November Dinner Meeting Report: Bookshops: Here Today, Here Tomorrow?

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As new digital buzzwords (especially anything beginning with 'e') continue to creep into the language of publishing, the retail landscape for bookselling is ever changing. More and more Australian readers are ordering books online or downloading ebooks - how will the traditional place of bookshops in the community be affected?

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Joel Becker, chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, proffered that brick-and-mortar bookshops will continue to play a vital role — culturally, economically and socially — and that with a few counterpunches to the marketing dollars of Google and Amazon, they will continue to survive and thrive.

Joel noted that this was his second appearance at an Editors Victoria event: “My previous talk was about seven or eight years ago in a very different time and space. You were the Society of Editors — open parentheses Vic close parentheses — and I was director of the Victorian Writers' — plural possessive — Centre.

“Times have certainly changed. The Victorian Writers' Centre is now Writers Victoria, and has moved from the Nicholas Building to the very schmick surrounds of The Wheeler Centre, and the SocEd Vic is now Editors Victoria.”

Joel noted that more has changed than the names of the organisations; in particular, the nature and the perception of the industry have altered dramatically.

The death of the book and the bookshop is not only greatly exaggerated, it's just plain wrong. A couple of years ago bookshops were having a difficult time, in both perception and in reality. These factors were seen by some as the death knell of the industry.

There were a number of issues at play which Joel outlined.

The rapidly increasing market share of ebooks

In Australia the widely agreed figure of ebooks as a percentage of the market is 10 per cent - that is likely to be 15 per cent in 12 months, and, if it follows the American and British models, will eventually wend its way to 30 per cent, where it has plateaued overseas.

It is important to look at what is selling as ebooks. The predominant categories are genre fiction:  romance, historical fiction, sci-fi, crime etc. The big blockbuster novels are doing hugely well — John Grisham, James Patterson and others.

This sector of the market had largely shifted to the discount department stores and chain shops already, having little impact on local bookshops.  Kids' ebook sales are negligible and text books have barely shifted.  The largest uptake of ebooks is by women over 60.

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E-commerce, Particularly from Overseas Suppliers

Buying from Amazon gives away Australian jobs; it means not paying taxes that should go to Australian schools, hospitals and roads.

Amazon and The Book Depository often price books — and in the case of Amazon, particularly ebooks — at below the price traditional retailers can buy them for. They do this by being located in tax havens, paying low wages, by not charging GST because the books are coming from offshore, and being prepared to lose a lot of money to drive their competitors out of business.

If they succeed, there will be fewer Australian bookshops, with fewer Australian books, and more people who think they can self-publish and self-edit, and have their book go direct to market as an ebook. This means fewer publishers, and a look at recent news might indicate we're trending in that direction.

The Local Demise of RedGroup, Including Borders and Angus & Robertson

The demise of this company had to do with poor business practices involving a private equity company operating in a difficult retail environment, with little knowledge of how to run bookshops, rather than with the state of the industry.

The Role of the Bookshop in the Community

There is a difference between a virtual community and a real one. A bookshop is a time-proven 'vehicle' for bringing that community of ideas and thinking together. The randomness of the bookshop experience cannot be replicated online. Of course, bookshops have to earn the loyalty of their customer base.

Bookshops can now get books faster to compete with the online suppliers. They have worked cooperatively with publishers to improve the speed, delivery and prices of overseas titles. Their stock mix is adjusting to deal with consumer demand and expectations. The bricks-and-mortar shopping experience is changing organically, in line with consumer expectations.

The bookshop of the future will have more options, and we will adjust to those changes, but will ultimately continue to provide and advocate for those freedoms.

A bit of advice to those overexcited by the potential of new technology: be careful what you wish for.

It is important that editors know that the bookselling community understands the role of publishers, editors, and proofreaders in sorting the wheat from the chaff, and ensuring that books are made available at a high standard.  

Editors do that wonderfully well, and those who think that they can self-publish — particularly ebooks — without using the skills of editors and publishers will ultimately diminish the culture and the industry.

Fran Madigan