with in -- and often more when they negotiate bigger discounts. We don’t know how much of the 40% of the price of a book is Dymocks profit And it’s not as if bookselling is a risky business. Their purchases from publishers are on a sale or return basis. What they haven’t moved off the floor after six weeks gets sent back to the publisher for credit.
In contrast, life is bit tougher for the publisher, and much more so for the poor author. When a book is sold by Dymocks, the publisher gets about 12% (at least ABS statistics from 2004, the most recently available, show that) and the author generally receives 10%.
What’s clear is as authors we need to stand up and be counted – counted as a successful industry, counted for what we add to our culture and counted as opposing any changes to our current system. I urge you all to make your voices heard to the Productivity Commission. Detail are on the ASA website –


Bernard J Rossi said...

Thanks for the full version of your speech Jeremy. I agree on all your points and read with interest the discussion re your book in Vietnam. I think both the government and the bookstores could do more to help the local industry and maybe if Dymocks and others put some of their profits into emerging authors (not those under 30 but people trying to get their first and second novels some legs), that would be a good start from a credibility POV. I will take a look on the ASA website and put my voice forward.


Bernard J Rossi
Author & Poet

Tomato Sauce said...

I think you have to keep in mind that the 40% discount that Dymocks get needs to cover the rent, wages and other cost of running the business. The actual profit, if any, is usually a single digit number.

An open market will benefit customers because books will be less expensive, which also means the sales in Dymocks will be reduced but they are hoping that volume will increase to even things out.

If you don't know already there are plenty of Australians buying books online (e.g. via Amazon) because there are plenty more choices offshore and the prices are significantly less than the local bookshop.

I would suggest Jeremy to study the examples of other countries with an open market before making a conclusion. Following US and UK isn't necessarily better.

Jeremy Fisher said...

Whoever you are Tomato sauce (close to Dymocks apparently, but not willing t leave your real name), you miss the point about Australian authors and their rights completely. New Zealand is an open market but books aren't cheaper. Online sales of books via Amazon do away with the collection of gst. Why doesn't the Australian Government force online reseallers to collect gst for Australian sales to make conditions equal for Australian booksellers? And the Australian market has many more books available than other English language markets.

Tomato Sauce said...

Thank you Jeremy for responding to my previous comment. Honestly this issue doesn't affect me personally because I don't live in Australia and therefore I don't feel the need to leave my real name. However, I have experience as a book retailer in an open market and therefore interested to share comments on the topic.

Today I read another blog on this issue and pretty much agree with the writer's conclusion that the impact of parallel importation isn't necessarily bad for local publishers and authors. See

Jeremy Fisher said...

Well Tomato Sauce (no real name -- why won't you identify yourself?) I guess that's why the US and UK markets are not open. Also, Australia is a small part of the English language book market. If we spoke another language, our culture might be a bit more protected in an open market. Currently, that's not so.