Jul 10, 2009

The stupid country

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

mark_seymour3In today’s Age former head Hunter & Collector, Mark Seymour, has written a scathing indictment of the commercially driven lobby to remove Australian literary copyright, a lobby being fronted by ex-NSW Premier Bob Carr. Just to remind ourselves, this group of mega-chains, including Dymocks (Carr is a board member), Woolworths, Coles, K-Mart, Big W and Target, is slyly called: the Coalition for Cheaper Books. (See the Tim Winton post on this.)

Seymour knows whereof he speaks – he draws the parallel with the music industry which Carr & Co keep citing. In 1996 John Howard pushed through deregulation of the music industry and removed local copyright. As Seymour notes, ‘the Australian music industry is in deep trouble. It has halved in size in the past five to seven years’ and the fall in CD prices is ‘a result of digital downloading and copying — it has nothing to do with the removal of import regulations’. Meanwhile, clever US and Britain have kept their copyright laws in place. What do they know that we still refuse to?

Seymour: ‘Like the publishing industry, the music industry is a complex chain of commercial interests all inextricably linked by small margins. Carr’s glib observations about how the Australian music industry has flourished despite reform are — to use his language — “absolute rubbish”.

‘The truth is the Productivity Commission’s drive for market reform in bookselling has been hijacked by the coalition of giant retailers. If the giant retailers are allowed to import books as soon as they become available from overseas then they will simply demand discounts for the same titles from local publishers or buy overseas. And there will be no legal compulsion to pass the savings on to the consumer.’

JC wept. We blew up our music industry, hurray! Now, let’s blow up our book industry! And, crazily, with our governments – Liberal or Labor –  it’s not even about commercial rationality, it’s the ideology: “the free market”. A free market which, let’s be absolutely clear, does NOT include the US and Britain. In music or books.

To quote Tim Winton: ‘The single most important factor in decolonising Australian letters has been the advent and gradual acceptance of ANZ rights…territorial copyright. It’s not unique to Australia – every American and British writer enjoys it in their home country and after generations of sacrifice and struggle, Australians now have it it too.’

And so we – our elected representatives – want to give it away. Hey Big Inc., Big International, yoohoo! Over here – I’m the one lying down with my jeans hitched up. Come and get me.

Stupid country. Or what?

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5 thoughts on “The stupid country

  1. Jack Robertson

    And like many others supporting PIR’s, your submission (DR 206) to the PC is full of claims about the publishing industry that are confusing at best and suspect at worst. So to help me improve my understanding, Shane, let’s start by examining your claim that you were getting paid ‘Zero. Nada. Zilch’ on those (illegally-imported) ‘brand new’ $24.95 UK/US editions you recently discovered in Aussie retail shops.

    Does this mean you never signed a copyright-licensing contract with the UK and US publishers who produced them? No, of course it doesn’t. They would be pirate copies. (And you admit elsewhere to agreeing to stylistic changes in your US and UK editions during contract negotiation…so those editions exist because you authorised them.)

    OK, so…does it mean you did sign contracts with those publishers, agreeing to certain changes and conditions, but the agreed advance/rights sale price was zero and the royalty rates were zero from the off?

    Unless your agent’s a twit, I’m guessing…no.

    So – as I suspect – does your chest-thumping claim about earning ‘zero, nada, zilch’ on those PIR-busting copies actually mean that you were paid an advance/for o/s rights, you just never met that advance in actual US/UK sales, the remainder mechanism kicked in, and your o/s publishers on-sold a stack of ‘brand new’ dead stock to an intermediary who then flogged it to/via that Australian retail shop? All of which was legal and allowable under the contract you signed…until the PIR breach which, as you say, your people are now pursuing.

    Is that about right, more or less? If not, I’ll be delighted to be made better informed about how the industry works and happy to apologise for my ignorance and arrogance.

