The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Nyssa Pascoe

Nyssa Pascoe has just finished a bachelor degree of writing and media at Macquarie University. She is the creator of A Writer Goes on a Journey and President of the newly formed Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. She is also currently serving as a judge for the Horror section of the Aurealis Awards and has been a freelance webmistress since 2009 under NixelWeb.

“Ebooks and Parallel Importation Restrictions”

I rarely read ebooks, but when I do, they’re usually classics from Project Gutenberg that I download on my iPhone. I like how it’s backlit (makes it easier than trying to hold a small torch and position it properly while trying to hold up a book). It always remembers where I was up to, even if I literally fall asleep reading, and I can access it whenever I want and wherever I want. But there are limits.

And now for the problem.

Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIRs) are widely recognised as what protects our industry currently. For the Productivity Commission that went ahead in 2009, the vast majority of submissions were for keeping the rules in place. Set up in 1991, these rules state that Australian publishers have 30 days in which to provide a book for sale that is already published and sold overseas, and that they must be able to resupply it within 90 days, or else booksellers can purchase the items directly from overseas publishers. Consumers can buy physical books online from overseas without any restrictions, but booksellers in Australia would only be able to buy an overseas edition of a book if there was no local edition, or if it was a special order for a customer – and this would be limited to only a single copy.

An old issue, but I bring it up for two reasons. As Shane mentioned in his post about the REDgroup failure, Bob Carr, on the board of Dymocks, claims it was keeping to parallel importation restrictions that caused it (which I really disagree with!). Secondly, these rules only apply for physical books. These laws have no bearing on ebooks. Instead of parallel importation, ebooks have geo-restrictions. The difference being that no publisher in Australia has to provide us with overseas published ebooks, and do not have international competition.

Geo-restrictions are entirely organised by publishers, without a legal basis like PIRs. For this reason, other blogs have pointed out or even encouraged people to avoid restrictions, with a fake address or even pirating. On the consumer’s side, it makes sense – if I can buy a physical book overseas, why not an ebook? Especially with Australia having very few outlets to actually buy ebooks, there is little competition, so a small range of prices. This is growing slowly.

No matter how much people love literature, there are pirates and some of them are big readers. Amongst other restrictions, whether for copyright protection like DRM, nothing makes less sense to people than PIRs. It may be an old-world idea of separating the world into different publishing regions when the internet makes us a global region.

But territorial rights (both parallel importation restriction, for physical books, and geo-restrictions, for ebooks) have been recognised as being fundamental for a number of reasons.

The most obvious is, of course, money. Major publishers don’t usually separate the rights for print and electronic. Both Tim Coronel of Bookseller and Publisher and Jon Page, President of the Australian Booksellers Association agree that without publishers being able to sell rights in other countries, there would be significantly less books published. Author Garth Nix in his submissions to the productivity commission said that “territorial copyright provides publishers with certainty to allow them to invest in Australian authors and Australian books. Without that certainty, the business case to invest in and publish Australian books is far weaker and consequently the opportunities for Australian authors to begin here would be fewer.”

In the 2010 edition of Think Australian, it was reported that the biggest markets for Australian book rights (as signified by the income) are Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, with major increases in income growth from rights sales.

Jobs would also be lost, authors may also be affected in that they would receive smaller royalties, and their books could be remaindered. Australian books from overseas would be changed, the language altered.

But consumers face perhaps more expensive e/books and less range from overseas. There is evidence that pirating will fill in the gap of items that are not offered in a region legally. Pirating has its cost and industry pains too. But without territorial rights, as most submissions agree, the publishing industry in Australia will constrict and publish less. These issues are important, for consumers and creators, and publishers, while seemingly slow, are looking to the future for the whole of their companies. It would be stupid for them to want to restrict buyers, and they are dragging a very old industry into the new world.

Now the importance of this is that this fight is still going on, even with the productivity commission two years ago. Ebooks are rising, faster overseas than here, but slowly we are catching up. Often we see small publishers being the first to go where no other publisher in the country is willing to risk going yet. Two years ago and the PIRs were not changed, but look at all that has happened since then.

I sincerely doubt this will lead to the death of publishers. The industry is worth around 2.5 billion. I do expect that one day the rules for parallel importation will stretch to ebooks. The ABA’s stance is to have the 30/90 day rule minimised or even abolished so that publishers would have to produce a book and sell it the same day as it’s released overseas. Perhaps this would be the fairest way, allowing consumers to get what they wish, and still protecting local publishers and industry. This is not the time for publishers to die, and of course authorship and creativity will never die.

You can read more of Nyssa Pascoe’s articles and book reviews at A Writer Goes on a Journey.

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at