Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Worthwhile Culture?" -- sure, but tell me what it is first

The Coalition for Greater Profits, urr, sorry, Cheaper Books in the form of bookseller Dymocks has come up with a marvellous suggestion in the last stages of the debate regarding the restrictions on the parallel importation of books.
Dymocks has put forward the concept of a 1% levy on publishers' sales to raise $15 million to fund new Australian writing grants. Sounds great! Authors should be enthusiastic about this. But wait for it -- there's a rider.
Dymocks proposes these grants be for 'culturally worthwhile books'. There's a rub and a half! A Pom could argue that there won't be any books funded under such a scheme, since there's nothing worthwhile in Aussie culture. Myself, I'd argue that such a definition would cover books such as "Brutal British Governors of Australian States", "Knitting patterns my Nonna taught me", "Plaster and metal ceiling panels, bosses and straps for Federation houses", "Aboriginal languages of New South Wales with CD-ROM", "The history of Cornish immigrants to South Australia", "Netball for boys", "450 recipes for roo: How to eat and save our national emblem", "Up on a Hill: A history of St Patrick's, Goulburn", "Best Australian Bush Ballads", a manga series featuring my favourite villain Killer Koala, "The Banksias: Botanical illustrations of the complete species (in five volumes)", "Australian automobiles 1924-2000", "Tiwi football", "Diseases of Australian livestock and native animals (with online resources)", "My first writing book (with teaching materials)", "Alitji in the Dreamtime -- Alice in Wonderland in Pitjantjara and English", "Fishtails in the Dust: stories and poems by Central Australian writers", "Australia's corporate crooks" and "Jeff Thompson's favourite fast balls".
The trouble for Dymocks is that most of these titles (or similar versions) have in fact been published by the Australian publishing industry at one time or another. That's the great strength of the industry, that it can and does produce such culturally worthwhile and relevant titles -- and its a strength Dymocks ignores in its pursuit of greater profits.
You'll notice I haven't included many fiction titles in my list of culturally worthwhile books. Would fantasy, romance, crime, or science fiction cut it as 'culturally worthwhile'? Would The Book Thief and Tales from Outer Suburbia (just awarded major prizes in Germany) make the grade? The Book Thief isn't even about Australia.
The Literature Board of the Australia Council offers about $4 million in grants (including the ASA managed Emerging Writers and Illustrators initiative) to writers and publishers for work in development or of marginal viability for a publisher.
What does Dymocks propose in addition that would be culturally worthwhile? They give no clues except that phrase 'culturally worthwhile books' but I'd hazard a guess they mean books such as those some of our stuffier and more remote (at least from Australian culture) critics (mostly in Melbourne) consider "literature", whatever that is. These books may be supremely worthy in the confines of Carlton, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that such books are perpetually in search of an audience. Would providing further funds for their publication help them find such an audience? Surely, that is the problem that must be addressed.
But Dymocks is drumming here to obscure their own shortcomings. There is no shortage of books being published in Australia that can be considered 'culturally worthwhile'. They come not only from the largest of our publishers but also from the smallest. It is the smallest publishers though who have the greatest problem in putting their wares before potential readers and Dymocks and its practices are largely to blame.
If Dymocks was serious in its pursuit of 'worthwhile culture', the company would do better by guaranteeing that it will stock all the books of Australia's small publishers and make them available Australia-wide without charging them for shelf space (which happens for many titles from major publishers -- those books don't get up the front of the shop without a price being paid) and actually contributing some promotional funds to assist in bringing them to the attention of readers. In doing this Dymocks would actually be performing a service and a function that a customer expects of a bookshop.
In today's climate, one of the problems that small publishers such as those in the Small Publishers Underground Networking Community (SPUNC) face is marketing and distribution. Dymocks is well-placed to assist these publishers. But it does not do so. Why? Dymocks is only after the cream, the short tail, of the publishing market. It stocks best-sellers from the largest publishers and "special orders" those of our smaller publishers.
Try buying Fishtails in the Dust or Tiwi Football (both real books) in Dymocks George Street or one of the Melbourne stores. Yes, the special order desk will be able to find it in Books in Print, but there'll be a special order surcharge and it isn't in stock etc., etc. Same for Aboriginal Languages of NSW (another real book, though it doesn't come with a CD-ROM) and my own book Music from another Country, which is stocked by independent bookshops but special ordered by Dymocks, so I know Dymocks customers are asking for it, but, hey, let's not have Dymocks give their own customers what they want, eh -- after all, there's all those Stephanie Meyer books over by the door in piles ...

One thing we should read into Dymock's statement though is their valuation of the Australian publishing industry at $1.5 billion. The publishers value it at about $2 billion, which, if you add in the educational sector (mostly unknown to Dymocks) is about right. Dymocks wants to endanger that amount of value-added business in Australia to enhance its own profits. Doesn't sound right does it.
Certainly doesn't sound 'culturally worthwhile'.

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