IPA Review Editorial, March 2010

‘People have been saying for a while now that what we need is a book industry plan’, said the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr in a speech in mid-February. ‘No one is going to ghost it for you-the industry will have to tell its own story-but I will do everything in my power to facilitate the process.’

Carr was launching a ‘Book Industry Strategy Group’ to ‘map the way forward’ for the Australia publishing industry in an era of digitisation.

So we can add ‘save books from the internet’ to the long list of ambitions of the federal government.

We talk a lot about how over-regulation is burdening the Australian economy. But more perverse is the way that state and federal governments want to pull entrepreneurs into their loving, bureaucratic arms.

The government offers a bewildering array of subsidies and grant programs to do so. We have the ‘Australian Tourism Development Program’, the ‘Automotive Competitiveness and Investment Scheme’, the ‘Biofuels Capital Grants Program’, ‘Building Entrepreneurship in Small Business’, and the ‘Certain Inputs to Manufacture Program’.

There’s ‘Clean Business Australia’ (that one gets $240 million to work with), the ‘Climate Ready Program’, ‘Commercial Ready’ ($200 million), Commercialising Emerging Technologies (proudly described as ‘merit-based’, implying that the marketplace wouldn’t know merit if it stepped on its head), and the ‘Early Stage Venture Capital Limited Partnership Program’.

And about forty others. Hop on to the government’s AusIndustry website: you might be eligible for a grant.

In her review of Ron Manners’ book, Heroic Misadventures, in this edition, Julie Novak points out that entrepreneurs are still the fuel with which the Australian economy moves forward. The entrepreneurial drive harnesses the potent combination of risk and creativity – without it we would not have an economy, let alone the technology and living standards we enjoy today.

Do we really want Australia’s budding innovators spending their time filling out paperwork for the ‘R&D Start’ program, instead of scrimping for capital and pitching to potential investors?

In fact, the very idea that we have an ‘innovation’ minister is extraordinary. Innovation is at the very centre of a capitalist economy – companies innovate in order to compete with each other. They don’t – or shouldn’t – need the advice and coordination of a Commonwealth minister to do so.

So it is with the book industry. The digital revolution is a potent challenge to Australia’s publishing industry. Amazon’s ebook reader Kindle and Apple’s soon-to-be-released iPad has emphasised the extent of that challenge. But industries meet challenges by experimenting with business models, and developing better products. Not by looking to government for a ‘Book Industry Plan’.

The drive to fully socialise vast swathes of the economy disappeared some years ago. But the drive to control the economy – to direct it, to subsidise it, to coordinate it – is just as strong as ever.