Fiona McIntosh

Don’t risk losing your storytellers

MCINTOSH-5074I feel I too must leap into the abyss of despair that the Australian Productivity Commission created recently over copyright legislation. In a double kick in the guts for Australian writers, the Commission is firstly supporting the strategy that any country should have the right to dump books on the Australian market. As well, it wants to severely limit a writer’s ability to continue to earn from the sale of his or her books.

The Commission has also decided, in what feels like pretence at economic reform, that I – and other writers – apparently don’t wish to make money from writing books. In its wisdom it feels I clearly write, not for a living, but entirely for love…and that I don’t need to feed or clothe myself, or my family. If the proposal goes ahead I will lose the rights to my books after a set number of years allowing anyone in the world to publish them and I can no longer earn from something that is mine, turning my writing into little more than a hobby.

Does that seem fair? It sounds like theft to me.

We are going to become the bargain basement for other nation’s books if we don’t stand up and fight to protect our publishing industry and everyone involved in it.

UK, US, Europe, Asia would not allow their publishing industries to be made a soft target like this but all would happily pour their overstocks into our newly opened market and essentially trample and kill off a small but shiny industry that does its country proud and is also one that gives, it doesn’t take.

Can we just take a snapshot of Australia’s publishing industry please:

For those who don’t know how the publishing industry works, this might help.

I am a storyteller. I write those stories down and a publisher- let’s use mine, Penguin Random House as an example – judges each story based on its merit. If the publisher believes that there’s an audience out there that will enjoy this story, it acquires the manuscript and spends up to a year working hard on producing a book that everyone can feel proud of. A great number of people are involved in this process. Booksellers have to be convinced to stock and support it. If that happens and once the book is released the audience alone decides on whether it was a successful project. If individuals like the sound of the story then they purchase and as the originator I earn a royalty on that purchase but also everyone else involved also shares in the profit for that book including the publisher, the bookseller, the printer, the distributor, the person who puts up posters in airports…to the very person who drove the forklift to move the crate of books from a warehouse onto a truck.

My single story, if it’s successfully published, will touch the lives of dozens of people through the wages it will help to cover.

What’s more, if successful, it will touch the lives of potentially tens of thousands of readers for whom it brings entertainment, escape, emotional release, diversion and pleasure.

Take a moment to think of all the glorious Australian books that you have loved over the years. Pick one. Schindler’s Ark? The Book Thief? The Thorn Birds? The Power of One? Can you imagine having to buy your favourite Australian novel, written by an Australian writer, from an Australian bookseller only stocking the American version? Is that what you want? American spelling? American sensibilities? Acknowledgements of American editors?

It’s troubling that my Australian readers might have to read a foreign version of my writing with the editing angled to suit the taste of a different audience to Australia. This is what the Productivity Commission is suggesting is a really great idea for the Australian Government to pursue.

The former Labor government is not immune to this, be warned. It tried and changed its mind, thank goodness. I was one of the people that went to Canberra to address Caucus in order to put a face to the industry they were setting up to destroy. And now the Liberal Government is falling prey to the same idiotic idea and I am still to work out why? I’m not sure who it benefits; it feels like smoke and mirrors to show Australia that its politicians are busy at economic reform when in fact this is not reform but a return to a darker age.

The Commission says it will improve pricing on books.

Maybe a few of the major blockbusters will be lower in price but not enough to make anyone feel anything but cheapened by the move. Instead, Australian audiences will be spoonfed what overseas publishers want them to read. It was tried in NZ and failed miserably. Books did not become massively cheaper and the local industry has all but collapsed.

Buried somewhere within this move – and while I’m sure it’s not intended by our Government – is the danger that the major publishers in Australia will no longer get to choose what they publish. The real threat is that they will no longer act autonomously, they may no longer source new literary voices out of Australia and instead might have to kowtow to what the new head office deems the Australian audience should be reading.

Can you see how the homegrown writers will suffer?

I host a Commercial fiction masterclass twice a year for new and aspiring writers. I am regularly astonished by the talent that sits down with me in those bootcamp weeks but that talent needs nurturing, confidence-building and especially time and support to walk on steady feet before it can run and kick goals. My masterclass is about discovering, guiding and focusing that talent onto a pathway forward to publication. What is the point of all these fabulous new writers desperately trying to be noticed when, if the Productivity Commission has its way, there won’t be a thriving publishing industry for new writers to enter? And new writers invariably cannot get noticed by overseas publishers and we should all fear that our young, bright voices may not ever get heard.

What this all signals is the potential demise of our enviable Australian publishing industry. At the recent Australian Book Industry Awards I listened to well known writer after well known writer get on the stage and shake a fist at this crazy plan. I listened to international writers shake their heads aghast at our government while admitting their governments wouldn’t dream of opening the doors to cheap imports.

