An Open Letter to The Australian Government
This is an open letter I wrote that became part of a book published late in 2016 called Save Our Stories.
It’s about a change to the copyright law that the Australian government is considering. In particular, a change to something called territorial copyright. I wrote the letter because I believe that if it goes ahead, it could destroy Australian publishing.
Dear Australian Government
I’m writing this letter because soon the Productivity Commission will recommend that you hurt Australian books, although they won’t put it that way.
They will also recommend that you hurt Australian children. I’m pretty sure the Productivity Commissioners don’t actually want books or children to be hurt, but they have to deal with a huge amount of information in their jobs and sometimes they miss things.
I’m hoping they’ll notice the outcomes about books and children before they send you their report, but in case they don’t, I thought I should mention it to you as I’m sure you don’t want to hurt books or children either.
Before I go into more detail, I should probably tell you a bit about myself. I’ve been an Australian children’s author for about thirty years and have published thirty-seven books. I write fiction primarily for eight to twelve year olds, though many of my books are also read by teenagers. All my books are published first in Australia and most are also published overseas with about twenty countries having their own editions of one or more of my titles.
Over the years, I’ve spoken about reading and writing and books in approximately fifteen hundred schools. In many of them I’ve listened to young Australians talk about the importance of stories in their lives.
What they’ve said has left me convinced that stories are the single most important part of a young person’s education, apart from teachers. In fact I’ll go further and say that without stories, young people won’t develop nearly as much confidence, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, resilience, empathy, problem-solving ability, imaginative muscle-power and skill with words as they will with a rich and varied diet of stories. Or as much, I hope you’re listening Productivity Commissioners, productivity.
I know what you’re thinking, Australian Government. Of course he’d say that, he writes the things. Where’s the evidence?
I do have evidence, though not as compelling as the evidence you could hear from several hundred thousand young Australians. But I’ll do my best. Before I get onto my evidence, though, I must backtrack for a moment.
You’ve been contacted recently by most of the book publishers in Australia, who’ve let you know in detail how the changes to the publishing laws you’ve decided to make, cleverly even before the Productivity Commission advises you to make them, aren’t very good changes. As a result of them we might pay a bit less, maybe, for some overseas books. But also as a result quite a few Australians will lose their jobs and we’ll be left with a gravely injured publishing industry, possibly a dying one.
I don’t have much to add to what the publishers have told you, other than a bit of preventative first aid advice based on personal experience which I’ll share with you later in this letter.
First, some evidence of what young Australians will lose as a result of these changes. Over several thousand years stories have developed and adapted, a bit like governments only faster, to meet the needs of the people they serve. This is specially true of stories for young people.
Stories for young people are some of the most gloriously varied and imaginative filaments in the literary light bulbs that illuminate our lives. But amidst their innovation and luminescence, most have certain traditional elements, tropes and plot points.
Usually a young character is confronted by a problem bigger and more threatening than any they’ve faced before. To solve or survive the problem, they must develop skills and qualities beyond their previous experience or homework. They must think bravely and honestly about themselves and the problem. They must hone their research skills to better understand what they’re up against. Big problems require teamwork, so the character needs to form friendships and alliances. Understanding enemies is a help too. All of which requires development of interpersonal skills, in particular empathy. Creative thinking is a must because the young character needs to develop problem-solving strategies, and resilience is essential because big problems never get solved first time round, particularly when an author is contracted to write 250 pages. Which gives the young character plenty of opportunities to experience just how useful mistakes are.
When I talk with teachers about this classic character journey, their eyes light up. Very quickly they spot how many of these key elements are also crucial stages in a young person’s education and personal development. The eyes of the business community light up too, because they can see how powerfully these stories model creative risk-taking, the innovative and profitable use of personal capital and the safeguarding of all shareholders, including pets.
Free-market enthusiasts see this also, but they tend to be more sceptical. ‘All very well, Morris,’ they say, ‘but these qualities aren’t only found in Australian stories for young people, they’re also found in the imported overseas stories that we calculate will be up to 9½% cheaper once territorial copyright is abolished.’
The teachers, all on tight budgets, are interested to hear this, and the business community too, particularly those with warehouses big enough to hold eight hundred thousand copies of a superceded Disney tie-in colouring book.
Which is when I remind them how crucial and irreplaceable Australian stories are to Australian young people. Just as American stories are to American young people, Slovenian stories to Slovenian young people, and so on.
Young Australians need far more from stories than just the chance to save a few dollars and cents. They need what only stories reflecting the truths and possibilities of their own lives can offer – help and inspiration to achieve maximum selfhood, maximum independence and, because this is important too, right Australian Government, maximum future economic productivity.
Every young person has to begin, at some stage in their primary school years, the most important and challenging journey of their life. The journey from somebody else’s world to their own world. From the world that belongs the adults who have nurtured them, to the world, internal and external, of their own dreaming and their own making.
It’s an exciting journey but it can be tough and confusing. Stories about other young people making the same journey can help a lot. But if all that our kids get to read are stories from elsewhere, if they don’t see anything of their own worlds championed and validated, if the message they get from their reading is that nothing from their world is worth putting in a story, how confusing and demoralising and unhelpful and counter-productive is that?
Which, Australian Government, is why I’m writing this letter. Territorial copyright isn’t an evil plot to destroy the free market and the free world. It’s a bit of chook wire over the seed-bed of our literature and our culture. To allow our stories to take root, flourish and grow into big, strong, world’s-best-practise stories.
My books have sold several million copies in Australia and several million more around the world. I’m an exporter. I’m glad my work makes a positive contribution to our balance of trade. And territorial copyright helped make that possible.