    But if broadly so, three suggestions, Shane:

    1. Don’t tell fibs to the PC. You HAVE been paid something for those books, in the form of your o/s contractual advance(s)/rights sales. It’s bad enough to have to suffer writers whinging about not being paid ‘enough’ (ie only ‘half’ royalties, whatever the hell that really means in a voluntary negotiation) for o/s copies that actually do sell overseas. To claim that you haven’t been paid ‘at all’ for copies that (presumably) never even got out of their ‘brand-new’ wrapping over there, even when you have in fact been paid an advance for them, is somewhat…disingenuous. Especially given that the advance system evolved, Shane, precisely to ameliorate at least some of exactly the speculative risk for writers (about which you gripe extravagantly in your submission).

    2. Get your agent to be a bit more rigorous at the contractual stage about what will happen to dud surplus once the contractual agreement b/w you and your o/s publishers times out (and about how that occurs, too). Yes, yes, I know, beggars can’t be choosers, etc. But this is one key area of change that must come. I imagine you know better than I do that once a book’s dudded some publishers, or whoever’s left holding the hot spud of excess stock, tends to offload it to any old Arfur Daley who flashes a buck their way, and not care much about what happens next. That’s a failing of a lazy industry that wants maximum early market saturation/exposure without properly considering what’s to be done with resulting oversupply. The problem of managing remaindered/surplus/unsold hard copy books in a fast-digitalising era is the real issue at hand here, not PIR’s, Shane, and it’s one for your industry alone to grapple with. It’s going to start mattering now more than ever, whether or not territorial ‘copyright’ (the cheapskate’s contractual ‘downstream due diligence’) continues to exist, because internet sales are an easier and more cost-effective way than parallel importing to shift remainder/surplus, anyway. In my ignorant opinion this is one of the key realities that obsessing over PIR’s is obscuring: to endure the industry MUST start matching writerly supply and readership demand far more efficiently – using print-on-demand, e-books, online serialisation (even as hard copy trailer/teaser), website readership corraling and priming, whatever – because you just can’t segregate supply-side surpluses across discrete markets with stone age domestic industrial/trade policy anymore.

    3. You industry insiders all know this already, but someone’s got to say it out loud, and I have no need or inclination to suckhole to anyone: if you want to prevent remaindered (zero royalty) o/s copies eating into Australia retail sales and your income, Shane, first and foremost, write f**king books that sell overseas. Or failing that, don’t publish your books overseas. Oh, and don’t sneer at people outside the industry who have the temerity to suggest that your current way of doing things – your business models, your market assumptions, your self-view as an industrial entity, your stupendously over-inflated self-regard for your collective cultural importance – just might be running out of legs.

    Shane, I mean you no ill-will and I like Murray Whelan. I love books. I love stories. I wish I was, like you, good enough to make a living writing them. I ain’t. But unless you (and other established writers like you) confront the mercantile realities arising from the epistemological upheaval inherent in the mass migration of words from paper to digital, you might not be for much longer, either.

    Thanks again for engaging, and as I said, I’d be delighted to stand corrected on anything I’ve written.

  2. Jack Robertson

    Oh, and an ‘overall impact contrived’ ‘cultural marketplace’ benchmark is…Peter Carey being nominated for the Booker, and lauded as a ‘great Australian writer’ by book industry insiders (of the kind who write whining self-interested submissions to the PC)…when his last book was read by less than 20,000 Australians.

    We’re getting sick of being told by introspective t*ssers what’s ‘good’ Oz culture and what’s not. And now the internet means we don’t have to cop it

    Grasp that, do we Shane?

  3. Jack Robertson

    Hi Shane. Presume you’re Shane the novelist. Sorry if you’re not. Thank you for engaging, at least. Me, I’m a failed and failing writer, Shane. That’s about the best revenge there is, huh. Fill your boots if it helps. I like the stuff of yours I’ve read.

    Like it or not, Shane: no-one’s ‘understanding of the publishing industry is truly awesome’ anymore, not even yours. Mate. Because it’s changing so fast. Get it? All the old assumptions, the business models, the numbers…they’re waltzing out the door.

    Not my fault, Shane. But your (collective) challenge. I would have thought.

