June 13, 2011

Parallel Importation (Or: Why Are Books in Australia So Expensive?)

The high price of Australian books has baffled me since I first landed here. I can still remember my popped-eyed, open-mouthed dismay when I realized that the average price of a new, good quality paperback hovered around $32AUD. An A5-size, "cheap" trade paperback that would have cost me $14.95 in the U.S. cost me $23AUD. If you ask me, that seems a little bit outrageous. It's not that I don't think literature is worth a little extra. But when I had to say no to Tony Horwitz's new book ($60 in hardback), hop onto Amazon and order it from America (even with the shipping, it cost me less), I started getting a little angry. WHY in the world are books so expensive here?

You'd think after several Writing & Editing Masters-level courses and a lot of conversations with bookish friends, I'd get it. But it wasn't until I did some sleuthing on parallel import restriction (PIRs) that it all started falling into place. Parallel importation, as I understand it, is when a 'non-counterfeit' product is bought and brought into another country without the permission of the intellectual property owner. For example, most big magazines - for example, National Geographic - have individual branches in different countries that publish their own version of the mother product. For example, the U.S. publishes National Geographic, whereas Australia publishes its own version: National Geographic Australia. But some retailers will still import copies of the U.S. version and sell them, as well. Parallel import restrictions mean that Australian distributors can't buy a foreign (mother) version of a book if an Australian company has bought copyright and is already producing the book in Australia.

To look into the implications of PIRs I'll follow a particular book through the distribution process. Let's pretend that I just had a book published in the U.S. (Torn, let's say; it's good to be prepared). Foreign publishers will buy the rights to publish my book and will proceed to print and distribute it in their own country. In order for my book to be protected by PIRs, the Australian publisher who buys the rights needs to publish the 'Australian' copy of Torn within 30 days of its release in the U.S. and must have the capacity to reprint it within 90 days. If they don't, then Aussie retailers can buy Torn from an overseas market at a more competitive price and have it shipped in. These restrictions are meant to protect the Australian publishing industry, but a debate continues to rage about whether PIRs really do that, or whether they simply make book prices higher.

PIRs seem to mean a couple of things. First, it means that the Australian publishing industry is being protected. A free market without PIRs would mean that retailers could source books from overseas, which would inevitably undercut the industry at a local level. A lot of the profit from PIRs goes back to Australian authors and publishers, which is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it also means that PIRs help keep book prices in Australia high because they create a less competitive market. A recent study suggests that consumers in Australia are paying around 30% more for books than the rest of the world. Yikes. If Australia didn't have PIRs, then distributors could buy a shipment of books from another country on the cheap, bring them into Australia and sell them at a retail price somewhere between price A (the price they bought it for) and price B (standard Aussie pricing, including the GST). That kind of competition could mean lower prices for consumers - if local chains *ahemDymocks* could be persuaded to sell their books for less. But it could also devastate the Australian publishing industry.

I've heard a lot of Aussie authors get fairly upset about doing away with PIRs, and I can understand their worry. Many authors argue that chucking PIRs will silence Aussie voices both old and new. Because PIRs help ensure that Aussie publishers see the same kinds of profits from printing international favorites like Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series as they do from Aussie up-and-comers, they're still willing to take chances on local talent. Local author Kim Wilkins makes great points about the many potential pitfalls that might come of axing PIRs, including the 'Americanization' of the Aussie industry: cheap books imported (well, because they're cheap) from the U.S., with an American cover and American spelling, that means a lesser product for the consumer, a smaller royalty for the author, and a lot less business for Aussie publishing.

The Australia Library & Information Association (ALIA), not a favorite with Aussie authors these days, found that local writers WOULD miss out on a certain amount of money if PIRs were done away with. But they also maintain that the people making the most out of PIRs are international authors, who reap much higher returns than local talent. That means that much of the book buyer's money flows right through the fingers of the Australian economy and straight overseas into other markets. But not as much as they might if PIRs were axed. Because in order for their to be an Australian publishing industry, there has to be money to support it. Otherwise everyone suffers, from writers to publishers to consumers.

I'm not sure where all this sits with me. One point rings out as clear as coins hitting the bottom of an empty jar, and that's the 'propositions' that the productivity commission proposed to help support the industry if PIRs are abolished. Most of their recommendations circle around 'providing grant funding' for writers. Okay, grants are all well and good, but that's a pretty vague and frustrating solution. And why oh WHY is it that writers have to fight that hard to make a living? Writers should be allowed to make money for their craft, just like any other job. They shouldn't have to beg and plead for the funding to be able to do what they do, especially if the demand for their stories is there.

One thing seems certain: book prices are too high. I'm sorry, but $60 for a hardback? No wonder we can't get people to read. I can only imagine how many people (myself included) are using Amazon and Book Depo to get books at a better rate, which can't be all that great for local industry. It sounds to me like PIRs aren't working as well as they could for both consumer and author. That said, I think protecting the industry is incredibly important. I'd hate to see the U.S. and U.K. market, rubbing their hands together and cackling, waiting to eat the little Aussie publishing world alive if there was nothing in place to protect it - because that's exactly what would happen. Protecting and serving authors and publishers means placing a value on cultural integrity, which inevitably means better quality for consumers and more opportunities for people like me.


  1. its a tax on knowledge.......protectionism at its worst.
    If Australian authors are any good they can compete with everbody else and not hide behind some dubious protection racket
    Try competing like Australian wine and get people to vote with their dollars
    In the meantime buy from the Book Depository in the Uk at 25 % less and get free postage.
    power to the consumer

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. I found it very useful in writing my own piece on the subject, and I've provided a link to it there. It's at http://diggingindownunder.blogspot.com/2011/10/books.html for anyone who's interested.


  3. Thanks John, your piece was very interesting!

  4. So I wanted my kids to see a few Nat Geo documentaries, and I thought it would be easy enough to hop on their website, get a subscription, and troll through the archives, looking for the specific ones I'd want. But no, $19 "specials" that include archives + 12 months print + iPad subscription is available only in the US. In Australia a 12-month print subscription (only!) is "only $49" special - x3 more, minus access to electronic archives or iPad version. Think I'm going to pay for the privilage of living in Australia? And then the "associations and other assorted bodies" are perplexed on why there is rampant piracy? Um... you brought it on yourself? Trying to fleece me brings out the robber - or is that concept too hard to comprehend?

  5. Wonderful explanation...thank you!