Saturday, November 14, 2009

The price of books: on the one hand this and on the other hand that, and anyway, nobody really knows

In the wake of the federal government's decision the day before yesterday to reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation on Australian books and maintain the status quo on parallel importation, there's a fair amount of passionate discussion around -- here, for example -- about whether or not it was a good decision.

The free marketeers are really going to town on it, apparently unable to see it as anything but a straightforward market issue -- books as pure commodity, as in 'I'm not giving you a book for Christmas, you've already got a book'. Most of their arguments are based on the unspoken assumption that the producer/consumer relationship is at once symbiotic and fundamentally adversarial in literature (as it truly is in so many other activities), something they would know to be far from the truth if they had enough interest in literature to hang about at a few writers' festivals and observe the behaviour of the crowds.

I've always had a lot of respect for Allan Fels, but if he has anywhere actually addressed the concerns of those who feared damage and loss to Australian literary cultures, subcultures, infrastructures, practitioners and readers, instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, then I have yet to see it.

The free-market types are scornfully trashing the articles, essays, explanations and submissions from authors and publishers (including this particularly lucid piece by Text publisher Michael Heyward) as mere expressions of self-interest and therefore to be ignored. But whatever self-interest might have been involved (as if it were necessarily desirable, or even possible, to be both knowledgable and neutral on such a matter), these literary types addressed a broad range of concerns and explored various intricacies: of national and international publishing; of publishing contracts; and of the probable effects of the proposed changes on the ability of Australian writers to make a living -- and on the probable survival, or not, of the Australian literary culture that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish, maintain and expand.

Since reading, writing, teaching, scholarship, reviewing, editing, interviewing, anthologising, prize-judging, blogging and what-all else inside said literary culture have been my life's work, I did have and still do have just a bit of a stake in whether or not, in literature as in so much else, the local and the national get subsumed in the global and every aspect of Australian history, landscape, cityscape, vernacular and regional variation disappears from our literature in an attempt to compete in the global market.

(I myself, for example, am working on a pitch to publishers involving the tale of a teenage sparkly vampire from Rivendell who finds an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed with mysterious mathematical formulae, wedged into a secret panel at the back of the wardrobe in the Master of Ormond College's bedroom, which is guarded by a T. Rex and an albino hippogriff called Layla, creatures past which she manages to slip with the combined aid of Heathcliff, Mr Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, such were the arguments of authors and publishers and they looked pretty reasonable to me. Among the submissions to the Commission I can see the names of at least 40 writers, booksellers, publishers and agents I've known and respected for decades -- Frank Moorhouse's submission is worth reading for its own sake just as an exceptional piece of writing -- but then I read this most excellent blog post by that most excellent blogger Bernice Balconey, who has written several subsequent posts on the subject, and is an energetic participant in the discussion at Larvatus Prodeo linked to above; Bernice's original post was the first argument for change I'd read from someone with insider knowledge of the Australian book industry and it is still the most persuasive. Some of her points have been convincingly answered by various commentators but the one I can't go past is her summary point: 'the cat is out of the bag. The consumer exists in a truly global market'. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for metaphors about cats and bags. There are some things there I don't agree with and others I wish I didn't agree with but Bernice very clearly knows whereof she speaks and as a blogger and commenter over the years she has given me every reason to trust her judgement, especially in such matters as this.

So once I'd read Bernice's post I gave up any ambition to take up a position on this. There are too many variables and too many unknowns, and the issues are too numerous and too complex and in some cases too self-contradictory, and there are too many possible computations and permutations and too many things have been brought into the argument, things that may or may not turn out to be relevant -- though I was struck by the clarity of two very different points made today on Crikey in a piece by one Michael R. James:
E-books. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. [My emphasis.] As bloggers have shown, [Guy] Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

As James suggests, many of the arguments being made on both sides are to do with the unforeseeable changes in the technology -- imagine yourself in 1985 trying to explain to someone else what a Kindle was. But the only thing in the whole tangled web of argument that seems even remotely clear is that nobody really knows what will happen, or would have happened, either way.

Even the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (among other things), Craig Emerson, who was behind the push to lift the restrictions, admits (all quotations from here) that
The Productivity Commission report acknowledged that removing these restrictions would adversely affect Australian authors, publishers and culture.

He also went on to say
The Commission recommended extra budgetary funding of authors and publishers to compensate them for this loss.

Yeah, yeah. Show us the money, Craig. Core promise, is it?

And furthermore,
The Government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers. The Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance.

So yah boo sucks to you, eh? This sounds like a totally empty retro-threat to me -- "We'll say we were going to, although we didn't tell you that, but now we're not, so you've bitten off your noses to spite your faces. Or maybe not. You'll never know now, will you, so nyerdy nyer." This particular dummy spit looks to me like the words of a man whose ego has been bruised by the failure of his pet proposal to get up.

It's bizarre to see the free-market types joining forces with consumer advocates like Fels (apparently not an advocate of consumers of Australian books) while sneeringly dismissing the other side as 'economically illiterate', a phrase many of them are using to mean 'they don't share my world view, which is, of course, the only possible one'.

In my own case, why yes, it is indeed perfectly true that I know next to nothing about economics, having, like most people, spent my adult life studying and practising other things. And that is why I have refrained from forming, much less expressing, an opinion. What a shame those who know nothing about literature don't think they need to take the same precautions. The culturally illiterate blithely using a metaphor about reading skills to diss their perceived opponents is a very neat irony, the more so since -- being fundamentally uninterested in literature and its effects -- they're not equipped to notice it.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

1 comment:

  1. I'm not convinced that book price is actually that important. I basically gave up buying books this year and just started going to my local library, borrowing off friends and downloading free books. I've enjoyed reading much more this year than ever before because I've released myself from the burden of owning books. Buying lots of books is not the same as having a rich literary culture.