Thursday, January 8, 2009

Does the price of a book influence your choices?

A debate is raging in Australia at the moment about how much we pay for books and how much we could be paying if booksellers were allowed to import cheaper versions.

The argument surrounds what’s known as parallel importation. That means importing international versions of books that are also printed in Australia by local publishers.

The Australian Productivity Commission is considering this issue in a study into Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books, and it’s sparked one of the most heated industry debates in recent years.

In one camp, you’ve got the “cheaper books mean more books being bought and read” proponents (predominantly booksellers); in the other, their “but at what price to the Australian publishing industry” opponents (publishers and writers).

In a nutshell, if booksellers can import the cheaper versions of books, they can naturally sell them for a much cheaper price than the locally printed editions. (This goes for books by best-selling international and local authors, who have editions published in more than one country – that’s why a web search on certain novels might deliver three or four different editions with different covers, and even different titles).

Former NSW Premier, Dymocks Books board member and avid reader Bob Carr argues that parallel importation of cheaper books will mean there will be more books on Australian shelves, which he says is good for everyone.

In a column in The Weekend Australian Review, he says best-selling books are unnecessarily expensive in Australia because bookshops can’t buy from overseas if an Australian publisher expresses an interest in publishing it here. He says the argument that the existing legislation protects local publishers is moot, because more and more Australians are buying books online through outlets such as Amazon. (You can read the full article here.)

One of the most pressing points of contention from opponents of cheap imports is that Australian publishers won’t be able to compete on price with international publishers, which in turn will impact their viability to publish local works.

Brett Haydon of UNSW Press, on his blog Hedged Down, argues that price is not the only consideration when a reader decides to buy a book. He says people don’t choose who they read based on price, any more than they buy books by the kilo.

On this point I agree: if I want a book, I’ll pay the cover price. If it is a new release blockbuster (like, say, a Harry Potter novel), I might shop around to get the best price. But I wouldn’t pass over the book I wanted for a cheaper book I wasn’t as interested in.

However, if there is a choice between a more expensive local edition and a cheaper import – which has exactly the same content – there’s a fair chance buyers are going to reach for the cheaper one.

But here’s the rub: there’s no guarantee the content will be the same when it comes to international versions of Australian books.

In US version of Australian novels, for example, the cultural references, slang and idiosyncrasies that make the story Australian, are often edited out or replaced with something more familiar to American readers.

So it’s entirely possible a young reader might pick up the cheaper imported version of a Tim Winton, Markus Zusak or John Marsden novel to find it full of American references, not the original Australian content.

As Bookseller and Publisher says in its response to Bob Carr, there will be fewer books in Australian homes if “Australian children can’t find themselves in them”.

And so, the debate rages on.

What do you think? Are these issues important?

Do you buy a book based on price? Would you buy a cheaper import? Does it matter if the content is different?

(The Commission has released an issues paper, outlining some key matters to be addressed in the study and calling for public submissions. It’s due to present its findings to the Australian Government in May 2009. You can find out more here.)


the projectivist said...

i lived in England for 10 years (came back to Australia 4 years ago) and one of the things which struck me was how CHEAP books are there. Not just books! Music, magazines, perfume - i could go on.

In England, buying books wasn't a luxury, i would buy something on the spur of the moment, i wouldn't think twice about it. I also purchased a lot through Amazon.

Here in Australia, i have to be much more careful. I rarely buy books anymore, unless it's something i REALLY want, or the price has been reduced, or i'm at a second hand bookshop. I'll ask for something as a treat for my birthday or Christmas, or just wait and get something at the library.

Gustav said...

My view is that we need to get more readers in this world and like anything else price impacts demand.

I personally have been turned off on various occassions by high priced books in Australia and it should change, not so much for me, but for those folks who are struggling to pay the food bills each day.

Lets face it libraries only get you so far and people deserve books that are reasonably priced.

I would also like to close with a question for you Paula and readers of "Great Stories" and one that perhaps you can post on down the track.

