PARALLEL IMPORTS DEBATE – ALLAN FELS SUPPORTS AUSSIE BOOKS

Last Saturday, I ventured into town to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival forum on proposed reforms to remove Parallel Importation restrictions on books.

I had gone there to listen to the debate, and to collect signatures on behalf of Saving Aussie Books for a petition to government requesting that PIRs be retained.

So you can imagine my surprise when out of the mouth of Allan Fels, advocate of ‘Free Trade’ and one of the instigators of the proposed reforms came these words, ‘I would be prepared to pay more for a good Australian book.’

Isn’t this what we are all arguing? That the price of a book is NOT the only issue in this debate…that Australian books are important…and that our cultural history should be maintained through our literature? And that’s not withstanding any discussion about the employment and artistic opportunities that go with having such a thriving industry.

RIGHT NOW, we are producing ‘good Australian books’, so why doesn’t Fels want to pay the price being asked for books for other people’s great grandchildren? Why is he so intent on opening our market to UK and USA; countries that won’t return the favour? Why does he want to subject our unique and successful industry to what publisher Sandy Grant refers to as ‘Cultural Imperial Bullies’?

What preceded Fel’s admission was a question from author, Morris Gleitzman, if you had your great grandchild on your knee and were reading to him, would your choice of story be based on the fact that it was a good Australian story or would it be a book chosen because it was a few cents cheaper?

To me, Fel’s response to this question just illustrates the fact that you can’t reduce artistry, culture, educational value and reader enjoyment to dollar terms.

Reading is an emotional experience, and perhaps why that’s why so many of us are outraged that economists are trying to put a fiscal value on something that is esoteric and individual.

When it comes to a member of Fel’s own family, he is prepared to pay more for a good book. So why does he expect the rest of us to feel any different?

If you haven’t already signed the Saving Aussie Books petition which will be presented to Canberra, you can do so now at http://savingaussiebooks.wordpress.com

PARALLEL IMPORTS DEBATE – NOTHING FUNNY HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM…..

….And in fact, the Parallel Import Restrictions forum that took place at ACMI 2 in Fed Square on Saturday night was taken very seriously by all who attended.

And why wouldn’t it be? The proposal to remove Parallel Import Restrictions on books impacts on so many things…our livelihoods, our cultural history, our environment.

The Melbourne Writers Festival’s Response to the Productivity Commission Report featured the panel of Gabrielle Coyne (MD, Penguin), Sandy Grant (Publisher, Hardie Grant), David Vodicka (Rubber Records), Allan Fels and Peter Donoughue.

The panel was chaired by author and academic, Mark Davis, but unfortunately, no authors were really given the chance to stand up and have their say. Also absent from the panel was any representation from the Productivity Commission; which seemed strange seeing as it was their report that was being responded to.

More than 100 people listened to, and participated in the debate which went half an hour overtime and could have gone a lot longer. I was there as a member of Saving Aussie Books; getting petitions signed to submit to our politicians….and of course to listen, and gain a greater understanding of the issues.

Allan Fels, advocate of ‘Free Trade’ had the first chance to speak and referred back to 1912 when the parallel import laws first came in. Nobody was really quite sure why he did this seeing as the 1991 amendments seemed to have far more relevance to the current industry.

Allan clearly stated his position, that he believed that the PC report demonstrated that the average price of books in Australia is substantially higher than our overseas competitors.

His statement left me wondering if he’d read the same document…or even lived in the same country as me. And Gabrielle Coyne was quick to point out that Fel’s conclusion was simply not true; citing as an example, the fact that Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’ can be purchased in Australia for $14, and that there is statistical evidence to prove that Aussie books are competitively priced.

Prices vary according to exchange rates, freight and so many other factors and even the Productivity Commission CANNOT guarantee price reductions.  As Gabrielle mentioned, ‘The PC report pretty much says that books will be cheaper some of the time (maybe)’.

Sandy Grant talked about the fact that local publishers would be disadvantaged by a deregulated market because there is no way that the US or the UK markets will remove Parallel Import Restrictions on books.  As Sandy said, ‘This creates unfair and uneven competition’. He described it as, ‘One more hit that will destroy independent publishers’.

While Sandy conceded that the digital age necessitates the need for industry reforms, he said that removing PIRs on books is ‘Not the reform that the industry should focus on this time around’.

Allan Fels agreed that removing PIRs, ‘Would have some impact on the publishing industry, but not too large.’

This statement left many of us in the audience shaking our heads, wondering how you quantify not too large, and why it is worth risking jobs, livelihoods and cultural history when the impacts of removing PIRs have not even been properly measured?

Allan Fels also claimed that the proposed reforms would lead to significant improvements in distribution; once again a sweeping statement without any terms of reference and clearly no factual basis seeing as distribution warehouses were wiped out in New Zealand when PIRs were removed.

Sandy Grant pointed out that most New Zealand books are now purchased offshore, with book buyers based in Australia. Would we want our book buyers based in the US, using their markets to dictate what is available here?

David Vodicka from Rubber Records was called upon to talk about how removing PIRs had affected the music industry. Despite claims in the PC report to the contrary, David was able to speak of ‘real’ experiences. He said that, ‘CDs have become cheaper because of the internet, not because of removing PIRs.’ David also stated, ‘There is no empirical evidence to show that PIR removal had any affect on prices’.

Furthermore, he said that the government subsidies designed to compensate artists (the same ones being offered to authors if PIRs are removed) ran out after three years.

He also advised that since the removal of PIRs in the music industry, ‘Small record labels have had difficulty getting access to markets’.

Unfortunately due to the lengthy rhetoric from Allan Fels and Peter Donoughue, question time was limited. Publisher, Henry Rosenbloom did have an opportunity however, to speak out about the fact that freight charges hadn’t been allowed for in any of the pricing done by the Productivity Commission.

Author, Morris Gleitzman said, ‘The place we give young people’s stories in our culture can’t be reduced to economic rationalism’.

Allan Fels response was, ‘There will always be a demand for good Australian books and the Parallel Imports story is irrelevant to that’.

But as Morris pointed out, ‘How can people feel a demand for an author they have never heard of?’

Finally, the question was asked, ‘Why are consumers more important than our culture and the people who create it?’

Thanks to everyone who signed the petition on Saturday night. This issue will be debated in Parliament on 17th September, so we need to ACT NOW!

What you can do: 

  1. Sign the petition at the site http://savingaussiebooks.wordpress.com
  2. Download a petition from http://savingaussiebooks.wordpress.com,  and get your friends to sign
  3. Write to your politicians
  4. Meet your politicians in person and express your concerns

Be watching for tomorrow’s post,

Allan Fels Supports Aussie Books