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responding to the Productivity Committee

I’ve been slow in reacting to the Productivity Committee’s report on opening up the book market, mostly because it’s insanely busy here at the moment but also because I’ve been struggling to articulate a coherent position. I’m not quite sure I’ve reached that point yet but here are some thoughts nonetheless.

The people behind the deregulation of Australian publishers are either free market ideologues or executives in discount book chains or both. The concern-trolling of people like Bob Carr about ‘umble workers and cheap books is risible, and in other context would be laughed out of the public arena. (The free market as a natural friend of the poor? Pull the other one — it sparks a GFC!) The only reason that the argument has the slightest traction is that it surreptitiously revives Howard-era ‘battler versus elites’ tropes: there’s still a certain audience for that tired rhetoric about inner city elites oppressing ordinary salty blokes, particularly in the context of books (which, as we all know, naturally attract the worst kind of tweedy elbowed tyrants).

Quite clearly, the free market will do for books what it does for everything else: homogenise and centralise and concentrate. If you want a vision of the future, think of a discount sale in one of those big remainder warehouses: tables and tables groaning under the weight of a zillion copies of the same crap blockbuster titles.

Anyway, there’s been lots of commentary on the decision. Here’s Sophie Cunningham at Meanjin; Michael Parker at the ABC; Henry Rosembloom at Scribe.

They all make good points. But there’s still a few things that worry me about the writerly response to the Productivity Committee.

Firstly, there’s an argument about protecting Australian culture, which often becomes the default position of those opposed to the free marketeers. I don’t like this at all, and I don’t think it’s going to win. It implies a knee-jerk nationalism, in which we defend Australian books simply because they’re Australian. Not only does that have unfortunate political consequences (there are plenty of Australian books I have no interest in defending), it won’t resonate with most readers (who, quite legitimately, want to read the best books from around the world, rather than be told that they have an obligation to ‘buy Aussie’).

In any case, it’s not healthy for the culture. There is a real problem in this country, IMO, getting literature out of a white ghetto and making it relevant to a multicultural population — think how Anglo the punters at most of the writers’ festivals are. Rather than defending ‘Australian culture’ (and as the Miles Franklin judges discover each year, defining that is not easy), we need to start looking much more closely at other cultures in the region.

Now, engaging with other cultures is not something the free market has ever encouraged, unless it’s in the form of translating Harry Potter to Indonesian. But that doesn’t mean that an ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ response is very helpful, either.

Which goes to my second concern. Yes, the reforms mandated by the Productivity Committee are bad. But it seems to me we need a response that goes beyond defending the status quo — because it’s not as if the situation now is that great, either. Actually, most writers in Australia have a really hard time. This is the way Malcolm Knox described life as a (critically aclaimed) novelist a few years back:

I am placing strain on my marriage, I am depriving my children of time with their father, I am not providing as well as I could be for their future, I am jeopardising the friendships I have by modelling my characters on people I know, and I am risking my parents’ shame with my explicit and confronting images, not to mention my children’s embarrassment when they are old enough to read my diseased outpourings. And I am doing all of this for a dying form, with ever fewer readers, pouring my energies into an anachronistic black hole. And it’s not even fun anymore, because I know that when I’m published, all I will face is momentary anxiety over reviews and the slowly-ebbing expectation of selling enough books so that my next novel might be published as well. Why the hell would anyone bother?

There’s a few threads in that to be teased out. Firstly, while one hates (or not) to sound like an unreconstructed Marxist, the interests of the various players in the Australian industry are not necessarily the same. According to the Australia Council’s Throsby and Hollister report, in the period 2000-01 writers had a mean arts income of $26,400 and a median arts income of $11,700. Now, this will probably worsen in a deregulated economy — but it’s hardly a figure that’s going to send writers to the barricades to defend the status quo.

Secondly, as we all know, books and writing are in the midst of a massive transformation, of which the digital revolution is merely the most obvious component. The fundamentals are changing and will only change more. Again, that means that it’s simply not good enough to say, in response to the Productivity Commission, that we want things to stay the same. Clearly, they are not going to, and the experience of reading in twenty years will be something quite different from what it is now.

What I’m arguing, then, is that, in order to prevent Adam Smith’s disciples doing to books what they’ve already done to the world economy, we need to go on the offensive. Rather than simply saying, leave us alone, we have to articulate a vision of how we want literature to work. And that vision won’t necessarily look very much like the status quo.

