The State of Australian Literature

Australian literature is at risk. The position of publishers and authors, especially those hoping to be published for the first time, is under threat. Readers who enjoy reading Australian stories may soon be propelled back into a past when new releases of Australian books were rare.

My book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors has the motto: It’s time. Time to bury the cultural cringe, time to celebrate Australian writing, and time to discover Australian writers. It was published in 2015, but never has the motto been more important than now.

Even though, as pointed out in Frank Moorhouse’s open letter to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten printed in last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald, the cultural and creative contribution to the Australian economy was higher than that of education and training and higher than agriculture, forestry and fishing according to the National Accounts figures for the financial year 2008-9, there has been a sustained governmental attack against the arts in recent years. More than one hundred million dollars have been cut from the Australia Council, which funds literary magazines, writers’ festivals, authors’ residencies and other arts related activities. As a result of the cuts, Australia’s prime literary magazine Meanjin and the magazines Island and Quadrant are at risk of folding. Tasmanian publisher Sleepers has closed its doors.

Now the Productivity Commission, asked by the government to inquire into Australia’s intellectual property regime with a view to ‘encourage creativity, investment and new innovation by individuals, businesses and through collaboration while not unduly restricting access to technologies and creative works’, has recommended far-reaching changes to Australia’s copyright laws, which would sound the death knell to Australia’s flourishing publishing industry and Australians’ ability to continue to read, enjoy, and learn from Australian stories.

I fell in love with Australian writers and their work after my immigration to Australia in the mid 80s, but many of my friends, though readers, didn’t know the books or even the authors I enjoyed reading. So when I became a volunteer broadcaster on radio 2bbb FM in Bellingen in 2007, I set out to promote an appreciation of Australian writers and their work among the listening community – in part through in-depth interviews, the best 21 of which are in my book. And I strengthened those promotion efforts in 2010 by also becoming one of the founding organising committee for the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, with prime responsibility for programming. But the feeling remained that Australian writers and their work are somewhat underappreciated in this country.

In the introduction to my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors I posed the following questions:

Why is it that Australian writing is appreciated so little in Australia? Why is it that at school my children hardly read any Australian authors? Why is it that while there used to be Australian Literature subjects at select universities, most of these have been abandoned? Why is it that reviews give short shrift to new Australian books, especially those published by small presses? Why is it that neither the ABC TV program The Book Club nor ABC Radio National programs focus on Australian writing? Why is it that there have been longstanding campaigns in Australia to Buy Australian, but none of these included books?

This state of affairs has already had a number of detrimental interlinked effects:

  1. Many Australian authors are largely unknown and their books undiscovered, while readers often flock to overseas online shops such as Amazon and its subsidiary Book Depository.
  2. Bookshops are closing down and entire towns are losing their bookshops entirely, so that there is now no dedicated bookshop for new books left between Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, for instance.
  3. A recent research study conducted by Macquarie University found that the top quarter of literary authors earn a paltry $9,000 a year from their writing and the average annual income of all Australian authors is less than $13,300.

This state of affairs will become much worse, if the recommendations the Productivity Commission made in its draft report on Australia’s intellectual property arrangements make its way into its final report due in August and are implemented by the government of the day. Prime Minister Turnbull in his push of innovation strategies has made his intention clear. The terms of reference given to the Commission embody that desire in their first words: ‘The Australian Government wishes to ensure that the intellectual property system provides appropriate incentives for innovation, investment and the production of creative works while ensuring it does not unreasonably impede further innovation, competition, investment and access to goods and services.’

In 1991 parallel import restrictions for books were introduced to the Australian copyright regime, which prohibit booksellers from importing books from overseas when a local edition is available – in other words, they protect Australian-made books. As Michael Heyward, publisher of Text Publishing, explained in his submission in response to the Productivity Commission’s draft report, parallel import restrictions “are the market mechanism that allows Australians to compete with other English-language writers and publishers throughout the world.” The parallel import restrictions for books led to an explosion in the number of Australian books published – many of which are discussed with the authors interviewed in my book.

