Parallel Importing of Books and Cultural Preservation

April 30, 2009

I am often concerned by the homogenising of culture that is apparent in this age of globalisation (not to mention consumerism). The mass market in Australia is dominated by movies, music and television from the US- and, to a smaller extent, the UK, and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we can see the flow on effects here in Australia. We see clothes (and lunchboxes, and toys, and cereal) for toddlers emblazoned with Disney characters; the ring tones of mobile phones we hear in passing are American rap artists, and we find ourselves quoting- or at least being able to identify- lines from The Simpsons or some other program.

I do worry that as globalization becomes more and more the norm- indeed, it is so ingrained in our day to day lives that we take it for granted- that worldwide, regional idiosyncracies and cultural identity will be a thing of the past.

The publishing industry is currently being threatened by the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to ease import restrictions on books.

In a nutshell, parallel importing restrictions prevent book sellers from importing books that can be purchased from overseas at a cheaper price . If these restrictions are eased, then retailers may then buy books to onsell from overseas, rather than from local publishing houses.

It is expected (although, this has been debated by some) that allowing parallel importation of books will result in cheaper books for the consumer.

In a recent email to Dymocks club members, it was stated: “Dymocks and the Coalition for Cheaper Books believe Australian booklovers deserve better. Dymocks believes that lower prices will enable more Australians to read more and as a consequence Australian literacy levels will improve. Dymocks believes that the Australian book industry should be driven by the Australian book buyer and not the local subsidiaries and agents of overseas publishers.”

Dymocks, and their CEO Don Grover, have sustained some criticism of their part in the debate. Grover has been outspoken as a member of the Coalition for Cheaper Books- an alliance that also includes Woolworths, Coles, Target, K-mart and Big W- in support of the abolition of parallel import restrictions so that their customers can enjoy cheaper book prices. However, it is not hard to see that it could well be a case of retailer benefit in the guise of consumer benefit.

If the laws are eased, retailers will then be able to buy in books from the overseas market. One major criticism of parallel importing is that many Australian books published overseas are edited to fit into the culture at hand. For example, in the US the children’s book (and subsequent series) by Andy Griffiths is changed from “The Day my Bum Went Psycho” to “The Day my Butt went Psycho“. Words will be changed, say from jumper to sweater, from Autumn to Fall, and even settings and characters may change to be American (or whatever country the book is published in).

In a side note, it is heartening to see that Mem Fox insisted on the word ‘lamington’ being retained in her book Possum Magic, rather than being substituted with ‘brownie’ as her American publisher desired!

So if our retailers purchase their stock from overseas, we will then be sold an Americanised version of an Australian work (on Anglicised, or wherever the book happens to be purchased from).

And so to back to my concerns about cultural homogeneity: if our books are being imported from the cultural empires of the US and UK, we lose our distinctive voice. Ever so subtly, we take on lexicon from these cultural juggernauts, and our own vernacular becomes more and more quaint and peculiar. We find ourselves identifying better with a character based in a large US city, than one experiencing the unique conflicts, issues and lifestyle of someone living here. We come to see the US norms as our norms, and our own norms as odd.

This really scares me. I’m not being xenophobic- of course there is nothing at all with publishers editing works to suit their own audiences, but when this challenges our own identity, especially in subtle ways, it needs to be addressed as what it is: culture and identity being traded off by the retailers for cheaper books, and more powerfully, larger profits.

Additionally, this will create problems for the Australian publishing industry. If our industry has to compete with larger, more affluent and cheaper overseas publishers, they will need to reduce their costs. Ultimately, this means less royalties for the writer- who only earn perhaps one dollar on a thirty dollar book- and also, that less funds will be available to publish Australian writers, especially new and riskier, more artistic writing.

SO not only will we be importing Americanised versions of Australian books, we will also be limiting the Australian Publishing Industry to sticking to “safe” works- works that don’t push boundaries, or cover new ground. And ultimately, that is what writing should be doing.

I will finish by quoting Jeff Sparrow, editor of literary magazine Overland: ‘The economist John Maynard Keynes once explained that the free market rested on “the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”‘.

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