Australian publishers and booksellers fight the good fight -- and keep an eye on basics as well.

The 75th annual Australian Booksellers Association conference and the Australian Publishers Association trade show, held the first week in June in Sydney and both lively affairs, were overshadowed to an extent by the deal struck the previous Friday in the Australian Senate between the ruling conservative coalition and the head of the Democrats, Sen. Meg Lees, which will allow a 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST) to be introduced July 1, 2000, and be applied to books. (News, June 14.)

The deal was discouraging for the book industry, which had waged a long public campaign to keep books exempt from GST (the APA alone spent A$100,000, about US$65,000, on ads) and because the Democrats had pledged not to approve a GST with tax on books. In fact, on a book industry Keep Books Tax Free poster that was distributed around the country and run as an ad in newspapers, Sen. Lees herself was pictured and quoted saying, "It is nonsense to suggest that education is GST-free when you are applying a GST to the single most substantial education resource that students should have at their disposal-books. Sadly, this example of a lack of understanding and forethought is far from isolated in the tax package."

As one publisher said to PW, "Were we really so naive as to believe a politician? Sadly, the answer is yes."

Moreover, the industry, particularly publishers, are wary of the government on the question of an open market for books. Since early this year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been investigating book prices and has heard testimony from publishers and booksellers, who have argued that Australian book prices are already among the lowest in the world. Still, there seems to be some drive in the government toward opening the market, à la New Zealand, in the guise of lowering consumer prices. (Last year the New Zealand government created an open market for books quickly and with little consultation with the local book industry.)

Speaking for many in the business, Malcolm Edwards of Hodder Headline said at an ABA panel that the open market is "one of the most dangerous things overshadowing GST."

For its part, the ABA resolved to approach the ACCC to ask for more information about the ACCC's request for information.

The Shows Go On

Despite the issues of the GST and the open market, the show (and conference) went on, with publishers and booksellers expressing enthusiasm for the two events.

The APA show, held at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre in Darling Harbour, drew solid reviews from exhibitors. More than 4700 people attended, and the mood in the aisles was brisk -- and cheerful, especially at parties held late in the day at exhibitors' stands that tended to spill over into one another. Most publishers were buoyant about business, describing the year to date, a time when the Australian economy has been booming, as healthy; the worst appraisal was only that business this year was flat.

Ingram International and Baker &Taylor both had booths, promoting their services supplying American titles to Australian booksellers. Both described demand from Down Under as growing.

The ABA conference program, which had the theme "Thinking Globally, Acting Locally," was attended by nearly 200 booksellers and included two international guests: Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, and John Hitchin, president of the European Booksellers Federation. In contrast to last year, when members were worried about Borders's imminent arrival -- the company has opened only one store, in Melbourne, not the rumored 12-15 -- the GST, an open market and the basics of bookselling were the main topics. (In one of the few mentions of Borders, Mark Rubbo of Readings Carlton, 1998's Australian Bookseller of the Year, noted with amusement that in some ways the Melbourne Borders, with its extensive American Civil War and African-American sections, seemed not to be geared to the Australian market.) As Mary Dalmau, president of the ABA and manager of Reader's Feast, Melbourne and Bondi, said, "We're grappling with new changes and age-old issues at the same time."

Landon discussed the state of American independents as well as the BookSense program that ABA has released nationally and was developed originally by NCIBA. Many Australian booksellers greeted his talks enthusiastically and said they hope to set up a similar program in the near future.

Hitchin gave an overview of bookselling issues in Europe, where attempts to equalize VAT on books would result in a windfall for book retailers in such places as Sweden and Denmark, which have high VAT on books, but would be disastrous in the U.K. and Ireland, which have no VAT on books. Another important issue: copyright, which has different traditions in different European countries. The U.K., Hitchin said, has debated the implications of the French-style droit d'auteur, which grants much stronger rights to writers than Britain generally offers. Another threat, to both the U.K. and Spain, is European Union legislation concerning territorial rights that would allow for free trading and override existing copyright laws.

One unusual trend in Europe is vertical integration in the book world. The most notable recent example is W.H. Smith's purchase of Hodder Headline. Several continental publishers, including France's Hachette and Spain's Planeta, have bought book retailers and are expanding their operations.

Otherwise, trends in the European book world mirror those in other parts of the globe, with a growth in conglomerates and multinational companies and superstore expansion.

Heard at the Panels

Several panels drew on speakers from a variety of areas in the book business to discuss general issues.

Concerning an update of the Digital Agenda Bill, which would amend Australia's copyright law, Michael Fraser of Copyright Agency Ltd. (CAL), which is equivalent to the Copyright Clearance Center in the U.S., noted that the government's proposal had a serious deficiency that could severely affect writers and publishers. Under the draft law, libraries would be allowed to copy digitally a chapter or article and disseminate (for a fee, if they wish) that material without paying copyright fees to any other library or individual. "It would clearly destroy the incentive and livelihood of authors," Fraser said. His organization is proposing that libraries pay copyright fees for such copying.

In other comments during the panel, Fraser observed, in the midst of a discussion of new retail outlets for books, that "a deli bookshop would be my favorite. You could ask for a witty brie and half a dozen short stories."

Libby Gleeson, chair of the Australian Society of Authors, a vociferous critic of the GST deal, said, "We are the plankton at the bottom of the food chain."Publishers defended themselves from some suggestions that they weren't serving the Australian book market well. Penguin Australia head Peter Field noted, for example, that Penguin stocks any book that sells at least 200 copies a year -- or four copies a week -- across the country.