For instance, in a piece I wrote on this for Crikey some months back, I suggested that one concrete demand might be for a massive increase in funding to the public library system. Literature works, it seems to me, when it’s embedded in communities, and libraries do a really good job not only of buying books but of encouraging reading groups, author visits and so on — a whole community based infrastructure, in other words.

Whether that’s the greatest idea in the world, I don’t know. But it does, perhaps, point in the direction we should push the discussion. What new arrangements do e-books make possible? Are there different ways that bodies like the Australia Council could support writers? What alternatives exist to traditional copyright? Can we formulate some imaginative new proposals to capture the attention of the public?

The argument between free trade and protectionism is the oldest and stalest debate in Australian political economy: what we need to do is shift the terms, rather than engaging in the framework that’s been set by the Productivity Committee.

[Update: James Bradley has an interesting take at City of Tongues.]

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I absolutely agree about funding libraries. I also think we need a massive return to full-time specialist teacher-librarians in every school. KRudd is building all these libraries, but they will be empty soulless places without someone there making sure that new books are being bought and that kids are engaging with all aspects of library culture which includes but is not exclusively about reading paper books. It infuriated me when all the education ministers jumped on the sexy 'cheap books' bandwagon – library books are FREE. Our local school has a reading culture mostly because we have a teacher librarian. The school 7 minutes down the road (where my husband has worked) less so because the library doubles as the grade 2 classroom and the Principal buys the books. Both schools also have a visit from the council mobile library bus, which the other school relies on for the kids' library experience…it's a great library bus, but it's not the same as having a librarian integrated into the school culture. Librarians organise most of the school visits, and school visits generate interest in (yes I'm going to say it) Australian books.

    Recently I met with my publisher and we were talking about niche marketing, which is something that I think traditional publishing is still struggling to adapt to. That is, everyone is on Facebook (which is where I found the link to this blogpost) and on Twitter and on Good Reads and downloading apps for their iPhones and blogging etc, and we all talk to each other, and make recommendations…if you do a quick whip around of a group of people and asked them what they're reading and how they heard about it, chances are 'a friend recommended it to me' (either face to face or via a blog etc) will be one of the more common responses, and an active reader will solicit recommendations from everyone they meet. This seems key to me in how we should think about the book as an entity in culture, but I don't really know what it means in terms of the territorial copyright proposed changes…

    My gut response has always been that by removing territorial copyright, it's going to place more pressure on govt bodies to support all aspects of publishing from individual writers to small publishers to large ones. It seems ridiculous when for the most part, Malcolm's complaints aside, the industry is self-sustaining. Writers are always going to upset their mothers and neglect their children, and (as the productivity commission and the media blitz proves) be undervalued in society. But I for one made enough money out of writing to feed my kids for a year and support my student husband. I also taught and sang for my supper through school gigs, but both of these add-ons are part of my writing life (as they are part of Malcolm Knox's) for better or for worse. And happily I made slightly more money out of writing than I did from teaching university students.

    In other unrelated news, I don't think brand new writers will be as adversely affected as people have feared. New writers are easy to market for publishers, and many of the boutique presses specialising in short stories and poetry will probably go on as they are, since they have always had to compete with bigger, brighter, cheaper, popular, more readily available books. New writers seldom rely on writing to be a sole source of income, their advances are generally paid in funfair tokens, and a lot of them still care more about the experience of being published than they do about money. It's the mid-career writers I fear for, the ones who depend on writing education books or series fiction as well as their own work, who write three books for every book published – the blue-collar writers, who work bloody hard.

  2. I really enjoyed your post. I have been uncomfortable with the whole literary community bowing to nationalism as a response. I think literature is always going to shaped around the needs of profit, either for international corporations or for Australian ones and that's not going to help authors or readers a great deal.

    Though your response offers some immediate demands rather than the maximal, we need to destroy capitalism, something I'd like to see in the end, and in that vein, pushing the government for grants, to fund community publications from local writers (including migrants) would be a good idea so we're not reliant on private capital funding our writing.