You may love the idea of a bargain book but you surely cannot love the notion of overseas publishers making money out of the Australian public while the Australian publishing industry begins its decline. Remember these overseas publisher do not pay taxes here, while our industry does.

It’s not hard to see what will occur ….jobs will go first…in bookstores, in the printing industry, in publishers. Authors might even stop writing because they simply can’t get a worthwhile contract. You won’t notice it at first but then you’ll look up one day soon and wonder why the book you’re buying is printed on cheap paper, with a cheap cover and the bookstore is a bargain basement perhaps selling kitty litter as well and the staff don’t really know all that much about the books on the shelves. And wait a minute…where are all the Aussie writers?

On a more personal note, moving away from the industry and into the home of my family, it was 16 years ago that I took the most enormous risk. My husband and I began with very little but we set up a business in 1985 and we cast all doubts aside and went for it. I was not quite 25 and I was gung ho and crazy in love. Our little magazine publishing business went from strength to strength until from tiny Adelaide began to take on the big boys in Sydney and Melbourne. We began to win awards, we went national, we went international and we became a fabulous little powerhouse in travel industry publishing. At the height of our success we had a growing family…twin boys, hard won because they were IVF, plus all the trappings of a young family of mortgage, car repayments, all those scary utility bills that drop in at the worst time, and school fees. We went without plenty but I was fine with this until I was turning 40. At 39 I had the proverbial mid life crisis and decided I wanted to do something entirely selfish and my big meltdown became a yearning to write. I don’t know quite how or why it crept up on me.

But I did something about it rather than bleat. I wrote a story, sent it off in a time that was pre-internet when email was still to arrive and websites sounded like science fiction. A major publisher rang me and said it wanted three books and within weeks I had a contract. It was a fairytale. And in my excitement I decided writing fiction was all I wanted to do forever more and I was prepared to risk everything for it. My husband wondered if I needed hospitalization. I begged him to trust me. He did. We sold the business, lived off love, fresh air, eggs and some savings and I began to write madly…book after book. It took a while. It took a decade in fact of frugal living and massive debt that we juggled and nudged at until in 2009 I got my big break.

Since then life has been on the up. I wouldn’t say easy street. But we’ve paid off debt, we’ve seen our sons through high school, through university and off into their next stage of life. It was only last year – 2015 – that I began to feel the effects of all our frugality and my endeavour….finally the books were beginning to deliver and we were beginning to feel that our future was secure.

Much of that security, after years in the wilderness and worry, is connected with the copyright of my books. That’s my intellectual property. It means the rights to those books can be sold into different territories around the world. So, if a market, let’s say France, wants to read The Lavender Keeper, it has to buy the rights to publish in the French language. And I not only earn from selling those rights but I also earn royalties on books sold. It’s my income. It’s why I don’t approach my work as an artist but in a workmanlike manner – because I see myself as a worker. Some people make roads, others make wine, or pasta or coffee. I make stories. My husband overnight went from Managing Editor and Publisher of a top title to head cook and bottle washer. It took courage for him to stop being top dog and start being a supporting stay at home husband while his wife built a new business from the ground up. It took trust and belief. It took ages too but committed and boots in together we did it.

The Productivity Commission has decided, in its ongoing stupidity, that it would like to take away my rights to my books after a set number of years and then allow anyone in the world to publish them as they see fit and I am owed nothing.

Do other creators have to give up their IP? Why should any writer give up their legal rights to their work? My first book that captured the imagination of the publishers and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, will already be out of copyright if the new plan goes ahead.  And I’ve been patiently waiting to start earning from some of those books written a decade ago.

The government thinks it’s okay, with a sweep of a hand, to suggest taking away copyright is a really good thing…for whom, pray tell?

If any of this motivates you to stand up for the writers of Australia and for the publishing industry, would you please let your local MP know, write to your local newspaper, write to the Prime Minister.

We are not asking for a subsidies, for tax cuts, for grants. We’re actually not even asking for protection. We’re simply asking for fairness – the same rules applying towards intellectual property that applies in other markets e.g. UK, US, Europe, Asia.   And it won’t cost you a cent, not now, not later, to support the call for our Government to leave the clean, productive, happy, tax-paying, audience pleasing Australian publishing industry and its authors alone.

I read in The Age that the cost of a paperback today is about the same price it was more than two decades ago while a federal MPs wage has tripled in that time to nearly $200k.

We are your storytellers…don’t lose us!

Please make a noise wherever you can especially at this Election time. The writers and publishers of Australia thank you.