Oh no! ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oh no!

Update: some early industry responses on the Ragged Claws blog.

The Productivity Commission today released its long awaited report on the parallel importation of books. I've only had time to read through the overview, but the conclusions are clear. The commission unequivocally recommends the total abolition of restrictions. Surreally, it says that any "contraction" in the publishing industry or in "cultural externalities" (I think they mean all the things that make books different from clothes pegs or fridges) caused by this decision should be countered by... the Federal Government giving more subsidies to literature!!!

That free market ideologues could actually recommend a higher rate of state subsidies, in the name of increasing competitiveness in the publishing industry, totally does my head in. They're effectively passing the responsibility for cultural value from the market to the state. It makes no sense, certainly from my understanding of what free market ideology is supposed to be, but I'm sure this is what it says. Perhaps someone else has a better translation?

The Government should repeal Australia’s Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) for books. The repeal should take effect three years after the date that it is announced.

The Government should, as soon as possible, review the current subsidies aimed at encouraging Australian writing and publishing, with a view to better targeting of cultural externalities. Any revised arrangements should be put in place before the repeal of the PIRs takes effect.

It further recommends an assessment after five years, presumably to see what the damage is, while openly admitting that there isn't enough information about the publishing industry available now to make decent decisions. This also does my head in.

If this report is ratified by the government, it will have one immediate effect on me, and the majority of other Australian authors who are able to do so: I will think very hard before publishing in Australia from now on. I will be far better off publishing in the UK or the US, where I will have the benefits and royalty protection of territorial copyright. Which makes me a bit sad.

And I would hate to be a new Australian writer now.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading through the report now (and probably will be for the forseeable future), but there was a bit at the start that stood out:

"All major English language markets, including the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US) and Canada, also have PIRs, although without time requirements for first publication. New Zealand, on the other hand, is an unrestricted market (although it operates, in practice, largely as part of a collective ‘ANZ’ market)." (Page 16.)

Why do we have to be the guinea pigs in this bold new move? Besides, everyone knows what happens to guinea pigs - one loud bang and they die of a heart attack.

Also: "it is probable that most Australian publishers, including the major publishing houses, would generally adapt to the new regime" (Page 23.)

The same could be said about virtually any change in the law - "while a decision requiring all citizens to wear a rubber glove over their head is a controversial one, we feel that most people would generally adapt to the new regime." I could adapt to wearing a rubber glove, but I doubt I'd be better off for it.

And so this new Australian writer (donations can be made to...) will continue reading.

Alison Croggon said...

I read through the whole thing. And nowhere did anyone explain why, if PIRs cause such upward pressure on the prices of books, the UK and the US - which have no intention of abandoning PIRs - are such paragons of low book prices. Why didn't they wonder if there were other factors at work - if indeed books are more expensive here, which even they admit is highly arguable.

But maybe the most depressing aspect of this whole depressing document is the contempt with which the authors view the whole literary industry. It's as if it's impertinent for writers to think they ought to be able to make a living from their labour. They even argue that the money spent on books due to the success of the publishing industry could have been better spent elsewhere - that the publishing industry's success is effectively stealing money and skills from other parts of the economy.

It's not only insane, it's insulting.

Anonymous said...

I found the book Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang a really good explanation of why free market rhetoric is so hollow. It's a tool used by the powerful (player) against the less powerful (state) to gain market advantage. Nothing more: the ideology is just smoke screen (and as Alison points out, not very effective at that).

He is an economist and not opposed to international trade but agues convincingly that any international trade has to be made on a country's own terms (as did his home country Korea) not the WTO or WB's or US's terms. In this country publishing and clean food are just minnows to be thrown to US to get half a percent off the trade barrier on lamb carcasses.

The great irony in all this which he illustrates well is that the great Western powers have always used trade barriers 'liberally' and self-interestedly when building there own new industries. Recent talk of food subsidies going up in US and Europe because of Great Recession too. So hypocrisy lives inside the hollow ideological core.

Good to read if you're not reading culture books only. Follow with "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" also supposed to be revealing of the tactics those at the 'top' of the game will use to keep the poorer nations in their place.

Anonymous said...