I wouldn’t have got started without an Australian publisher. Nearly thirty years ago I started publishing with Pan Macmillan, and they lost a lot of money on me over the first couple of years. I still marvel at the resources they had to find to get me started. Editing, publicity, marketing, travel, stationary (I used to steal heaps), and everything else needed to make my books as good as possible and to persuade people to read them.
They took a big risk on me. It was helpful to them that when they finally found overseas markets for my books in the English speaking world, they didn’t have to face the prospect of artificially-cheap copies of those US or UK editions coming back into Australia and undercutting the sales of their own editions of my books and sending them broke.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s an example from later in my career. A few years ago, a couple of my books were picked up by one of the big US school book clubs. Approximately 300,000 extra copies of the US edition of those books were printed, and the book club bought them for a few cents above print cost because with those kinds of numbers a few cents is deemed to be a reasonable profit margin. But what if the book club misjudged demand and found they had even ten percent of the print run left at the end of their sales exercise? They’d be happy to sell them to a remainders wholesaler at print cost, probably no more than a dollar a copy. And where would the wholesaler look to dump those copies? The place where there’s maximum demand for my books of course. Australia.
Yes, Productivity Commission, they might sell here a bit more cheaply than my Australian editions. But the sale of each one would prevent the sale of an Australian copy, and prevent my Australian publisher from recouping some of the cash they’ve spent bringing Australian stories to Australian young people. My stories and the stories of many other Australian authors. Stories that will help equip our young people, if I might indulge in a moment of pride, to build a healthy and vibrant nation in the future.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because I’m one of the fortunate authors with thirty years experience and healthy sales around the world, I don’t need as many resources from a publisher. I publish with Penguin Random House these days, have done for twenty years, and their professional team is as crucial to my work as is a theatre team to a surgeon or an engineering team to a pilot or a policy and ethics team to a government minister. Together we strive for the excellence that young Australians deserve and insist on. I’m writing my thirty-eighth book, and I need good editing as much as I did with the first.
I’m proud to be one of the authors these days whose book sales help an Australian publisher support new Australian authors. Getting them started today is even harder and more resource-demanding than when I kicked off. Luckily we get a helping hand from overseas authors, and they don’t mind at all, I’ve checked. Territorial copyright allows Australian publishers to sell their own editions of some overseas books, and the profits help our publishers get our new authors up and running.
During those early years when my middle names were Negative Fiscal Outcome, one of Pan Macmillan’s big-selling overseas authors was Wilbur Smith. The sales of their local editions of his books helped get me started. I’ve never met Wilbur, but if I ever do I’ll thank him heartily for the plane ticket to the Perth Writer’s Festival and the stationery.
Please also don’t think that just because territorial copyright affords a bit of protection, Australian publishers aren’t efficient and competitive. They are very efficient and very competitive. In this country we have a small fraction of the world’s English-speaking population, and yet every year Australian books make an impact throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Books only reach that level of excellence and visibility when authors are supported by efficient and competitive publishers.
If you’re still not convinced, Australian Government, take a peek at the sums you spend winning the hearts and minds of overseas folk when they’re thinking about where to go for their holidays. Australian authors and publishers reach hearts and minds too. At this moment, all over the world, people are sitting with an Australian book, their hearts and minds full of what they’re reading. Some of them have hearts so full they are weeping, some are chuckling, some are telling friends how their lives have been changed by the Australian book they’ve just finished and some are thinking that any country that can produce a book that good might just be worth a visit.
Australian publishers do not have Tourism Australia’s international marketing budget. And yet they get their books to Frankfurt and Bologna and the other international book fairs, get them into the hands of regional publishers who complete the Australian hearts and minds supply chain. Efficient, I hope you’ll agree, and inspiringly competitive.
If you abolish territorial copyright, Australian Government, you’ll be kicking Australian publishers in the teeth. And much as you might like to do that, because much of the most articulate and widely read criticism of your industry comes from ours, please pause and consider the other outcomes.
Here’s a short-term economic one. If you mortally wound my Australian publisher, I and lucky authors like me can move to or regularly visit England or the US and publish from there. I have a readership for my Australian stories in the UK that would allow me to continue to write them for a UK publisher. But I would no longer be an Australian exporter. And all my Australian sales would become imports. My new middle names would be Net Drain On Our Balance Of Trade.
Most Australian authors, present and future, don’t have that opportunity. They’d be left to flounder in the vast unmediated unedited unprofessional online self-publishing world in which there are undoubted pearls, but trying to find them and trying to be found makes the Pacific ocean look like a duckpond.
To finish, Australian Government, just a couple more points.
The recommendations you’re going to receive from the Productivity Commission will be presented in a theoretical framework in which an oft-cited concept is something called externalities. Externalities, I gather, are anything irrelevant to the prevailing economic theory. Some examples of externalities, if I’ve got this right, are art, kindness, imagination and love. Any human society that thinks it can organise its transactions successfully while excluding these is being very foolish. We have a vast literature of stories in our culture, stories stretching back thousands of years, that illustrate why. Please try to find the time to read some of them alongside the Productivity Commission report.
I’ve written to you today about the importance of stories in the development of young people. I’ve pointed to ways that Australian stories help equip young Australians for productive lives. Truly productive lives. It is possible to have a childhood in which there are no nourishing stories. When that happens, it is never the child's fault. There may be people in your party room who had such a childhood. I beg you, as you take steps to increase the productivity of our nation and achieve fair outcomes for consumers, please don't do it in a way that condemns future generations of Australians to childhoods without Australian stories. That would be a tragedy beyond words. And it wouldn't, it really wouldn't, be productive.