Dymocks and Book Prices on the ABC

Dymocks Collins Place
Image by Chealse V via Flickr

The ABC has a short video report (transcript link not working, sorry it’s just the video) on the Dymocks franchise considering basing their online book sales overseas to avoid taxes applied on sales in Australia.  If you’re an Australian you’ve probably read all the articles on the report that used what many thought was outdated information, showing that parallel import legislation (not the taxes or costs of publication) were keeping Australian books too expensive.

For those of you not Australian based or briefed on it all, the argument for allowing parallel imports was that Australian books cost far more than US and UK books, and that loosening restrictions would reduce the price of books for the Australian population.

The arguments against the parallel import proposal were many and varied, including discussions of distribution rights and authors’ incomes.  I will stick to the points I read most in opinion related blogs and news media, but please follow the links above to get more perspective on industry, publisher’s and writers opinions.

Firstly, a lot of the costs pushing up the retail price of Australian books include sales taxes that are generally not applied in other countries.  It seemed counter-intuitive to many, myself included, to first argue that books without this tax were cheap, and then that changing laws to allow untaxed foreign books to compete with taxed locally produced books would somehow resolve the problems with our publishing industry and pricing.  It seems to be a solution that sidesteps the actual problem.

Another argument against is that of production costs.  A mass-market pulpy paperback in the US isn’t made to last.  These are the books that are produced in great volume and often discarded and destroyed just as easily.  Australian books aren’t made that way, and it seems unrealistic to compare the price of a book built to last one train trip with a book built to last several read-throughs.  Parallel importing may bring cheaper books to the country, but we will effectively be importing oranges to try to increase market competition in bicycle sales.  There may be far less effect on book pricing than the numbers suggest.

The main supporters of the proposal were large department, franchise and chain stores, including Dymocks, K-mart, Big W; independent booksellers and smaller stores with local focus were not anywhere near as vocal in the media as I would have expected, from a group whose margins are far smaller and through parallel imports would gain access to a much wider range of potential suppliers.

The final and perhaps most relevant argument is that we have tried this in our usual test-pond, New Zealand, and it has had variable effect.  According to a report while comparative price differences between NZ, AUS and US books on bestseller lists were closer than before PIR were lifted, there have been other effects on the industry.  Locally produced Children’s books in particular suffered.  Changes affected larger publishers, who already had international ties, rather than having any impact on smaller booksellers.  Some libraries that were exempt from PIR anyway before the changes were more aware of foreign import books and purchases increased.  It’s a mixed basket with some ups and downs, some changes in book purchasing culture that seem to be more affected by media storms than actual changes in legislation.  While there are no extreme negatives, there are in my mind no extreme positives either, and I would like to know that PIR changes in Australia would be positive, not just alter the balance of smaller aspects of industry, before I felt them worth considering.  A good point to make about the report would be that the changes had more effects on the price of AUS books in NZ than on US; geography can make a difference in pricing, no matter how much we all want cheap books.

To come back to Dymocks’ actual news today, the bookstore seems to be viewing all sales on Amazon.com and The Book Depository as direct competition for sales.  They can’t import untaxed, cheaper books to sell in their stores and this is perhaps a way around it.  As is mentioned towards the end of the report, there is consideration as to whether AU$1000 is to high a tax-free threshold for international purchases.  But the whole issue seems to boil down, once more, to where the books are sourced and how much the tax is on the final retail price.  I would rather see a re-assessment of taxes on books, or perhaps a publishing industry dialogue about pulpier mass-market book production, or even just an attitude towards publishing that considers in some form Australian writers rather than the retailers in mainstream media reporting.

With the references to Amazon.com, they seem to have forgotten that Amazon are known for deliberately underpricing books to maintain their customer base.  It is really okay to take Amazon’s models of punishing publishers and authors through pricing and the removal of buy buttons, and compare their profits to that of Australian retail booksellers?  I’m not against cheaper books, just cheaper books at the expense of writers and publishers, which is why I buy books that are too expensive, and haven’t got a Kindle.  For now, I’ll just go about my day wondering why for many people Fair Trade coffee is worth paying for, but not a Fair Book.

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