Against the backdrop of the worsening problem of the illegal copying of published school texts, one of the few established bookstores remaining in Guyana has slashed its imports by around 50 per cent ahead of the start of the new academic year.
Lloyd Austin, proprietor of Austin’s Bookstore told Stabroek Business in a telephone interview earlier this week that the decision to further reduce the importation of original texts had been taken to minimize the risks associated with having unsold stocks on hand. That risk, Austin said had increased steadily over the years on account of the worsening problem of cheaper copied texts being printed in transgression of copyright legislation and openly sold, in some cases by some of the country’s established bookstores.
Explaining the rationale behind the reduced text book imports Austin said that while publishers afford booksellers varying rates of refund on unsold periodicals and magazines, the facility did not apply to unsold texts. “What we buy we pay for in full. The risk of having unsold stock is entirely ours,” Austin said.
Austin told Stabroek Business that the rapid growth of the school text pirating industry had resulted in a steady reduction in the importation of published texts over the years and that the decision to slash imports by around half this year was indicative of the fact that the situation was becoming “worse, not better.”
“We really have little choice in the matter. People are reprinting published texts and selling them all over the country and when large numbers of original published texts remain unsold it is we who have to bear the cost,” Austin told Stabroek Business.
And according to Austin the persistence of the “epidemic” of text book pirating can be blamed largely on official indifference. He said that it was not a question of text book copying and selling was a clandestine industry. “The thing is being done openly. It is against the law and still there is no official action,” Austin said.
Some months ago this newspaper was told that illegally reproduced school texts might be among the books being distributed to state schools by the Ministry of Education. When the issue was raised with Education Minister Shaik Baksh he said he had no knowledge of it but promised to investigate. Despite checks with the offices of both the Minister and Permanent Secretary Pulandar Kandhi no further word has been received from the Ministry regarding the truth or otherwise of the allegation.
According to Austin while the practice has long been a source of frustration to publishers and booksellers alike, measures were still being attempted to reduce the impact of pirating. He said that his bookstore had secured an arrangement with the British publishers Oxford under which dictionaries and some other texts are acquired at specially reduced prices. “What this means is that we are in a better position to compete with the pirates. In fact we are able to provide dictionaries at a cheaper price than the pirates can,” Austin said.
Text book pirates, Austin told Stabroek Business, operate with impunity, visiting bookshops themselves and sometimes sending their ‘assistants” to acquire original texts for copying. “We sometimes have our suspicions depending on the behaviour of the persons who come to make the purchases,” Austin said. So widespread has the practice of pirating become that Austin’s Bookstore is now one of the very few remaining stores in Guyana where original published texts can be bought.
The bookstore proprietor named some private schools and other customers who continue to purchase original published texts. “We have retained a corps of “dedicated customers who would not support the pirates, in principle, but more people have to raise their voices against the practice if it is to be contained,” he said.
And Austin told Stabroek Business that contrary to the view in some quarters the mark-up on text books is small. “This business is not as lucrative as some people might think,” he said. He explained that in the cases of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados where pirating of texts is less prevalent the bookselling trade can be more lucrative since they are able to take advantage of reductions on publishers’ prices which can sometimes go as high as 30 per cent. Austin explained that while in the cases of the other CARICOM countries booksellers can secure mark-ups as high as 15 per cent that was not the case in Guyana. “The problem in Guyana is that the pirates undermined the demand for original published texts to the extent that we have to apply a lower mark-up if the books are to be sold.
Education Ministry officials have conceded to this newspaper that the practice of text book pirating is well-known to the Ministry but that the decision not to intervene has been influenced largely by official concern over a possible backlash from parents to any attempt to staunch the availability of the cheaper copied options.
Austin told Stabroek Business that this argument failed to take account of “the illegality of the practice and the losses incurred by the authors and publishers. Additionally, he explained that the inferior production process associated with pirated texts meant that children who must use the texts are not getting value for money. “In many cases what passes for books are no more than loose leaves crudely pasted or stapled together with gum. Over time the staples rust and break and what the children have is a pack of cards. With texts associated with colour the problem is worse since what that means is that the book now has limited value as a teaching tool,” he added.
This week a state school teacher who declined to be named told Stabroek Business that he believed that the circulation of pirated texts in schools was being done “with official blessing” and that the practice could easily be stopped if there is an official ruling against the use of pirated texts in schools. “While we understand the argument about the cost of the cheaper photocopied text books it is really not an argument when we consider that copying the text is illegal.”
Austin told Stabroek Business that some time ago a number of overseas-based publishers had recruited a local attorney to address the issue of copyright transgression in the courts. Some publishers have expressed the view that official indifference to copyright transgression has caused the problem to grow worse. They are also of the view that Guyana’s copyright legislation is archaic and in need of major overhaul.
And according to Austin pirating has also resulted in the likely discontinuation of publications by local authors. According to Austin publishers may have already discontinued production of the Geography text “We live in Guyana” authored by the late former Education Minister Deryck Bernard. Austin said that the book had been a victim of considerable piracy and that the reduced demand for original copies had resulted in the publishers’ decision. Meanwhile, Austin told Stabroek Business that there have been no increases in publishers’ prices for text books.