Why does the Productivity Commission hate Sean Williams?

There’s a lot more in the Australian Productivity Commission’s report into parallel book imports than just their economic argument about cheaper books.

There’s been some good analysis of what implementing the recommendations could mean for Australian authors, booksellers and publishers. And there’ll be plenty more to come, which I might do a wrap up of next week. I don’t want to revisit those arguments now because, frankly, others have done it in more depth.

My interest today is Appendix F.

Appendix F is titled: “Design of financial support for book producers”. It analyses grants and literary prizes for authors and publishers. They don’t offer much of an explicit opinion on the Public and Education Lending Right schemes, which compensate authors for books borrowed from public and educational libraries. Except they make the point that most authors receiving payments under PLR and ELR get small amounts; only a few get the big bucks, which seems code for saying it’s not much use when it comes to author incomes. Many authors will tell you different.

Stick with me, I’m getting to the Sean Williams hatred real soon.

The Productivity Commission suggests, that instead of inefficient grants to individual authors and various organisations:

Subsidies to book producers ideally should be delivered only for books that yield material cultural and educational externalities that would not otherwise be generated. The externality value of books, and the likelihood that it would be generated without a dedicated subsidy, is likely to vary between classes or genres of books, as well as within them, and so ideally subsidies should vary to reflect these differences.

And which class of books do they say are likely to offer more value?

Among the diversity of the adult trade sector, Australian stories, histories and biographies are examples of books which are more likely to generate cultural externalities than generic fiction or some non-fictional material such as Australian-authored computer manuals.

There’s the hatred. Sean Williams – a great Australian storyteller – writes some of that dreaded generic fiction. No PLR or ELR for him. The Productivity Commission says instead subsidies could be dished out by a panel of assessors who – as they suggest – should probably give the science fiction section a big miss.

But it’s not just Williams. The productivity hates any number of great Aussie speculative fiction authors like Karen Miller and Marianne de Pierres. They probably don’t hate Margo Lanagan quite so much but only because she writes lots of those great youth-oriented page-turning cultural externalities yarns.

Though having a panel to assess subsidy eligibility is probably a bit inefficient. Here’s what they suggest could streamline the process:

An alternative approach to aligning subsidies with potential differences in cultural externalities of books, that may be more suitable for a broad book subsidy scheme, would be to distinguish book content according to generally accepted bibliographic classification systems.

Why bother with a pesky assessment panel – they may let a few genre books through – when you can just wall off the entire science fiction and fantasy section and forget about it? It’s kinda like saying you can go for a jog along any street you want but you’ll only get fit if your route goes through the rich suburbs.

So what type of books are likely to be Productivity Commission pre-approved:

Most obviously, the core ideas that were embodied in books such as The New Testament, The Wealth of Nations, Mein Kampf and The Female Eunuch have had major impacts on how societies operate. Truly ‘iconic’ works are rare, but some books have similar, though smaller, external effects through their influence on people’s views and attitudes.

But watch out for those negative externality generators

For example, some people would see Professor Ian Plimer’s recent book Heaven and Earth — which purports to debunk the scientific consensus on climate change — as generating external costs, to the extent that it weakens community support for measures to reduce greenhouse emissions. Most clearly, books that have the effect of promoting intolerance between groups can diminish certain forms of social capital and generate external costs.

Mein Kampf‘s okay but don’t challenge climate change, okay? (And before anyone throws Godwin’s law back at me, just remember – the Productivity Commission started it). 

And here’s the biggest problem for me. The Productivity Commission started off making an economic argument. And there’s probably an important discussion to have around some of these things. It would be good to pay less for books. But why isn’t the Productivity Commission saying we should drop the GST on books, or force Amazon and other online retailer to pay the 10% tax and reduce their government-regulated competitive advantage. Lets discuss them.

Instead we get this nonsense – essentially an argument over what has literary merit. Stories matter to me, not externalities.

But clearly it’s important to them. So just in case they didn’t check – a note for the Productivity Commission: Cheapest I could find Mein Kampf on Amazon was US$1.46 (without shipping). But if that’s a bit much you can probably get it cheaper if everyone puts in and you buy the order in bulk.

  1 comment for “Why does the Productivity Commission hate Sean Williams?

  1. Graham
    August 6, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve got a spare copy at home I could send them if it would help out.

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