I already left Australia because of continual idiotic debates like parallel imports

Magda Szubanksi said she would consider leaving Australia if the Productivity Commission’s recommendations regarding parallel importing of books were to come into place. Leaving aside the notion that leaving Australia would make absolutely no positive difference to her income with or without Australia’s current laws — her core market is still Australians — this is just one in a continual douching of verbage that comes from Australian authors ever single time the parallel importing laws come up. This time around the most ridiculous bit of self-interested dribble came from Richard Flanagan.

His argument is that he is a writer, the things he and other writers are good. Actually not just good so bloody good that the government should pay for them because they can’t convince readers to shell out. Flanagan argues that look other interest groups get money so we should too. That last bit is not a bad argument — if ship is sinking let’s get more people lifeboats — but I am not in the multiple wrongs make a right mood.

The Productivity Commission’s crime is to suggest that Australians should not pay more for books than people overseas. That includes the fraction of those books that are authored by Australians. So the Flanagan argument is that all books in history should cost much much more so that the fraction of current Australian writers can get a little bit more. This is basically the same argument as big coal uses to stop climate change policy — we shouldn’t have to pay more even if it is going to help save every living thing on the planet.

I hate these continual interest group based arguments. Their on-going nature and my personal failure to do anything about it was defnitely on the ‘reasons to go’ side of the ledger when I left Australia six years ago.

But on this issue I have more moral authority. I am an author. Several of my books cannot be bought digitally by Australians because we have parallel import laws and their like. I can’t even give them away! But more critically, I am a co-author on Australia’s leading textbook on economics. That is one of the books that earns a shit-ton of money (mostly for publishers but also for its authors) by charging Australians ridiculous prices — sometimes a couple of hundred dollars. Parallel import laws may well crush those prices. And that is just fine by me. Why? Because it will lower the prices of all books.

My strong wish is that finally this time around the Government actually follows the Prouctivity Commission and stands up for Australian readers and Australian students and the culture of the world.

5 thoughts on “I already left Australia because of continual idiotic debates like parallel imports”

  1. My sentiments exactly!
    ps couple of typos -I think you meant to say:
    -The Productivity Commission’s crime is to suggest that Australians should *NOT* pay more for books than people overseas; and
    -I am *an* author


  2. The parallel import laws are archaic and grossly inefficient, but why is there no effort to make a Pareto improvement? It is obviously rational for them to oppose because they stand to lose. They could be more than compensated through a significant expansion of funding for the arts.

    I suspect many Australians believe there is some kind of existence value for Australian cultural products, and believe for whatever reason they should be subsidised if under threat in a competitive market.

    I think conflating efficiency claims with claims about who has moral merit to compensation is why economists lose a lot of efficiency debates.


  3. ‘twould not be a Pareto improvement, david, because some non-readers would pay more tax. It is probably a Hicks-Kaldor improvement though.

    The other thing here is that forbidding parallel importing actually hurts some authors – those who have a chance of significant overseas sales, for a start, and those where the current price is in a region of their readers’ demand curve where the elasticity is >1 ( think pulp fiction writers). It’s only “arty” people like Flanagan who have a price-insensitive readership. And of course to the extent it encorages that dreadful parochialism which is the bane of Australian arts it is also harrmful to the quality of what is produced.


    1. A tax on books could theoretically get pretty close, right? There is so much efficiency to be gained.

      Not literally advocating that, but my point is that morally laden language about entitlement can be a barrier to reform when compensation would make it workable.

      Do most Australians think that ppl regarded as ‘great’ artists should receive transfers to maintain their existance as full time cultural producers if they don’t survive in a market? I don’t have a poll but I suspect they wld. Either way it’s a big enough constituency to reckon with when designing a reform. Nor is it irrational, it’s just a preference.


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