One of my friends has a New Years resolution you would dig. She is determined to not buy any new books in 2009 and instead she is going to read the books on her friends shelves all year long.

This is an interesting idea and one which I embrace. We value our friends ideas, passions, and intellect. Why not their books that lie on shelves waiting to be discovered?

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

Hey westie I'm not sure about this just yet, but here's a couple of things I've been thinking about.

I'd like to read more about the impacts it would have on us as writers as well as readers, but lets say we look at what it is to be a reader here.
The argument for cheaper books is very strong, because lets face it, compared to other countries like Scotland for example, Australian books are expensive. And of course cheaper books would mean that we could buy loads more. And do I like that idea. I like buying books almost as much as I like reading them.
As much as 20% of the Australian market is made up of independent bookshops. These allow us a variety of advantages, like range, choice, quality, ye know? Good books. There's also independent bookshop staff, who are more likely to really know their books. And, as customers, we get a proper sense of some kind of community. As readers we like to talk about our books, your site is a perfect example, good bookshops often offer us a forum to do just that.
But these are only the things I'm most interested in seeing in a bookshop ( I should point out here that I also work in one - I spend most of my wages there too).
Amazon is currently demonstrating how cheap books could and will facilitate the supermarket approach to book selling; this is, I feel, bad for the book and the reading community. If the bottom line for supermarketing books is the dollar we stand to lose an enormous level of choice and quality - unfortunately there isn't a lot of money in great writing, but really good bookshops continue to support it. They often do this by selling the same populist commercial stuff we see in piles all over cheap bookshops. So it's not like we can't buy it if we want to.
I like good bookshops. I want and choose to support them because they are good to us and for us. I don't like and don't buy books from Big W or the like. Not because I wouldn't read anything in their limited range of books (I want to emphasise that this isn't just about a wee bit of snobbery) but because with their economies of scale and lifeless merchandising (yes its important), they don't play fair with good bookshops.
There are other arguments too. Like the homogenisation of our books. A good friend of mine recently had this to say about it on her's good argument and her take on it makes it well worth looking at.

So, (big breath) you asked and I got started and I could probably keep going - ye know me westie, once I get started - but that's plenty for now.

Let me know what you think. Thanks for the opportunity.

Bec C said...

We all love to save a few bucks when we can, and I would love to pay less for books.

However, I was completely ignorant to the fact that non-American books were Americanised to the extent you describe. (Can we jump forward to your blog of the 23-January on 'A World Without America' - its little things like this that really p!$s the world off about the Yanks!)

I am appalled that parallel importing might mean that I buy what I think is an Australian novel to discover American terminology, slang and locations in it. I am also reviewing my on-line book buying habits in light of this information, however I tend to only go on-line if I can't track something down locally.

I am also concerned that Australian Publishers will no longer be able to subsidise the printing of local authors' work with their printing of international blockbusters, seeing a further erosion of our local written culture.

Hmmm, so I think I have concluded that I am anti-parallel importing. I guess we'll have to come up with some other way to save money on our books.

In response to Gustav's post, another reader friend of mine clears out her book stock semi-regularly - something I find myself unable to do unless I thought the book really sucked - however I believe she has a much bigger collection than me. Before heading off to the second hand book store to sell her clear out stock, she gives me first choice for a couple of dollars a book. We borrow and lend books to and from each other as well.
Also, recently, I loaned a couple of books ('The Time Traveler's Wife' and 'High Fidelity') to a person who has become a close friend, but whom I don't know to be an avid reader. I must admit, I am feeling a bit vulnerable - what if she hates them?

Paula Weston said...

Thanks everyone for an interesting range of posts.

And Bec C, yes, it's always an anxious moment to refer a book to a friend - even harder to lend one, as they have to give it back at some stage and it's always awkward if they didn't like it! But, be brave, I say. You know yourself what it's like to read a book you love that you might never have read yourself unless some gave it to you.