Just a quick summary of the intense debates around the possibility of opening up the Indian publishing market to “parallel imports”. This is in many ways a very technical issue; the proposed amendments to the Indian Copyright laws would allow parallel imports of books in India, and would effectively change the way publishers in the country do their business, the kind of books readers would see in bookstores, and the kind of royalties and exposure Indian authors would receive.

The debate is being framed as “the death of publishing in India” versus “readers should have access to cheaper books and intellectual property should flow freely”; both arguments have some merit and many areas of contention.

Hachette’s Thomas Abraham raised the alarm (supported by most of the key players in English-language Indian publishing) in this article in the Hindustan Times:

“So what exactly is proviso 2m and why are writers-publishers so incensed about it? Simply put, the proviso seeks to remove the protection that India had as a copyright territory. Any book published anywhere in the world can now be sold here infringing an exclusive Indian edition — published or imported. To understand this, one needs to realise that authors own copyright to their works and then assign publishing rights to different territories, so that the book and readers are best served. Vikram Seth, for example, is published in Britain by Hachette, in the US by HarperCollins, in Canada by McArthur, and by Penguin in India. Each territory is protected by law to best publish the work. Without this legal shield, any of the four editions could infringe on each other.

So why is the HRD ministry doing this? Baffling as it is, (since it demonstrates no due diligence and a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of the publishing) let’s look at possible reasons:

The ‘It benefits the end consumer because open market competition will bring prices down’ argument: This is rubbish because India is the lowest priced market in the world, and no benefit outside short-term spoiler pricing can accrue to the customer. Quoth jesting Pilate,“If India is the lowest priced market surely publishers have nothing to worry about!” Not true! Here one needs to understand how business is done around the world. Almost all world markets practise what’s known as ‘remainder’ sales. Essentially surplus stock is cleared-off at ‘raddi’ prices. (I kid you not.—Books are sold by the roomful or by weight!) These stocks, if not prohibited by law, will just flow in and wipe out local editions and eventually industry.

Will the end customer get this any cheaper? No, not really, because we have the occasional remainder trickle now and know pricing patterns. Remainder merchants still sell these just below existing price points to maximise their own profits. In any case that can’t surely be the rationale in a country that prides itself on culture and learning — that we turn India into a remainder bin?”

This drew a response by Rahul Matthan in The Indian Express:

“Seen in this light, the opposition to the proposed amendment is quite obviously protectionist, allowing publishers to artificially extend their monopoly over the works they have licensed at the cost of the readers they are supposed to serve. As a result, consumers are denied access to new and fresh intellectual property and the breadth of choice that the more mature markets have to offer. What’s more, readers are denied the pricing choices that exist in developed markets which allow them to choose to either pay more for fresh content, or forgo the pleasure of buying the latest book as it comes out in exchange for an eventual reduction in price.”

And a blog post at Original Fakes argued for opening up the Indian market, but got many aspects of the Indian publishing industry dead wrong (I’ll try and post a full critique later in the week):

“As I have written elsewhere, I owe my education in English entirely to low-cost editions of books bought from pirate street vendors or less-frequently at second hand bookstores (who typically would stock books imported from overseas library sales). So I’m eagerly anticipating the changes this new amendment promises to unleash – more of the same. (Aside, officially sold English books in India have always been much more highly priced than vernacular books of identical print quality – prompting us to speculate who pockets the difference. And why. The interests of the reading public or the author are very far removed in this calculus.)”

(In just this one paragraph, there are three sweeping errors: the assumption that piracy benefits readers–book pirates aren’t interested in hawking copies of GV Desani or Kolatkar’s Jejuri, they’re busy selling ersatz copies of Paulo Coelho and Aravind Adiga; that there is some conspiracy to price English language books higher than regional-language books (the difference lies in the fact that the print, binding, design and paper quality are usually more expensive than in regional language publishing, and I would be hard pressed to find books of “identical print quality” in these very distinct markets); and that this new amendment would work well for readers and authors.)