  4. Shane Maloney

    Jack Robertson ( mate) – Your understanding of the publishing industry is truly awesome (dude). Just one question – What is an ‘overall impact contrived ‘cultural marketplace’ benchmark? Just askin’, (bro).

  5. Jack Robertson

    Hi Chong, thanks for the comments on the Winton post. Can’t say I agree, again, with Seymour or you.

    Look, what these guys are arguing is based upon a fundamentally out-dated paradigm: the idea that – to use Winton’s phrase – the only option for writers/publishers was a ‘[colonial] dispensation’. That is, the only workable practical option you had as a writer (who automatically owns and always owns his copyright, unless and until he sells it) to get your words out there was via a ‘dispensation’ (of any kind), an established publishing path, a third party who could dictate the terms of the contract you signed. But that’s no longer the case. No writer is ever again going to be ‘ignored’ by readers simply because the hard copy book industry ignores them, because of the internet and online self-publishing. That means that the hard copy book industry no longer has any unique claim to ‘literary noblesse oblige’, nor any ‘responsibility’ for ‘nurturing’ writers, nor for creating or constituting a literary community and a literary culture in general. We’re living through one of the most liberating moments in all literate history. Mate: we’re all writers and we’re all publishers now. For the book industry to go about claiming they’re somehow the flame-holders and guardians of our ‘literary culture’ has always been bullshit, but it’s untenable b/s now.

    That in turn means that book publishing – and music recording and distribution, for that matter (as Seymour himself acknowledges) – can no longer demand exceptionalist commercial terms.

    Forget all the consumer arguments, and try hard to ignore any writer who (currently) benefits. Yes, of course some writers benefit from PIR’s. The question is: SHOULD they? Should those particular writers benefit? Is this how we want to decide which writers are writers who deserve to benefit, ie deserve to b viable? By imposed government legislation? Plenty of writers don’t benefit from PIR’s, too, and many are actively harmed, by the overall impact contrived ‘cultural marketplace’ benchmarks throw into the literary mix. Government ‘top down’ imposition is ALWAYS bad for the vibrancy of cultural output, mate, because culture is a naturally evolving thing, bottom-up. Anything else is something other than culture.

    Again and again, Chong, you need to accept that ‘territorial copyright’ isn’t a subset of the Berne convention of authorial copyright (even though that’s how it’s misrepresented). ‘Territorial’ copyright is essentially a book industry invention, a trade restriction, and not just a simple overseas-goods barrier, either, but a kind of overseas-goods ‘hijacker’, given that Australian publishing gets ‘first dibs’ on any overseas product that wants to get sold here. I find it outrageous – and awesomely cringe-inducing, frankly – that local publishers get to ‘piggy-back’ their own autonomous viability on incoming smash hits. It’s hideously culturally provincial and parasitical and genuinely ‘colonial’, Chong: the grown-up writers overseas keep churning out big sellers that we Australians then muscle in on and demand the right to publish here, in order to subsidise our own local writers, who are then free to churn out self-indulgent tripe, and it doesn’t matter if no-one wants to read it…come on, dude, that’s not a serious, globally-engaged, viable, grown-up, colonially-freed, literary paradigm. That’s a sophisticated tourist diorama, a cultural zoo. (‘Look! Over there! An Australian writer…let’s make a gold coin donation…)

    Again, on the US/UK comparison. You ask: why do they insist on their territorial ‘copyright’. Simple, Chong: because they can. It’s a TRADE BARRIER, not a ‘right’, not a matter of ‘principle’, and so, unlike principles – which are the same for big and small – it’s a matter of pure size. Can I impose self-serving supply side restrictions on my domestic marketplace without driving trade activity elsewhere? Yes, I can, because my local consumer base is high enough. You may not agree with any protectionist stance, but when it’s the biggest narket around for your product, the way to deal with it is not to impose your own, especially if your own domestic market is so small in comparison. What you do is open up your producers fully to global competition so that they become better equipped, as a virtue, to crack into that big juicy protected one on consumer-appeal merit. Exactlt opposite to what we do wth ‘culture’.

    Anyway, I’m going on too much.

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