Mike Woods, the deputy chairman of the Productivity Commission had this to say: "We also think that the cultural value of books is worth protecting. There are currently subsidies but we think that they should be better refined to target the cultural value of books compared to what they do now." (This is what Recommendation 2 is referring to, I assume.)

So as you were saying, Alison - this is passing the responsibility for the cultural value from the market to the state.

Let us assume that this works fine. That authors still get as good a deal as they are getting at the moment (even though this seems unlikely). The current situation is a blanket "cultural boost" I suppose you could say. If these changes were made, this would change to something more...targeted. But authors are still getting the money. Everything's fine, right?

My question is, exactly what institution is going to be set up to determine what is cultural, and therefore what should be subsidised?

I don't have much of an idea of how subsidies work in the publishing industry, and perhaps I'm being a tad paranoid - but with the state, not the market, getting to decide what is cultural and deserving of subsidy, then surely the state can decide what is NOT cultural and deserving of subsidy, virtually eliminating all chances of such a work being published?

Not that I'm trying to say that there's some huge conspiracy going on here to introduce more censorship without us knowing, but I think it could make it much easier for something like that to happen in the future.

And it is impertinent for writers to think they ought to be able to make a living, isn't it? I thought all artists were supposed to take a vow of poverty and survive only on air and the bounteous gifts the Art Gods bestow upon us? If you'll excuse me, I'm late for my appeasement - these lambs aren't going to sacrifice themselves!

Alison Croggon said...

The interim report made quite a big deal about the "psychic income" writers make from their work, which apparently makes up for lack of economic income. This caused so much anger and derision that they've toned it down to a paragraph stating that writers get enjoyment from their work. I don't know why this is a factor that even deserves mention: many people enjoy their work, and gain satisfaction from it. But no one would suggest that the fact that a doctor or teacher, say, enjoyed their vocation should somehow enter into deliberations about what their labour is worth. Shades of the old saw "get a proper job".

I do think this attitude - that literature doesn't constitute a "proper" industry, that culture is just a kind of disposable wallpaper - bleeds through the whole report. And that makes me want to leave this country.

Your argument about subsidies is an old one, EP. We have quite efficient subsidising already, with processes of determining what is of cultural value that are argued about all the time. It has both virtues and drawbacks. But - as a raft of recent reports on arts funding demonstrate - governments all over the world are cutting back on state funding and telling artists to find other means of supporting their work (ie being "sustainable"). In this global climate - of which the report authors are clearly ignorant - suggesting that a literary culture that can support itself at present should be forced into state support is madness. That is, if you care for the culture.

There's something quite punitive about the report, not least in how it brushes aside the concerns of the industry. I read all the submissions, and out of around 500 altogether, less than 50 - maybe fewer than that - supported the proposal of dropping PIRs. The authors just claimed those who argued against abolition were self-interested - as if Dymocks and Coles are not! - and therefore ignorable. There probably is place for reform - many people seemed to think so - but wholesale vandalism is another thing altogether.

Anonymous said...

You have it exactly right. Get a real job. Will the government adopt the recommendations? Just watch them. The cultural climate at the moment is unutterably depressing. At the risk of linking seemingly unrelated things - the VCA, the Australian Academy of Music, Henson - we could all go on. And all I can hear is some nasty little shit from my adolescence saying "You think you're so special, but you're not." It is there, all through this report. What to do? Leaving is not an option, I think. Fighting sounds good. Especially the day after Bastille Day. That's me being one of those overeducated, think they're so special, latte drinking artist wankers.


Alison Croggon said...

Reading that report yesterday was a rather toxic exercise. It's facing, once again, the basic problem: that culture in all its forms is not valued in any intrinsic way. The only governmental department which seems to say anything intelligent about the arts is the department for innovation, which seems to grasp the connection between a healthy culture and a healthy, innovative, intelligent economy. Frankly, it just makes me tired: negative and ignorant attitudes towards the arts are deeply entrenched here, and I don't know whether they can ever be substantially changed, especially in the face of hostile public policy recommendations like this, which all too often simply become self-fulfilling prophecies. And yes, all these different issues are connected.

Anonymous said...

I choose to protest against the PC and the Cheaper Books for Retailers coalition by buying tonnes of Australian books via the Book Depository.