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Wule Bwitannia

By Bernice Balconey - posted Friday, 30 January 2009

Slipped into a recent Federal government Pricing Tribunal report, was a single line reference to the matter of book prices in Australia. Though short of detail, it suggested that the arrangements enjoyed by Australian based publishers may be reviewed, and may be altered.

Numerous pieces have appeared concerning this, and a number of Australian publishers have sprung to the defence of the current situation, which protects Australian publications from competition from overseas editions of the same book.

The legislation that governs this is complex, and while its stated aim is to ensure a publishing environment that prevents the loss of local publishing in the face of cheaper imports, the cost at which this is supposedly achieved is two-fold. Higher book prices are a reality in the Australian market, and further, a restriction on the free flow of knowledge. The argument is also, I believe, muddied by confusion as to what is being protected and for whom.


Australian publishing must firstly be separated from Australian distributing. And this truth is often the first casualty in this tale. The Australian market is overwhelmingly dominated by large international publishers and distributors who themselves are small parts of much larger multinationals, such as Penguin, Harper Entertainment (once known as Collins and swallower of Angus & Robertson), Macmillan and Random House. What must be remembered is that for these concerns, the majority of their profits are provided by their distribution divisions, spoils they are very keen to protect. This is a model that also applies to numerous other publisher/distributor operations in Australia.

Quite how this came to pass is part of our cultural history, but more interestingly, also part of our political history. It has been much more thoroughly explored elsewhere, but a wee bit of background may help shed some light on the why of now and the what shall we do.

Publishing in Australia was, up until World War II, largely the province of the obsessed small presses and a small number of local concerns such as Angus & Robertson and Ure Smith. For many fiction authors, being published meant a British publisher. My Brilliant Career was published in Edinburgh in 1901, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy was published by Heinemann in London, as were Dymphna Cusack’s books and Mr White appeared courtesy of Jonathan Cape.

The need for a vibrant Australian publishing industry seems to have rarely exercised the imaginations of our pre-war political leaders, our cultural attachment to a very British Home assumed and accepted.

World War II and the inability of British publishers to any longer provide books into the Australian market which had taken up to 10 per cent of stock published (highly profitable and significant enough for publishers to hold off setting print runs until the Australian orders were in), gave Australian based publishers a moment in the sun. A thousand flowers bloomed, and a Tariff Board review in 1946-47 saw groups, including writers, call for the imposition of tariffs to protect the nascent publishing culture in the face of an expected flood of British materials once exporting was again possible. It was refused.

In 1947, what would become known as the Traditional Market Agreement, was signed between US and UK publishers. “Under the agreement British publishers agreed not to compete in the US market and in return they received the 70 or so countries that were or had been Commonwealth members.” Including Australia, the most profitable export market of all.


Given the extraordinary profits to be had, and the demise of publishing as a gentleman’s game, it should come as no surprise that companies were more than happy to indulge in what our American cousins would describe as anti-trust behaviour in a test case won in 1972. What is glaringly absent from most discussions concerning this is the role or lack thereof of the governments of those dominions included in this extraordinary trade deal.

Quite why is a fascinating question. The federal government at the time was a Labor government, and certainly its New South Wales division had senior members with close ties to Angus & Robertson, who were the Godzilla of both Australian publishing and Australian bookselling. Nor was the issue revisited by the Menzies government after its election in 1949, despite the federal government developing the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF) during the 1950s which subsidised the publishing of Australian books.

Allowing the privileging of British publishers wasn’t going to help the development of Australian publishing. Nor was it going to allow for the free flow of knowledge, which in the West, used the book as its principal vehicle of transmission and worse yet, the Copyright Act 1968 would enshrine this in Australian law.

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First published in Sarsaparilla on August 8, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Bernice Balconey blogs at Viminalis and Sarsaparilla.

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