Setting fire to your own house

Australian authors have been in the news this week talking about some changes that will affect our publishing industry. Tim Winton says the changes are equivalent to ‘setting fire to your own house’. But what are they?

The worrying changes sound pretty boring in themselves. They’re in  a draft proposal by the Productivity Commission, which recommends:

  1. Reducing the length of copyright to 15-25 years from the date of creation.
  2. Removing restrictions on the Parallel Importation of books from other territories.

To understand why this is so worrying, you need to know a little bit about how the publishing industry works when it comes to copyright.

First of all, most authors earn very little from their published work. They don’t earn enough to live on, and they don’t earn enough on a given book to represent a fair hourly wage for the work they have done. Even many well known and award-winning authors! When you pay $17 for a book, the author usually receives around $1.70 of that. Out of that $1.70, they have to pay tax and they may also have to pay an agent. Yes, most of us do it for the love of it. But we still have to eat.

Earning money from books enables authors to write more books – it’s as simple as that. If authors don’t earn money from their books, they need to earn money doing something else, which leaves them with less time to write. Have you written a book, or do you dream of writing one? If you do, the right to publish it is yours to sell, and you’ll make money from that. Imagine if, after just twenty years, that right is no longer yours. Anyone can make money out of something that you wrote. Anyone except you! That’s what the Productivity Commission is proposing.

The proposals regarding Parallel Importation are very scary for writers and everyone working in Australian publishing. Australia is a small market, and the laws that govern where titles can be sold are vital to the survival of our publishers, many of which are small and independent. At the moment, if you buy at book at your local bookseller, for example, it will be an edition published here by a local publisher. If restrictions are removed, our market will be flooded with overseas editions of books. Australian publishers won’t be able to compete in this environment for a number of reasons which have nothing to do with greed or high profit margins.

What will happen? Well, the evidence suggests that local publishers will close. Many thousands of jobs will be lost from what is currently a thriving industry led by people who are passionate about literature. If you’re an Australian writer looking to get published, you’ll have to try to sell your work to a publisher in the UK or USA. Those publishers have a limited interest in stories about Australia. They have no stake in our culture. The final result will be fewer stories about us, and far less diverse reading options for you. I want my kids to read stories from all over the world. I want them to hear as many different voices as they can, and I want them to feel that their own voices are important too. This isn’t about being narrow-minded. It’s about self-respect.

What can you do?

Follow the Books Create Australia campaign via its website or Facebook page.

Sign this online petition.

If you’re old enough, vote. Find out where your local candidate stands on the issue.