30 June 2016
Firstly, thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement on the occasion of my recent success with a Creative Victoria Arts Grant for my new work of YA fiction, Off The Grid (working title). It’s gratifying to receive recognition, and I’m very aware that as a grant recipient, I am one of the lucky few to receive this kind of State endorsement. I’m hugely grateful to Creative Victoria and to the State government for providing me with the opportunity to bring my manuscript to publication, and thus to a wide teenage readership.
With this letter, I am also taking the opportunity to address an issue that concerns me greatly – the recent Federal government decision to accept a recommendation from the Harper Competition Review and the 2009 Productivity Commission report, and remove Parallel Importation on books in this country, to take effect in 2017.
I understand that both the Opposition Leader, Mr Bill Shorten, and the Shadow Arts Minister, Mr Mark Dreyfus, have come out in support of the arts and creative industries in the lead-up to the coming election in their statements regarding the Labour arts policy, announced on 4 June. The policy says that Labour will be ‘cautious’ regarding proposals to alter the current territorial copyright regime, and specifically notes that “A strong local publishing industry also fosters emerging Australian authors, often giving them their first publications and the chance to enrich our culture by telling Australian stories to ourselves and to the world”. Despite these reassurances, there is no clear indication in the policy statement about how Labour will deal with the Productivity Commission’s recommendations on Parallel Importation.
I am one of those Australian authors who were given “their first publications and the chance to enrich our culture” – my first book, Every Breath, was released by Allen & Unwin, this country’s leading independent publisher of children’s books, in 2013. That book went on to receive awards listings and critical acclaim, as well as solid sales, and was sold into Canadian, US and UK markets. It was most recently listed last year by the Australian Library Information Association as one of the top ten most-borrowed YA books in Australian libraries – a list that, incidentally, contained only two Australian YA novels.
I am citing my book, and my own personal experience, because I believe that without PI protection, it is unlikely that I would ever have become a published author. Apart from hard work and luck, it was the current strong literature and publishing industry in this country that secured my publishing future, and allowed my creativity and innovation to benefit both myself and the larger Australian cultural and commercial economy.
I will spare you a full breakdown of Parallel Importation: that information is readily available elsewhere. It is tempting, as author James Bradley says, to ‘shoehorn’ the whole issue into an argument about book prices, but this issue is not only about whether the price of books would reduce further after PI is lifted – with deep discounts and Amazon competition, book prices have already dropped 30% in the last ten years, and New Zealand’s experience of lifting PI doesn’t seem to have borne out many economists’ price-reduction predictions. It is also not a question of availability – consumers can still buy cheap books anytime.
It is not even a question of cultural nationalism, although without a strong local publishing industry, I would need to sell my stories to US and UK publishers (who have made no moves towards dismantling their own local PI restrictions), who are just not that interested in stories set in Victoria, featuring Australian characters and vernacular – overseas publishers already have a wealth of home-grown talent that caters to their own markets. I have already been told that to make my writing more palatable overseas, I would have to make the landscape ‘more generic’, the stories more relate-able to an overseas audience, the language ‘less Aussie’. So my references to kids playing Aussie Rules would have to go, along with descriptions of Australian gum trees and fauna, and the diversity of Australian multicultural life, not to mention my use of Australian slang. All these minor details, and the essential cultural issues that make my books distinctly Australian, would be sacrificed in order for me to successfully hawk my wares outside of my home country. Genuine Australian stories would slowly give way to more ‘US-friendly’ stories – not just from me, but (by necessity) from all Australian authors. Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, describes this as ‘a nation with its tongue torn out’. Even if I alter my work and manage to sell my manuscripts internationally, the economic benefit of my work will go offshore into the hands of foreign publishers as they sell my books at less-than-cost-price here in Australia.
But as I said, these issues are not the primary ones. What I would ask you to consider, after putting aside all these other considerations, is another question that James Bradley poses: whether Australia can continue to compete in a global knowledge economy once we’ve ceased to protect our creative industries commercially, and also whether such a change would foster innovation, and maximise the benefit of that creativity and innovation to the Australian economy.
Remember: under the current system of PI restrictions, I am rewarded for my creativity and innovation by being able to sell my book rights locally and internationally. US and UK writers enjoy these same rewards under their own countries’ territorial copyright regimes. But without PI restrictions, what do I get for my innovation and effort? Within Australia, almost nothing. So what is there to encourage me to continue to create, in that case?
I think the answer is clear.
After PI restrictions are lifted, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to sell my work; in addition, any local ‘return’ I receive from my work becomes negligible. But I can’t afford to write for nothing. I have to think of my family, and weigh the benefits of continuing to produce creative work against what it costs me in time and energy and effort. The Productivity Commission’s report was incorrect when it suggested that ‘most writers don’t write for money’. Of course we write out of love, but we aren’t stupid: we only put the kind of intense effort necessary to create a 335-page book (three years worth of effort, in the case of Every Breath) into something we think will bring us some reward. This is not being mercenary, merely pragmatic. I know many professionals – doctors, tradespeople, teachers, and more – who love their work, but they aren’t expected to donate their skills for no return. Writers are in the same boat. We contribute to the cultural, knowledge and commercial economy of this country, but we can’t be expected to do it for free. Writers also don’t want to be wholly dependent on government handouts – hugely competitive grants, like the one I have received, which can be withdrawn with the stroke of a pen by future governments, or used more insidiously to encourage ‘government-appropriate’ creative works.
So without PI, there is no real incentive for Australian writers to continue to produce Australian stories, and Australia ceases to be a fertile ground for innovation and creation as the pool of talent and opportunity shrinks. Increasingly, good ideas will be sent offshore, and the profits from them will be reaped by overseas markets – none of this benefits the Australian creator or consumer. This is what the ultimate outcome of repealing PI restrictions will be. And this is why so many of us in the literary and creative industries oppose it.
PI restrictions provide some measure of protection for Australian publishers, with their strong but small market, competing against the big players of the global book industry. PI restrictions make it possible for Australian publishers and authors to thrive. But most importantly, PI restrictions allow Australians who innovate and create to commercialise and benefit from their own work. Without such rewards, creators and innovators cease to exist, and the Australian cultural and commercial economy withers.
So this is all I wanted to say: please appeal on my behalf, and on behalf of other Australian authors in your constituency, to reject the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, reject the lifting of PI restrictions, and allow the local publishing industry, and local stories, to live on.
Thank you again for your time, acknowledgement and consideration, and with all best wishes for the coming election.