literature and parallel importation

Below’s a piece about parallel importation that appeared in Crikey yesterday.

The kind of ‘free trade versus protectionism’ arguments that parallel importation raises will become even more important for the Left in the context of a recession. But they’re not easy, especially in a short article, and in some ways the thing yesterday was a bit of a mess. But for what it’s worth:

It’s the Terminator of the Australian book industry: regularly dealt deathly blows but somehow always back, red eyes aglow. Even in these times in which neoliberalism is officially “A Very Bad Thing”, the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the Copyright Act has once more opened the debate about the parallel importation of books.

At present, when a book’s published overseas, Australian publishers have a 31-day grace period in which to bring out a local edition. If no Australian edition emerges, booksellers can import whatever version they want. Parallel importation means that such limitations would no longer apply. Booksellers could bring in overseas editions (which might, in theory, be cheaper or more current), irrespective of whether the titles had already been published here.

Henry Rosenbloom (of Melbourne independent publishers Scribe) has aptly dubbed parallel importation a solution searching for a problem. The Australian Booksellers Association — the body that would, you’d think, campaign hardest for it has, in fact, reversed its old stance. The Australian Society of Authors is entirely apoplectic, with 700 leading writers signing a petition against the introduction of parallel importation.

As for publishers, well, Rosenbloom contends that the 31-day rule, though introduced as a half-arsed compromise, almost accidentally sparked a mini-renaissance in local publishing:

With territorial copyright guaranteed, a rights-buying culture emerged, and then a rights-selling one. Microscopic independent publishers became small and then medium-sized ones; new publishers emerged and flourished; multinational publishers beefed-up their local programmes; independent booksellers retained their vitality and their market-share; local authors gained more publishing choices and greater visibility; major writers’ festivals sprang up and strengthened around the country, often headlined or attended by foreign authors who otherwise wouldn’t have been heard of.

The argument for reform comes most stridently from former NSW Premier Bob Carr. Now, Carr sits on the board of the Dymocks book chain (a long-term advocate of deregulation) but, somehow, when he calls for parallel importation, he does so on behalf of the ‘umble workers from whose ranks he sprang. Carr, you see, despite the best efforts of “our train-driver Dad and housewife Mum”, grew up without books:

When as a university student I visited middle-class homes I looked at the bookcases with envious awe: volumes lined up, spine next to spine of captured knowledge, stories and wisdom. […] More brimming bookshelves in more Australian households will lift Australian literacy.

Unlike, say, Dymocks’ balance sheet, an argument that parallel importation will mean cheaper books and hence more reading goes to the heart of why anyone outside publishing should care what happens to the industry. Many of us think that books matter and that a culture without, say, literary novels is impoverished by the lack.

Yet to test the notion that the free market — that natural ally of traindrivers and housewives — will sprinkle its economic pixie-dust and get all today’s little Carrs reading cut-price paperbacks we need only look at our American cousins. The United States, after all, has beaucoup deregulation. But brimming bookshelves? Not so much. The aggregated figures suggest, instead, a general decline in the importance of books in general (and serious books in particular) to American culture.

By age, the rate of that decline is steepest among young adults, with the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds that describe themselves as reading literature falling to 42.8% in 2002 from 59.8% in 1982. The percentage of 25 to 34 year olds fell from 62.1% in 1982 to 47.7% in 2002. In 2005, an astonishing 65% of college freshman said they read little or nothing for pleasure. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of titles published increased by 58% — but the number of fiction readers declined by 14%.

None of that’s any reason for Australian complacency, since the figures probably represent a global trend. It’s not necessarily that people read less — indeed, the ubiquity of the internet probably means that most of us absorb more words than ever before — but that there’s a shift in what they read, in which traditional literary writing seems to be one of the losers. You only need attend an Australian writers festival to recognise that the audience for serious writing here comes from a very narrow demographic.

If the free market’s no solution to this broader problem, neither’s traditional protectionism. In a multi-ethnic society, writing needs to be more open to the world rather than less, and the old calls to buttress “Australian culture” will scarcely get a kid from, say, a Sudanese family to pick up a book.

This is the real debate we need to be having, as Mark Davis has been arguing for some time. In an Overland article from last year, he makes a number of specific policy suggestions about how literary publishing might be fostered.

But it’s also worth thinking through Carr’s invocation of the old tradition of working-class self-education. When, say, that great autodidact Billy Hughes belonged to what he splendidly called a “hard reading crowd” what was it that made a generation of manual workers devote their few spare hours to difficult books? It wasn’t simply a question of price (though obviously the books needed to be available). It was also that reading sat at the centre of a democratic and participatory community, in which earnest young people read, debated and then read some more.

It’s in that context in which books come alive (hence the contemporary popularity of book clubs). Thus, a modest proposal. In the midst of our current great stimulation, why not a mass injection of money into the library system? A discussion of libraries immediately shifts the debate away from the profit of businessmen and towards the democratic, public sphere.

Where the market place deals with individuals, libraries bring people together: a richly funded library service not only allows the young Bob Carrs to obtain the titles (whether local or overseas) they really want but provides forums and book clubs in which they can discuss them. The public computer facilities allows an easy transition into whatever kind of e-publishing takes off in the future, while the library network as a whole provides a new focus for publishers and authors.

Yes, it’s a modest proposal — and doubtless others will have better ones. But it’s surely as worthy of consideration as these tired old calls for more open markets.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *