The Australian publishing industry has pushed back against a proposal to remove restrictions that have long shielded local manufacturers and distributors yet limited access to cheaper books for the reading public.
One of the more controversial proposals in the recent draft review of competition policy was its recommendation to lift parallel import restrictions on books, with the review warning this amounted to an implicit tax on Australian consumers.
The restriction prohibits the importation into Australia of a product by anyone other than the licensed Australian manufacturer or distributor, cutting off an important alternative source of supply.
Removing the restriction would see more books on offer for cheaper prices. The draft review, led by Professor Ian Harper, warned the continuance of parallel import restrictions would be similar to having a tariff in place because local industry remains shielded from international competition.
Australian consumers are also increasingly able to circumvent the restriction anyway. They can buy e-books or simply go online and have books shipped overseas from warehouses directly to their front door. Australian booksellers are already battling significant obstacles, including the online GST free threshold of $1000.
Chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia and former independent bookseller, Peter Strong, told Dynamic Business the publishers were propagating a protectionist view and the continuation of parallel import restrictions were an “embarrassment”.
He said the restrictions placed onerous limitations on the ability of bookstore owners to import products requested by customers. He said the restrictions also meant that the price of books was higher, forcing everyday Australians to pay more for their books.
“You could come into a bookshop, hold a book up and show it to them and say ‘I’d like a copy of this’. I would say, ‘I don’t have it. I’m not allowed to have it’,” Mr Strong said. “I don’t think the publishers understand it. I think they are just panicking. Embracing change helps business.”
“Lifting import restrictions is obviously better because you have access to more books and access to cheaper books.”
The case to remove the restrictions on parallel import restrictions has also been passionately made by former NSW Premier and Foreign Minister of Australia, Bob Carr.
A successful author in his own right, Mr Carr has previously compared book prices in Australia to those in the UK and US and found that Australians were paying about $10 more for some books.
However, leading publishing industry figures like Louise Adler, chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing, have warned against lifting the restriction on parallel imports. She has pointed to New Zealand where all restrictions on parallel importations have been removed, saying that this had contributed to a rapidly declining local book industry.
Ms Adler told SmartCompany that removing the restrictions would have no impact on price or availability, while Henry Rosenbloom from Melbourne’s Scribe Publications argued there was no compelling reason for the government to revisit the issue.
Jon Page, operator of Pages & Pages Bookstore on Sydney’s north shore, told Dynamic Business he did not believe removing the restriction would greatly help book retailers.
“Opening the market completely would not increase local booksellers’ competitiveness or allow them to sell books at significantly cheaper prices because we are still hampered by uncompetitive local postage rates and a GST that is not applied to online, overseas purchases,” he said.
“Most bookshops are allowed and do import books already under the existing parallel import restrictions, which have recently been reduced to 14 days under an agreement between the Australian Booksellers Association and the Australian Publishers Association.
“If this review was serious about helping Australian businesses become more competitive it would need to address the postage and GST issues first before removing parallel import restrictions, otherwise Australian business will still be unable to compete against overseas based businesses.”