For what nation can advance with its tongue torn out?

I am feeling somewhat serious today, and so I point you to Richard Flanagan's closing speech at the recent Sydney Writer's Festival:

At the moment, Australian writers and readers are being asked to take a fall in order that a few rich people get richer.

… This dullest and dreariest of phrases – territorial copyright – is the drab motley thrown over a measure which will do untold damage to Australian culture. I cannot begin to convey to you the destructive stupidity of what is being proposed, nor the intense sadness and great anger that so many Australian writers feel about this proposal.

…Writers and books that matter will become like an endangered species with no habitat left to support them. The fate of most of them in the large chain and discount mega store culture will be that of marsupials in new outer suburbs, dicing with death on freeways, not knowing until that short moment of blinding light dazzle that this is no longer their home.

I highly recommend reading the full text of the speech, but for the edification of those non-Australians who read this blog, there is a proposal afoot to remove Australia's territorial copyright laws, and allow the parallel importation of books. Proponents argue it will result in cheaper books for the public.

Now, I'm all for cheaper books,1 but the arguments for parallel importation are specious, as Richard Flanagan summarises (emphasis mine):

Of course, as the Coalition for Cheaper Books – or, as we might more accurately call it, the Coalition for Bigger Business – would point out, that's not the whole story.

This is.

What is being proposed doesn't exist in Europe or the USA. And even if US and British publishers are allowed to dump books on our market, Australian publishers will not be allowed to do the same in theirs.

In the one country in the world where the change was introduced, New Zealand, publishing has, according to the New Zealand Publishers Association, suffered, and books are now more expensive.

If it were a reciprocal arrangement — if Australian publishers were granted access to the North American buying public at the same time as the North American publishers are granted access to the Australian buying public, for example — then the story might be different. But as it stands, the current proposal isn't "opening the market": it's turning Australia into a giant remainders bin for foreign publishers.

I don't know about you, but I get plenty of foreign culture on my TV and movie screens and book shelves as it is. I don't want those to be my only options.

More detail can be found at the AusBooks site, including a video of Richard Flanagan's speech, for those who don't want to read a slab of text online.


  1. Let's just say I don't know any published writers who got into this gig for the money 😕 []

3 thoughts on “For what nation can advance with its tongue torn out?

  1. Absolutely.

    If it goes through the publishing industry will be the poorer for it. Why do they want to turn Australia into the poor cousin of the US and the UK, existing on left overs?

    1. @tessa: Flanagan's? Yah, is fantastic. I quite like his metaphors, too.

      @rowena: Precisely! There was another article in the paper today, claiming that authors are simply scared – that parallel importation didn't result in a glut of american movies at the expense of australian films, so it won't have that effect on books either. Which is simplifying the matter beyond stupidity (book and movie industry operate in very different ways, for starters – and also, I'd like to point out that anyone living outside one of the state capitals is fighting an uphill battle to find a screening of a non-hollywood film in the local theatres.)

      If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Australian publishing industry may not be perfect, but it ain't broke. And much as I dislike the price of books myself, I don't think they're unreasonable given the economies of scale. Plus, if we want cheaper books, there are other options, surely. Removing GST. Better funding for libraries. An increased push for literacy and reading as a preferential hobby to TV, so that more people are reading, so that more people are buying books… Gah.

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