Melina Marchetta

Alibrandi, Francesca, You and the Productivity Commission


The book industry is not a protected industry. We are not asking for money, or for a subsidy. We are asking for the same rules and intellectual property rights that prevail for writers and book publishers in the USA, in Britain, in Europe.

(Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Richard Flanagan)

Please keep on reading if you are an Australian reader, or if you love reading Australian books.

Some of you may have heard on Twitter or Facebook or the mainstream media about Parallel import restrictions (PIRs). You may be as confused as I’ve been, so below I thought I’d give a bit of a personal dummy’s guide to the proposals (me being the dummy). Two things to remember. None of the following is anti-foreign publishers, nor is it anti-buying cheap books online.

So let’s use Saving Francesca as an example. In 2003 it was first published in Australia by Penguin Books. Any other English speaking edition of the novel is restricted from being imported into Australia.  That means here, I get royalties from the cost of the Penguin edition and the rest of the profits are split between everyone else involved in getting a book out there.   The money Saving Francesca makes in Australia, stays in Australia.

That’s one way our copyright laws protect us.

Fast forward to now. The Productivity Commission (PC) has prepared a report recommending the Australian Government remove import restrictions on books. One of the PC’s selling points is that it would “potentially lower prices and should deliver net benefits to the community.”

So the little picture is – cheaper books. Everyone loves a bargain, so why not?

But let’s look at the bigger picture. If copyright restrictions are lifted, the Australian edition of Saving Francesca is competing here with a US or UK edition and those editions may be more popular because they may be cheaper.   What that all adds up to is that overseas publishers are going to make the financial gains in Australia. If Australian publishers are making less money, they’re going to go out of business. Publishers, editors, publicists, designers, sales people – the list of who works in a publishing company goes on forever. Their jobs are lost. And of course, Australian authors, booksellers and the printing industry are hugely affected.

Ultimately, you are too.

If a publisher here has managed to survive the bleak scenario, things are still dire. Because Aussie publishers are not going to be able to take a chance on a manuscript written by some unknown girl from the suburbs, who didn’t go on to do her Higher School Certificate, but had something to say about cultural identity and growing up in this country. Looking For Alibrandi was rejected more than seven times. Most publishers could see the potential, but couldn’t financially take the chance. Even when my publishers accepted it, I remember being told it may have to be printed overseas because of cheaper paper. That’s how much scrimping had to be done to ensure that a novel written by a first time writer could be published. There was no advance paid, and hardly a budget for the book, but there was a line in a letter sent to me by my publisher, Julie Watts. She believed what I had written was important, and that if I was willing to work hard on the edit, people could still be talking about the novel in years to come. That was over twenty three years ago.

In the year 2000 a film version of Alibrandi was released. The film premier was in Norton Street Leichhardt, home, at the time, to one independent theatre (still there) and three independent book stores (one is still there). The film’s after party was held at the Leichhardt Town Hall. Grass roots stuff. I was obviously allowed to invite family and friends and we mingled with actors and celebrities and musicians and politicians and I got to introduce my mum to Lisa Hensley from Brides of Christ, and it made my mum’s night. But what I remember most was a friend saying, “Every person in this room is here because of something you did.”

Our writers, publishers, our booksellers, our printers, and those who distribute our books from warehouses, and many more, are employed because we have an Australian book industry. If we’re lucky, and a movie is made based on an Australian book, a whole lot of other people are employed (check out how long film credits go these days).

What our publishing industry does is ensure that the Australian identity is preserved.

So that’s the bigger picture. It affects my daughter and my nephews and my goddaughters and my young cousins. If these copyright rules are changed, kids today are back in a world similar to the one I grew up in; reading fantastic novels about places over there, but needing something more. I wrote Looking For Alibrandi from a selfish place. I wanted to see me on the pages of a book, because I loved reading and I loved film, but I never felt that I counted outside my extended family and my high school friends. I wanted to be part of a bigger identity. And twenty three years later, I still get teary when a teenager tells me how much they can relate to that novel. From anywhere in the world. Or when a fellow writer tells me that they started writing because of one of my novels. I’d rather be remembered for that, than a literary award.

The PC draft report also recommends reducing copyright from 70 years after an author’s death, to 15-25 years after the creation of the work. That means anyone, anywhere in the world can produce their own versions of classics such as Schindler’s List, Animalia, Oscar and Lucinda, Obernewtyn, Tomorrow When the War began, just to name a few.  If the PC’s recommendation goes ahead,  Alibrandi will already be out of copyright.

So please please, if any of this makes sense to you, write to your local member of Parliament. Quote me, if you want. Blog about it. Or research it and understand it better than I’ve explained. If Malcolm Turnball or any other minister is campaigning in your area, go up and tell them that you want our copyright laws kept as they are. Politicians, of course, will reply with something like, ‘But what about cheaper books?’ And you can remind them about what happened in countries such as Canada and Hong Kong. Or New Zealand, home to some of the best storytellers in the world. When NZ became an open market, the publishing industry there lost many of its local and global publishing houses. Fewer NZ authors have been published.

And the books there didn’t get any cheaper.

 The consequences will be job losses, public revenue loss as profits are transferred overseas, and a brutal reduction in the range of Australian books publishers will be able to publish. Australia will become, as it was in the 1960s, a dumping ground for American and English books, and we will risk becoming –as we once were – a colony of the minds of others…

(Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Richard Flanagan)

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