The interesting thing is that this debate has been played out before, in almost exactly the same terms–in Australia. There are some similarities between the Australian and Indian markets, in English language publishing. Both have a wide local pool of readers, but a smaller pool than, say, the UK or European markets–the average print runs for books in Australia and in India would be much smaller than the average print run in the UK or the US, though these numbers have been steadily increasing over the last 15 years. Both have to compete to sell rights of local authors in the Western, UK and US-dominated marketplace, and publishers in both countries have often complained that these markets are only interested in a certain kind of literature. Both markets have shown great growth in the last 10-15 years, but are still not independent enough to thrive without access to the big souks of the US, the UK and Europe.

Anyway, to cut to the debate. This blog post, made in 2008 at the Australian Writers Marketplace, covers most of the points we’re discussing in India:

“However, Bernard Keane has weighed in at Crikey with the argument that the Australian publishing industry should essentially get over it. Software and music import restrictions have fallen, and he asks why books should be any different.

Australian publishers, like other beneficiaries of media regulation like the FTA TV networks and music companies, have had to watch as their fortresses of protectionism have been bypassed by the internet, with consumers exercising the power it hands them to get what they want when they want it, legally or illegally. With a strong Australia-US exchange rate, there’s never been a better time to buy GST-free books from Amazon.

Keane goes on to argue that import regulation is actually a lack of trust in the Australian consumer, that publishers do not believe Australians will buy Australian stories, and the industry must be regulated to keep sales of Australian literature up. He compares it to the broadcasting industry’s Australian Content Requirements, and the theory that Australians wouldn’t watch Australian TV shows if the industry wasn’t forced to make them.

However, it’s not just about the content. Garth Nix makes an incredibly important point in his letter, one which should probably be the sticking point to the entire debate:

I am surprised there is support for an “open” market in Australia because it would be no such thing. It would actually be a “surrendered” market. The entire publishing world still works on the basis of territorial copyright and it will do so for a long time to come, despite electronic editions and the Internet, of which I will have more to say down the page. This is particularly the case with English language publishing. The USA and the UK have actually been strengthening their respective book copyright regimes, not surrendering them. What is “open” about Australian-published books not being able to be sold in the USA or the UK, but American, British or any other English-language edition from anywhere being able to be freely sold here?

Perhaps I’m missing the point, but why should we accept American and British versions of our books, when they won’t do the same?”

I think this covers the basic problem with allowing parallel imports–quite apart from the fear publishers have expressed of India being turned into a giant remainder bin. The problem is that this law goes one way; we open up our markets, without having similar and equal access to the markets of the US and the UK. I just don’t see how this will benefit authors and publishers–and if there is any benefit to readers, it will be exceedingly short-term.

I’ll try to explain why later, either in next week’s column for the Business Standard or in a more detailed post. But for the moment, think about this: this is not a simple open-up-the-market-so-that-readers-can-buy-cheaper-books situation. In theory and in practice, the rise of ebooks will force a rethink worldwide about the territorial model of publishing, where publishers buy and own the rights to sell books in a specific geographical area. At this point, though, the global publishing marketplace operates on the territorial model, for better or for worse. The UK isn’t opening up its markets to Indian publishers, neither is the US. To unilaterally open up our markets without thinking about the consequence could seriously hurt authors–who lose out on royalties–and set back the gains Indian publishing in the English language arena has made in the last 15 years.

If anyone thinks readers will benefit in this situation, they need to take a long hard look at the realities of the publishing marketplace–or to think about the kind of books they would find in bookstores if booksellers no longer have an incentive to source anything but cheap bestsellers or editions of books that undercut the original Indian edition.

Update: Thomas Abraham responds to the Original Fakes blogpost (thank you, Thomas, now I don’t have to write my rebuttal!):

There are essentially two views—according to us, we as publishers have a certain viewpoint founded in experience, knowledge of the markets while the lawyers (or more specifically this group of three cited here) have a viewpoint founded mainly in abstract theory—an ideal construct (ideal in their notion of a harmonious statement of law—which however has no engagement with practicalities, and chooses to ignore fundamental questions).
Each iteration has put forward a fresh round of erroneous assumptions—it started with this being just something foreign publishers wanted (that notion amazingly still persists below despite statements by all to the contrary), then the boldly stated fact that author royalties will not be impacted…and the persistent delusion that the consumer will benefit. No direct data or credible evidence anywhere.