Falling book prices could force authors to abandon their keyboards
(The Age, Feb 9 2016)
Books are central to our lives, yet the outlook for authors, their readers and Australian literary culture has never been more bleak.
The Internet and e-books were meant to signal the death of the physical book. That didn't happen. The plight of authors is another matter. As they face a perfect storm of relentless commercial pressures and repeated attacks by the federal government, the outlook for authors and their readers, and for Australia's literary culture, has never been bleaker.
Recent surveys in Britain, the United States and Australia have revealed a serious slump in the income that authors receive from their writing. In Australia, authors have seen their average income from writing decrease from about $22,000 in the early 2000s to less than $13,000 in 2015. For many authors, that means they can no longer earn a livelihood from their work. It's particularly worrying for young writers, who may abandon their craft altogether. And that's bad news for readers, who could miss out on the work of our future Tim Wintons and Richard Flanagans.
It's come to this partly because of market pressures. The advent of Amazon provides part of the answer. It carved out an almost monopolistic space for itself by selling books at a loss. The company has rarely made a profit, with its shareholders seemingly content to finance the remorseless expansion of this retail behemoth. The assumption behind their patience is that Amazon will one day be able to use its market power to raise prices and reap the resulting profits. In the meantime, authors have been the victims of their strategy.
It's not only because of Amazon that there has been a drop of about 30 per cent in the average price of books in Australia. The collapse of Borders and Angus and Robertson saw their place taken by discount department stores, like Target, Big W and Kmart, which added to the downward pressure on prices. As prices fall, so too do the royalties paid to authors. And the effect has been exacerbated by publishers reducing their print runs and consequently reducing the advances they pay to authors. The arrival of digitisation and e-books might have been expected to benefit authors, but the benefits have mostly flowed to publishers and to the Amazons of the world.
The crisis being experienced by authors because of the distortions of the book market has been exacerbated by the recent actions of the federal government. Many of the great works of recent Australian literature have come to readers courtesy of fellowships provided to authors or subsidies to publishers by the federally funded Australia Council. There were never enough fellowships and they were not generously funded, but they ensured that readers were able to enjoy some great Australian stories that otherwise might never have been written. That has all been put at risk by a series of savage cuts that Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull made to the Australia Council, which is the major provider of funds for Australian literature.
Now Malcolm Turnbull has declared that he wants to remove the restrictions on the parallel importation of books, which has prevented for decades the dumping of overseas editions onto the Australian market where a local edition is already in print. It's presently the subject of an inquiry by the Productivity Commission, which has previously favoured lifting the restrictions, arguing that it would force down the price of books. The previous Labor government refused to accept its earlier report, conscious of the damage that dumping would do to authors and readers by undermining the economic basis of the Australian publishing industry.
The arguments for keeping the restrictions in place are even more compelling now. Since the previous Productivity Commission report, and despite the restrictions remaining in place, market forces have forced down the price of books anyway. Apart from that, we have witnessed the experience in New Zealand, where similar restrictions were removed. Despite promises to the contrary, it didn't cause the average price of books to fall. But it did cause New Zealand publishers to lose a valuable part of their business, which forced them to cut back their staff and reduce the number of New Zealand titles they produced. As a result, New Zealand authors were denied outlets for their work and readers were denied access to New Zealand stories. Overseas publishers were the only ones to profit.
Books have survived many challenges to their existence over the past century, and they are sure to survive the latest ones. But nobody should expect that books will be written in Australia at a rate and a quality to satisfy readers unless authors can be assured of receiving a reasonable return for their labour.
Governments of both political persuasions have long recognised the centrality of books to our culture, to our economy and to our sense of who we are as a people. They inform us, they feed our imagination, they help to bind us together as a nation, whether it's the novels of Richard Flanagan, the poetry of Les Murray or the history books of Les Carlyon. It's ironic that a prime minister who claims to champion creativity and innovation should be leading the assault on authors and their readers.
David Day is a historian and biographer, and chairman of the Australian Society of Authors.