Australia’s parallel import restrictions on books are, in a word, bullshit.

suppose these restrictions sort of made sense back in the dark ages when phrases like “local publishing industry” actually meant something. But nowadays, when 99.99% of the (traditional print) book market is owned by a grand total of five multinationals, all they end up as are creative accounting tricks–bizarre ones–said multinationals use to shuffle cash around.

Australia’s been talking about removing these restrictions since I was a teenager. The ironic part is, I almost think the boat on the need to do so has already sailed; the laws might be still technically in place but, as the linked article points out, circumventing them nowadays is trivial (hello, Amazon). Bookstores know this, so I’m actually not convinced retail book prices would fall that much if parallel imports were allowed. They’re already not that high, particularly compared to where I recall them being in the late 90s or so, when a single paperback could easily be in the mid $20 range (yes, really).

Just picking a paperback at (semi-)random, for a moment; Ann Leckie’s recently released Ancillary Sword. Amazon lists the paperback at US$14.40, Barnes and Noble at $14.68 (both about AUD$16-ish), local online store Bookworld at AUD$16.99, and local physical store Dymocks at AUD$19.99.

So… okay. Maybe the boat hasn’t sailed quite just yet.

The other piece to this, of course, is that even though big publishers are global, they still operate locally; the arm of Penguin Random House I’m contracted with in the States, for example, is “different” to the local Australian arm of the same company, which is something that utterly astounded me when I found out about it. Even worse, this does have an impact on book distribution, because each of the Australian and US arms of the company have different regional agreements with distributors, even if said distributors are also global operators.

Bizarre, I know.

This is why a book can be available in, say, the US but not the UK, or can be available in the US from one publisher and in the UK from someone completely different. A non-zero number of Orbit SFF books, for example, are sold in Australia under the imprint of the UK-based Orion group, even though both imprints are owned by the same publisher (Hachette). And this wouldn’t just be a branding quirk; the authors of those books will have different contracts with, get different royalty cheques signed by, and may even have gotten different advances from each of those imprints.1

And it’s really this arrangement that parallel import restrictions preserves. Consumers don’t even come into it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: publishing is. Fucked. Up.

  1. As an aside, not every publisher and imprint works like this. The ones that do tend to’ve been ones that have gone through multiple acquisitions and have a lot of different imprints in overlapping markets.