How copyright makes Australian books disappear

Does copyright law primarily benefit artists or corporations? OK, now that we have all had a giggle at the fatuity of the question we could direct our attention to this important paper by Professor Paul Heald – How Copyright Makes Books and Music Disappear (and How Secondary Liability Rules Help Resurrect Old Songs) which can be downloaded here. This recent paper undertakes an interesting test of the hypothesis outlined in the title.

Every edition of a book has an identifier called an ISBN code. Thus there will be many ISBNs for Oliver Twist (hardback, paperback, illustrated, student edition etc) but not so many for smaller selling special interest books which will only have one ISBN. The research test involves creating random number ISBNs and searching for books with those numbers on Amazon. The books found are then collated by year of initial publication and Copyright status.

Heald’s essential argument is that:

“Research  examining  what  is  for  sale  “on  the  shelf”  reveals a  striking  finding  that directly contradicts the under-exploitation theory of copyright:  Copyright correlates significantly with  the  disappearance  of  works  rather  than  with  their  availability.  Shortly  after  works  are created  and  proprietized,  they  tend  to  disappear  from  public  view  only  to   reappear  in significantly  increased  numbers  when  they  fall  into  the  public  domain  and  lose  their  owners. For example, more than twice as many new books originally published in the 1890’s are for sale by Amazon than books from the 1950’s, despite the fact that many fewer books were published in the 1890’s.”

This is in stark contrast to the justifications of the corporate copyright holders who tell us that the existence of property rights will ensure the continued availability and commercial exploitation of books, and hence benefit the authors.

As a local test of this argument I decided to check the availability of Miles Franklin Award winning books in bookshops. The Miles Franklin Award has been awarded in most years since 1957 to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases. On some criteria then these are among the most significant works of fiction produced in Australia over the last 60 years. They presumably should not be regarded as trivial or ephemeral novels and could be expected to be works that survive the ravages of time better than most of their contemporary works.

This check of Miles Franklin winning books via the Booko website, which compares prices of books at Australian bookshops, basically backs up the research findings. The 2009 – 2013 winners are all available in bookshops as full priced paperback books ranging in price from $23 to $28. The 2007 winner is also available.

Only 5 Miles Franklin winning books published between 1980 and 2006 are available in Australian bookshops, and three of these were written by Tim Winton. It obviously helps to have a high profile as a writer if you want your books to stay in print. The only other author from this period to have a full priced paperback in stock was Kim Scott with Benang, a co-winner in 2000. Kim Scott also won the Miles Franklin Award in 2011 and this may explain the continuing availability of the earlier winner in print.

The 1987 winner Dancing on Coral is available as a lower priced Classic edition at $13. There are 9 Miles Franklin Award winning books from 1957 to 1980 available in this cheaper half price format, 4 from the 1970’s and 5 books from 1957 to 1969, including the very first winner, Voss by Patrick White.

What makes these results interesting is that 7 of the 10 cheaper priced Classic editions at around $13, or half the price of a full priced paperback, are published by Text publishing, and more power to their arm. The Text Classics have really only become available in the last 2 or 3 years which means that the Heald thesis would have been even more clearly demonstrated prior to the arrival of this imprint. Congratulations to the good people at Text (declaration of interest: None) for identifying a gap in the market and aiming to provide some quality books to the Australian reading public.

My reckoning is that you could purchase a new print edition of 22 of 56 Miles Franklin Award winners, and only 3 of 18 winners from 1980 -1999 are currently available. Similarly Kindle editions are available for 36 of the 56 winners, with the numbers holding up well since 1980 but dropping away significantly for the earlier winners.

From the outside looking in it appears that the current business model for Australian book publishers is to charge full price for as long as a book can sustain that price in the market, and then delete the book. This is no help to the authors who are not selling any books or to the reading public looking for slightly older Australian literature to read. Hopefully for all concerned the Text enterprise in offering older novels at a discount to the full price charged for current novels will be a profitable one.

While it is helpful to have a strong brand name as an author in order to have copies of your older novels available in print, it is not by itself a sufficient condition to ensure their availability as books by Tom Keneally from the 1960s and Peter Carey from 1998 appear not to be available for purchase.

Of course now that we have the option of new media it could be argued that books can be provided digitally, even if they are not in print. A Kindle check reveals that 13 of 15 winners since 2000 are available for purchase via Kindle, which is better than the 8 physical books available in bookshops.

From 1980 to 1999 there are 13 of 18 winners available and from 1957 to 1979 there are 10 of 23 Kindle editions available, which is only 1 more than the number of books available in the Classic price print editions. This suggests that the E-Book technology may enable a book to remain in the market for a longer period, but that it is not a significantly greater preserver of older books than Classic edition price discrimination. Not as yet anyway. There are 13 Miles Franklin Award winners where it seems that you cannot purchase either a print edition or an E-Book copy.

The conclusion to be drawn is that most book publishers, aside from Text Classics, currently see little merit in adapting price discrimination to the market place to sell more copies of older books. My impression is that if older books were more reasonably priced they would find a market. Australia has long been a captive of our small local market but it is also true that Australian book publishing sits back quite happily inside the British publishing sphere of influence and only has a business plan which charges the maximum price for a book. Why shouldn’t older books be published in cheaper editions in order to keep them in the market? The US is a much larger market but the fact that they are able to offer cheap paperback books for $5 or $6 as well as higher priced new books suggests that the Australian industry has not been interested in the use of pricing strategies to grow the market prior to the arrival of the plain cover Penguins and the Classics editions.    

What this means in practice in Australia is that it is much easier to find books written by Miles Franklin than it is to find print edition books written by Miles Franklin Award winners prior to 2005 unless their name is Tim Winton, Patrick White or the recently recovered David Ireland. A further consideration is that if this is what happens to Award winning authors, what happens to the lesser lights and authors of genre fiction? I think we already know the answer to that question.   

Some of the books which do not appear to be currently available in print are:

2008       Steven Carroll    The time we have taken

2001       Frank Moorhouse            Dark Palace

1998       Peter Carey        Jack Maggs

1978       Jessica Anderson             Tirra Lirra by the river

1975       Xavier Herbert  Poor fellow, my country

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About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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