Of Course We Want to Compete – We’re Australian!

August 13, 2009 at 8:11 am (Uncategorized)

You may remember a few posts back that we were talking about proposed changes to Australia’s territorial copyright, since the Productivity Commission found in favour of lifting the ban on the parallel importation of books. Those who support the lifting of the ban – primarily major book retailers and their mates – have a very nice, very simple message, and they bleat it at every opportunity: CHEAP BOOKS. It makes extremely good political and popular sense to do this, and at this point you’d have to think they’re ahead of the PR race against writers and publishers, who have meanwhile been called everything from ideologues to fascists to leeches to decadents by an acutely and inexplicably hostile press. Part of the reason the other side is able to leverage this kind of name-calling so effectively is that writers and publishers are by their very nature NOT of one voice. It’s ironic, really, that this is something now being used against the industry, because it’s those healthy differences of opinion and expression that are so important to a country’s literature. But from my point of view, what it means is the message is being lost, because there’s a fragmentation of what the message is and what the message ought to be. That’s a very powerful gap for the other side to exploit, and they are exploiting it fully and with a really disturbing, disappointing appetite, very much as though writers and publishers were the ultimate scourge of society.

One of the chief charges brought against writers and artists is that they want to make the debate all about ‘arty farty’  ideas instead of about economic realities. Um, no, that’s not true, and I think allowing this image to take hold is the industry’s biggest misstep; it’s an image that plays on a popular (albeit woefully misguided, as a general rule) perception of creators as indulged dilettantes who are incapable of talking about market forces. This is, of course, bullshit. So today I responded to Imre Salusinszky, who recently completed a three-year term as chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts and wrote in favour of CHEAP BOOKS in last weekend’s Review section of The Weekend Australian. I’ve been seething about his column (propaganda by any other name) since the weekend, and writing a letter to the editor was part of my desire to pare back my own message, which is basically this: Australian writers are not anti-competition, and government-controlled grants do not a thriving Australian market make.

Here’s the content of the letter I sent to Review:

Leaving aside the patently ridiculous accompanying cartoon* (it may interest the artist to know Australian novelists earn an average of $11,000 a year), I have to point out a worrying sleight of hand in the argument for removing territorial copyright on books that Mr. Salusinszky so strenuously favours. Writers keep being told, throughout this debate, that they/we (I work as a freelance journalist for publications including The Australian but am an aspiring novelist) refuse the economic rationale around removing parallel importation restrictions. It’s just not the case. I and every other writer I’ve spoken to would far rather the Australian marketplace continues to decide which Australian authors it likes to read than the sitting government of the day. Mr. Salusinszky seeks to reassure readers, the tax payer and the writing community that support for Australian writers and publishers already exists ‘through a transparent system of grants. Let a thousand flowers bloom!’ Er, that’s a misquote of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s speech before his insidious cultural revolution, and we all know how well that turned out.

Do you really want a government body controlling which Australian stories are told? The Australian Council for the Arts, of which Mr. Salusinszky was recently Chair, does valuable work, and grants are an important means by which some books see the light of day. Grants are part of the mix for most cultural forms, including sport. But to say Australian stories will be protected by tax-payer funded grants seems to me to badly miss the point that this necessitates writers becoming grant junkies – you don’t need to write a good book, you just need to write a good grant application – and it means the state is deciding which literary projects are and are not viable. Oh dear.

You want to talk open market, Mr. Salusinszky? Then you need to be honest about the fact that you’re not suggesting a free market for Australian writers and publishers at all. You’re suggesting Australia opens its doors to the world market while its own authors are controlled and sustained primarily by the state. Australian writers should have an opportunity to compete in an Australian market that hasn’t been flooded with the world’s cheap remainders. Much, much bigger markets, who could weather this influx much better, like the UK and the USA, still opt to maintain their territorial copyright. Gee, I wonder why.

Strict competition laws protect the domestic market of every other industry in this country, and the publishing industry should continue to be afforded the same protections. Moreover, Salusinszky talks about the answer to the industry’s prayers being government grants. Not to worry! Let the government decide what is and what isn’t a valuable Australian story! Oh my god – I would much rather take my chances in the Australian market, thank you.

But give Australian writers the mythologised ‘fair go’ we’re always hearing so much about – they ought to be able to compete with each other at a national level. If anyone suggested we allow overseas players to swarm the ranks of Australian sporting sides, all hell would break loose. It’s deemed important, a matter of national interest, that Australian sportspeople represent their country in competition here and abroad; no one questions the value of that. Sure, there are exchanges and secondments at the club level, and plenty of Australian writers also spend valuable time overseas, but you won’t find anyone saying it would be okay if Australian sporting sides were dominated by non-Australians. And you won’t find the government of the day taking it upon itself to choose who plays and who doesn’t – no one would have that in a fit.

*  The cartoon showed a glamorous couple riding in a red convertible Porsche, the passenger sipping champagne and the driver saying, “Mind you, if they remove the tariff on luxury imported cars, I can buy that second Porsche I’ve always wanted…” The caption below read: Australian Novelists Discuss the Free Market. I mean, it’s just too ludicrous for words. Exactly how out of touch with a fiction writer’s reality are these people?

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10 Comments

  1. Grad said,

    Go get ’em, oh mighty warrior. If it comes down to you climbing into the ring, I’ll be sitting in your corner holding the water bottle.

  2. doctordi said,

    Thank you, Grad – it could get bloody. The good news is that the Rudd government hasn’t taken a firm position yet, and it seems a working group has been formed to further investigate the Productivity Commission’s findings. We can only hope someone at the top is making some sense.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    That was a terrific letter!

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Lilian – although it looks like this is the only way it’s seeing the light of day – no word from Review, although I can’t say I’m surprised; it was too long, and other people wrote letters in enough time to make it into last weekend’s section.

  4. Pete said,

    I agree – both with your sentiments and with the praise of them. And it’s so laughable that writers are equated with porsche-drivers. Anyone with any sense of economic realities will see that it is the CAs who do the luxury driving while writers often have to pay for their own transportation to publicity events (isn’t that right, Lilian). But I love a good punchy letter and I hope that your fellow writers back you up.

    • doctordi said,

      Pete, I know!! It’s so far-fetched that when I first saw it, I honestly didn’t equate it with the article, I thought they were unrelated. It was only later that I saw the caption and then my jaw, it did drop. Fellow writers are all up in arms, trust me, it’s just that no one’s listening because they think we’re all whining about only having one Porsche apiece.

  5. David said,

    That’s the craziest thing I ever heard. Then again, I know several aspiring fiction writers who are delusional enough to think they can make a living that way, so it’s a widespread international myth.

    The cartoon is just plain insulting. Clearly these folks have no idea that writing is the most thankless task on the planet, and that nobody does it who is not painfully, irresistibly driven to do it despite the usual lack of reward.

    • doctordi said,

      David, it’s the one-in-a-million [no pun intended] story that’s responsible, I think, because it’s those ‘overnight success’ pieces that attract press, and that’s what people read, and that’s what they assume it’s like, and it’s somehow very easy to forget the vast majority of writers have to hold on various jobs because they sold two copies of their novel. Or only managed to give away two copies to family members.

      I agree. Insulting is the word. It still stuns me.

  6. Jewelene said,

    Unlike the forenamed – major book retailers and their mates – we Independent booksellers oppose the parallel importation of books.

    • doctordi said,

      And Jewelene, it was very remiss of me not to say yay for independent booksellers! Three cheers for Coventry!

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