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Changing Our Book Laws Would Be A Sad Story

The writing's on the wall.

17/06/2016 3:19 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
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Is Australia's publishing industry heading for a fall?

I fear for the future livelihood of Australian authors and Australian publishers if the government is successful in changing the current laws dealing with the importation of books.

With rare exceptions, when you head into a book retailer or go online to buy a book by an Australian author, it will have been published by an Australian publishing company. That Australian publishing company is paying the author an agreed percentage of the price of every book sold. This percentage is usually 10 percent (often increasing to 12.5 percent after a certain number of copies are sold). Invariably, the Australian publisher has paid the author an upfront advance against the book's earnings.

If, on the other hand, you head into a book retailer or go online to buy a book by an overseas author, it will either have been published by an Australian company in exactly the same manner outlined above (with an advance going to the author, who receives a percentage royalty on every book sold) OR it is being distributed here by an Australian company on behalf of an overseas publisher OR it has been ordered directly from an overseas company.

Under the current Australian book importation laws, if a book hasn't been made available in Australia within 30 days of its publication anywhere else in the world, booksellers and online vendors can source the book from wherever they want.

The Australian government wants to change the law so that from the day of publication of a book anywhere in the world, regardless of whether an Australian publishing company has invested in publishing the book in Australia, retailers and online vendors can buy the book from any company in the world.

In the case of Australian authors who are published both here and overseas -- including Kate Morton, Richard Flanagan, Liane Moriarty, Christos Tsolkas, Nikki Gemmell, Tom Keneally, Michael Robotham and many more -- instead of receiving a percentage of the price of every book sold by their Australian publisher, they will receive a significantly smaller amount for any of their books which are imported from overseas, chiefly from the US or UK.

Meanwhile, books by Australian authors sold primarily in Australia will have to compete with a flood of cut-price remaindered books dumped in our market by overseas publishers.

In Australia, the average annual income of an author is just $13,000. The abolition of the parallel importation law will reduce that paltry amount even further.

As for Australian publishing companies, invariably they work with thin margins and make small profits. This is because they pay for the cost of editing, typesetting, designing, printing and distributing books. They also provide a significant discount (on average 40 percent) to book retailers. And those retailers invariably buy books on a sale-or-return basis, meaning a bookseller can return books they don't sell and receive a refund for them.

Contrary to the myth peddled by some pundits to justify changing the current book importation laws, book prices in Australia are competitive with prices overseas. In addition, book prices in Australia have decreased by 25 percent since 2008 when adjusted for CPI.

If you love reading books, care about Australian writers and writing, and believe a viable Australian publishing industry is important, you should be alarmed by the prospect of the government changing the current importation laws for books.

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