  3. I totally agree this debate needs to be linked to other, broader, debates, such as the impact of the digital revolution, and I think that the book industry has been reactive at times in presenting their position – but I think it's an extreme reduction of the industry's position to say it's all Aussie Aussie Aussie. I certainly wasn't suggesting that people should buy Australian books because they're good for them, or because those books are intrinsically more interesting. There is enough of a free market operating already to make it clear that people cannot be made to by Australian books that don't appeal – you only need to look at the sales of most Oz fiction to see that. I'm leaving the 'let's focus on books that are good with us' to the PC. They're the ones that are making arguments about 'cultural externalities' and supporting particular types of books that will have maximum cultural impact and also appeal to OS markets. I think those arguments, combined with the Rudd government's suggestion during the Henson affair that only art that follows certain rules should get funded, is a dangerous one for any culture.

    In line with what you're saying, I see this debate as being very much about community. Literature IS ALREADY embedded in the local community – certainly in Melbourne. Local publishers, small bookshops are part of the community in the way that large chain stores, and overseas publishers are not. And that infrastructure is very much under threat. In New Zealand the result of the Free Market has been a contraction of the publishing industry and no drop in book prices.

  4. Look, I'm not trying to be proller than thou, nor to simply stir controversy. As I said in the post, I do think this is a very difficult debate and I'm still struggling to formulate a response.
    And I didn't mean to reduce the industry's response to 'oi, oi, oi.' Clearly, most people in the industry are outraged about the report because it will mean job cuts and devastation — and i think that's quite true.
    The more difficult question, though, relates to what we do now. And that's where the nationalism comes. The ASA, for instance, has set up a group called 'Australians for Australian books' — not because they are flag waving jingoists but, I presume, because they think this will rally people. I don't think it will, for the reasons I raised above.
    And that's the crux. If this stuff is going to be defeated, we need to find some way of mobilising ordinary people. To me, that means trying to find some way of reframing the debate.
    Of course, that's easier said than done and I'm not pretending to have a pat solution. But the reason why I raise the examples of libraries because it shows how it might be possible. That is, the Bob Carrs of the world go on and on about how important cheap books are to working class people. And I think there probably is some resonance to that argument.
    OK, well, a properly funded library system would provide books for free. So will Bob Carr support that? Well, no — actually he won't. So that way, one might be able to create a wedge between these people and their supposed popular base.

  5. Yes, The Coalition for Cheaper Books is arguing that this is for the people (they are being proller than thou, not you) when it's in fact for big business (profits for Big W, Dymocks ) etc. As you say, they don't actually have any interest in, say libraries or supporting them (cheap books yes, but free? Not so much). As commenters on Spike have pointed out other points of interest (such as the failure of similar policies in NZ to drop book prices, though the success at wreaking havoc in the book industry) has also been ignored. I agree these issues need to be made more of – but that said, they have been raised but failed to get media traction. My mother commented that writers, in this debate, are being treated with the disdain teachers are in various 'the state of our education system 'debates, and I think she's right. It's all seen as a bit boring – as, I would agree, an 'Australians for Australian books' campaign is. The debate does need to be reframed – I wish the right people were putting up their hands to do that.

  6. Great post Jeff. I totally agree that the terms of debate ought not be dictated by the Productivity Commission, but also not by the idea that the best way of supporting local publishing is through protectionism.

    It's unfortunate that writers and publishers feel the need to argue for what is a rather convoluted way of supporting their lives and activities. Ultimately the argument for continued protectionism rests on the need to allocate enough social resources for their survival. Why can't they just say that and call for more direct means of doing that, like direct state aid?

    The stuff Bernard Keane dredged up in Crikey from the writers' submissions – like Peter Carey's sneering comments about 'Excel-sheet readers' – really does look pretty foolish. (This is about the only time I've ever agreed with Bernard Keane, by the way.) It uses anti-economics rhetoric in support of what is really a completely market-oriented way of dealing with the underlying problem, that commodification does not do a good job of allocating resources where they are needed.

    The Productivity Commission argument that protectionism is not a fair or efficient way of doing what it's supposed to, is right, even if – as Sophie hilariously showed in her own quotes – their own rhetoric makes them walk right into Peter Carey's caricature. The problem is, of course, that the Productivity Commission has no intention of replacing the status quo with some more direct way of supporting writers, editors, etc. But that's what we ought to push for.

  7. Ta Mike. Part of the problem lies, as always, in a lack of political agency. No-one feels they have any power to enforce any demands, and so even the most most moderate program seems utterly utopian. I mean, if the trade unions can't hold Rudd to account, it's gonna be very hard for writers.
    Still you gotta do what you can, wherever you happen to be.

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