For decades Australian authors have endured their US publishers reworking their finest prose. Rugby has become gridiron, pavements have become sidewalks and mums are moms, and all to make books more digestible to a US audience. Now, however, the Australian literary community is prepared to endure no longer, because of a new proposal that, if implemented, could see overseas editions of their novels flood the domestic market.
The productivity commission, a government agency which has been fighting anti-competitive and inefficient markets for the past 20 years, wants to abolish “territorial copyright” and “parallel import restrictions” in Australia.
The upshot could be that overseas editions — complete with cultural “translations” suitable for that market — override the original text in Australia. If it succeeds, Australia will be the largest book market to remove standard protections given to publishers and authors across the English-speaking world.
Territorial copyright means authors are guaranteed much bigger royalties on their books sold in their home market compared to those sold abroad. But the commission says such protection should last just 12 months, which means that writers will see their royalties slashed after one year of publication.
The other protection is parallel import restrictions, which stops foreign publishers selling their books in the Australian market when local publishers have already printed it. Abolishing this rule means UK and US publishers will be able to ship their books to Australia to compete with the local publishers.
The commission says removing such protection would cut prices for consumers. But the authors say it would see the Australian market flooded with foreign versions.
Booker Prize winner Peter Carey says Australia will once again be rendered a colonial outpost in which Australian authors would be forced to go knocking on indifferent foreign publishing doors.
“The imagined gain on the Excel [spread]sheet can in no way compensate the long term devastation of such cultural ‘self-suicide’ (an ugly tautology, but as this is an American expression we may, in some parallel future, have to learn to live with it),” Carey wrote to the commission.
Kate Grenville, who won the UK’s Orange award for her novel The Idea of Perfection, says that Australian expressions have always posed a challenge to foreign audiences and that before she earned international recognition she was effectively forbidden from lapsing into antipodean idiom.
Foreign editors would strike words like “ute,” “dunny” and “chook” from the page, not because they were crude English that Australians proudly call “ocker,” but because it was as if she was speaking another tongue. They did not understand that Grenville was describing a “truck with an open back,” “an outside toilet” and “a cooked chicken.”
“They wanted me to de-Australianise a lot and if I had said no, I would never have been published overseas,” she said. “There was a blind cultural assumption that American English was English and I was speaking a very different sub-category which needed subtitles.”
It is not the first time the commission has been accused of trammeling Australian culture for the sake of pursuing “economic rationalism.” Similar arguments were made when it pushed for the removal of similar restrictions in the music industry in 1998.