DRAFT Recommendation 5.2 in the Productivity Commission’s draft report reads: “The Australian Government should repeal parallel import restrictions for books in order for the reform to take effect no later than the end of 2017.”

An unusually high number of submissions – 570 – was made to the Commission in response to its Draft Report, many by authors and organisations related to authors and the book industry, such as publishers, authors’ organisations, editors’ organisations, booksellers and literary agents. Interestingly, authors who made submissions include primarily high-profile best-selling authors such as Senior Australian of the Year 2015 Jackie French and fellow children’s authors Mem Fox, Andy Griffiths and Deborah Abela, crime writers Michael Robotham, Malla Nunn and Kathryn Fox, and award-winning literary fiction authors such as Tim Winton, Anna Funder and Markus Zusak. They and the organisations were united in objecting to the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for changes to the current copyright regime and the proposed repeal of the parallel import restrictions for books in particular.

In his submission, Michael Heyward, publisher of Text Publishing, which supports and promotes new Australian authors in particular, explained the consequence of a repeal in stark terms: ‘Without this market mechanism [of parallel import restrictions] the ability of Australian writers and publishers to compete for the benefit of Australian consumers would be eroded… It would be harder for new players (emerging writers, publishers and booksellers) to enter the market.” And as his submission points out, the Productivity Commission itself predicted the following flow-on effects if parallel import restrictions were repealed in a 2009 Discussion Paper:

  • a reduction in publishing activity
  • a reduction in authors’ incomes
  • a reduction in authors’ royalty payments
  • the likelihood of some authors exiting the market
  • the potential to discourage some authors from entering the market
  • the greater difficulty for new or undiscovered authors to gain attention in an open market
  • the difficulty for all new authors in obtaining local publication.

As a matter of logic, there would be significant job losses, too, among individual publishers, editors, book designers, printers, publicists, and literary agents.

Evidence of these effects already exists in New Zealand, the only country where parallel import restrictions have been repealed. At the first public hearing before the Commission, HarperCollins Australia’s chief executive officer, James Kellow, pointed to the effects of the repeal of parallel import restrictions on HarperCollins New Zealand: staff numbers and the annual number of books published have each been cut by two thirds since the repeal.

Markus Zusak’s submission to the Commission stands for many. He wrote:

As it stands now, I’m the author of five books, all published internationally, and one in particular, The Book Thief, is published in over forty languages; it’s one of the most successful and highest selling books to come out of Australia. That said, a book like The Book Thief would not have been published without a strong Australian publishing industry – an industry that gave me my first shot when I published a book called The Underdog (and a very Australian book at that) when I was twenty-four years old.

My point is that parallel importation restrictions have kept Australian publishing strong. They’ve given rise to new and young Australian voices like mine. They’ve given aspiring writers in Australia a chance to garner their talent and then make leaps throughout the world, just as I have – and I strongly believe that if parallel importation restrictions had been lifted in previous decades, there wouldn’t have been the kind of support for authors like me. I wouldn’t have got that first shot here at home; there wouldn’t have been room for me. Australian publishers would have had a hard time simply existing, let alone taking a punt on a kid like I was. Moreover, there wouldn’t be Australian children reading books by Australians anymore. We would have an imported literary culture. We would never allow something like this to happen to our sporting culture, so why do we constantly threaten books with it?

Please, keep Australian publishing strong.

Our writers deserve it.

Our publishers deserve it.

But above all else, our readers deserve it.

As Michael Robotham wrote in his submission, “Books are part of our culture. They tell our stories. They connect Australians with their past and with each other; and they also ‘export’ Australian ideas and ideals to the outside world.”

The Productivity Commission’s final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements is due for release in August 2016, and if it is not deterred by the many submissions objecting to the recommendations it made in its draft report, and if the Turnbull government wins the election on 2 July, Australian literature will wither.

In his open letter, renowned Australian author Frank Moorhouse interestingly quotes two former Liberal Prime Ministers, Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser. Menzies asked, “Are we so little concerned with the things that really make life worth living that we expect many of our best writers and artists to live in a sort of eccentric penury?” Fraser said, “These people looking for efficiencies have no understanding that governments have to do things you can’t put a dollar on.”

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