At a marketing panel, Phil Page of Pages &Pages, Sydney, outlined an "Independent Booksellers Book of the Month" program done jointly by 22 booksellers in New South Wales, which he said could serve as a foundation for an Australian campaign similar to BookSense in the U.S.

The booksellers pay A$55 each and solicit publishers to pay A$1200, which g s to buy an ad in the Sydney Morning Herald's Saturday Spectrum section each month. The ad highlights one title, which is prominently labeled as the Independent Booksellers Book of the Month. The stores also feature the titles in their newsletters and display them prominently in their shops. So far three ads have run, and sales have been good to date.

The GST Campaign

In public post-mortems, many industry participants saw a silver lining to the campaign against GST on books.

For the ABA itself, the campaign helped "forge alliances, especially with the Australian Society of Authors and the printers," ABA president Mary Dalmau said.

David Gaunt of Gleebooks, Sydney, called it "well done." The campaign showed that lobbying "d sn't work," he continued, since politicians "will tell you one thing and do another." He speculated that the industry "lost" because of an inability to "manipulate the media."

Mary Dalmau suggested that the matter might be an issue of money, too, in that the industry might not have the money to get media attention. (The ABA spent A$25,000, about US$16,250, on the campaign.)

For her part, Juliet Rogers, head of Random House Australia, said, "I always thought it was a difficult fight. It's hard to make the issue of books as emotional as food." (Whether and what kinds of food should be taxed was a major issue in the GST debate.) Rogers added that she thought the campaign was "extremely well fought."

Malcolm Edwards of Hodder Headline tried to put the media question in perspective, noting that the book industry gets many review pages of attention in newspapers, which he called "huge coverage."

Peter Field of Penguin Books Australia said that Penguin was taking prices off its titles in anticipation of GST being introduced next year. Price points will be a problem, he acknowledged, and publishers may adjust in order to keep from having odd prices (today's recommended retail prices plus 10%) and "may raise prices more on the more popular titles." He noted, too, that for booksellers, cash flow will improve somewhat with GST, as they will collect the tax with each sale and then remit the tax to the government at the end of the month. Publishers, however, won't have the same advantage. (NCIBA's Landon recommended that booksellers plan carefully to pay the taxes, which can be a pitfall for small retailers.)

Jon Attenborough of Simon &Schuster Australia suggested that one way the government could help the book industry was to "get libraries buying back in Australia" rather than overseas.


At the ABA annual general meeting, ABA members decided to continue fighting the GST, which has yet to be voted on by the Australian Senate.

In another vote, the members unanimously supported Gleebooks, the Sydney bookseller that coincidentally won the D.W. Thorpe Bookseller of the Year award (see below), in its battle with the ACCC.

Since last October, Gleebooks has printed at the bottom of every receipt "Books will cost 10% more with a GST." Recently the store received a letter from the ACCC asking it to substantiate the claim, which the ABA and others in the book industry took to be a politically motivated threat.

Fair Play

As has been the case in recent years, the ABA and APA timed their respective conference and show to overlap and be held near one another. This year, the two went a step farther, combining their annual dinners and holding a joint ABA/APA Industry Awards Dinner. The cooperation was so extensive that earlier this year the two associations announced they would work together on a joint industry event in 2000.

Unfortunately it seems that the two groups may not meet jointly next year -- mainly for reasons of geography. Publishers want the trade show to remain in Sydney, while booksellers want the show to move back to Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, next year. The APA has said it will hold its trade show in Sydney June 14-16 next year; publishers were particularly displeased by last year's Melbourne APA show, which many characterized as "lackluster."

On the other hand, at their annual general meeting, ABA members reaffirmed their earlier decision to alternate the conference between the two cities and to meet in Melbourne next year, when the conference will be held in conjunction with the congress of the International Booksellers Federation. The ABA-IBF show may be held as early as May. But the ABA and APA are reportedly still talking, and some compromise may yet be reached.

The Book Best of Australia

A highlight of the week during which the ABA conference and APA trade show took place was the announcements of some of the most important awards in the Australian book world.

The 1999 Miles Franklin Literary Award, which has a A$28,000 (US$18,200) prize and is given to a work that portrays Australian life, went to Murray Bail for Eucalyptus (Text), which also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize earlier this year.

Several of the awards were announced at the joint ABA-APA Industry Banquet on June 4.

The Book Data Book of the Year, the book booksellers most enjoyed selling over the previous 12 months, was The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan (Picador), the fourth time in the four years the award has been given that a Pan Macmillan book has won.

The Who Weekly Readers' Choice Award, sponsored by the Australian version of People magazine, went to Bryce Courtenay for Jessica (Viking).

The D.W. Thorpe Bookseller of the Year, which publishers and distributors determine, was Gleebooks, Sydney, which won for the third time in the eight years that the award has been given. Co-owners David Gaunt and Roger Mackell accepted the award, with Gaunt commenting: "It's great to win once, unbelievable to win twice and fantastic to win for a third time."

For the second time in the eight years that the D.W. Thorpe Publisher of the Year Award has been given, Penguin Books Australia won. Managing director Peter Field said he was "thrilled."

Also at the banquet, Peter Milne, a director of Abbey's Bookshop in Sydney, won the Lloyd O'Neil Award for services to the Australian book industry. The self-described "original and only surviving architect of the ABA constitution," who is normally quite amusing and chatty, was so overcome that, as he put it, "For once in my life, I'm speechless."