Minister for Small Business Trolls Literary Industry

(Title courtesy of my business partner @duckaroy.)

This article appeared in The Age on Tuesday: http://www.theage.com.au/business/booksellers-outraged-over-ministers-predictions-20110614-1g15n.html

The tl;dr version is that Australia’s Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry, “predicted that online shopping would wipe out general bookstores within five years.”

It caused suitable upset, since the Minister seemed to have singled out bookselling out of the many businesses affected by the changing face of modern retail.

Is he right, though? Jon Page, the Australian Bookseller’s Association President (@pnpbookseller) said:

@ebookish minister has demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding about the Australian book industry

I’m also pretty ignorant about the Australian book industry, though I know we have a much higher proportion of independent booksellers servicing the community than the US and UK.

I’m not sure what the Minister was referring to with ‘general bookstores’ – did he mean large chain retail shops such as the now-defunct Borders? It seems pretty clear to me as a reader and customer that there is no place for impersonal chain bookshops without any community integration, not with the cost of books at retail in Australia.

I see the next five years as a period of time in which the only surviving book shops are independent booksellers with a community focus, literary community hubs that happen to sell books.

Analogy time: people don’t go to their local pub to buy beer with a 50% or more markup, not when they can buy it more conveniently and cheaper elsewhere; they go for the community, and they go because they see themselves as a supporter of that identity, someone who goes to the pub and hangs with their friends.

I see future bookshops the same way. Why would anyone think ‘I need to buy a book?’ and then drive to a bookshop? Outside of edge cases where you are looking for a last minute gift, it doesn’t make sense in the modern world: the books are more expensive, and the range is smaller. No one will be going to bookshops just to buy books; you can order online and drink them at home. (I’m stretching the analogy a bit, here.)

However, if you go to a bookshop because it is a community hub for people who love books, or because you are sitting down for a coffee outside the bookshop, or you are writing your next novel in the bookshop…then you end up paying for the more expensive beer because that’s what you pay for beer in a…bookshop. And you’re a bookshop-beer buying person.

Ok, let’s end that analogy there before I hurt myself…

I see a future where everyone who is interested in books knows their ‘local’ – I’d love to see an advertising campaign like this to raise awareness for independent booksellers.

What’s your local? Mine is Riverbend Books (@RiverbendBooks).

So if you live in Australia, show your support; find your local bookshop: http://www.aba.org.au/index.php/find-a-bookshop

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9 thoughts on “Minister for Small Business Trolls Literary Industry

  1. I have to say, before I moved to Sydney and became obsessed with Galaxy, I had no interest in the book industry. I consumed books, either buying them from Big W, Kmart, Dymocks, Angus & Robertson or QBD. However, I mostly bought books second hand or from Big W/Kmart. I didn’t think about the industry, only the price (I was a student after all). Out of all the old book shops I used to frequent it was mostly the second hand book shops. I think it is because they tended to specialise (i.e. where the owner was a spec fic buff, there were extra spec fic shelves) and the people knew books and were willing and able to take time to chat. I liked the cafe in Borders – but only because it gave me an excuse to browse while I had a cuppa with my grandmother. Despite loving their ice chocolates, I am unlikely to miss them, aside from the black hole they represent in the industry. However, when Mack Campbell’s Bookstore in Toowoomba closed down or relocated (I’ve lost track since I left town, I think they have relocated again – rental prices keep going up), I was always at a loss. Mack Campbell’s was a haven. You could go in, find gems, new and used, and soak up the scent of books. The owners were book obsessed and knowledgeable, and you could spend time chatting with them about such-and-such-an-author. Borders, Dymocks and the other chains just don’t have that community feel. The indies I know do.

    I now choose to only buy books from indie booksellers, or from locally owned second hand bookshops. Mostly that means Galaxy gets most of my pay check. I can go into Galaxy, know that if I ask for a recommendation that someone will be able to recommend the perfect book. If they are not my friend (I collect people) and don’t already know my taste, I can mention a couple of authors and they will zero in on what I should buy next. We also have a genre specific book club held in store – it certainly makes more sales for Galaxy, because we spend the entire night working each other up into a frenzy on what authors to try. Galaxy also has a mixer in the second half of the year which is very social. I can’t imagine making connections like these in a chain. I also stopped buying from them because Galaxy was cheaper and had a large range of books for me to choose from, whereas the chains had one shelf of spec fic, most of which I already owned. I think that indie booksellers have a very strong place in the community. Some people may buy online, and I know I do buy ebooks as well as paperbacks, but I think they still are very important. If they had more social components (wifi cafe?) I could see them being a refuge for an entire day rather than an hour. I know I would spend most of my weekend at my bookstore if I could.

    This response rambles quite a bit, but basically, as a loyal customer of an indie in a niche market, I can see how they have a place in the community. I use Galaxy as a meeting place for friends before we go out for dinner, and you can be sure one or more of us uses that as a chance to feed our book addictions.

    • Yes, I agree completely! They absolutely have a place, and I think they can be perfectly viable. Many indie bookshops are already moving towards this kind of model – the book club I saw on a visit to Avid Reader (@avidreader4101) certainly reminded me that this is (or should be) the future of indie bookshops. I don’t really know what I’m talking about though, just blathering on in my own way. 🙂

      • So am I, as you can see by my rambling response. I can only talk about what I have seen of the industry as a reader and what attracts me to bookstores. Book clubs, signings, social events and approachable, knowledgeable and passionate staff are definite draws. Cafes in bookstores are a bit iffy. I would love somewhere to sit down and write, but obviously food and drinks near merchandise is NOT a good idea. But if there was a comfy writing corner with wifi and chairs, I would be there all day – and you could count on the fact that I would be taking books home with me on a regular basis!

    • The other thing I meant to mention is that book signings are a large draw for Galaxy. Sometimes there may be 5 people, but some I have been to have had people line up down the street. Signings put bookstores on the map. You don’t get that with Amazon or Book Depository!!!

  2. I don’t live within an hour of any bookstore. Bent when I do travel to Clare I visit the second-hand book store there. The owner runs workshops with authors and had told me that her business has grown in the last five years. Contract this with the Collins book store, the staff are functional and polite, but not engaging in my experience. I think book stores that will survive will offer community and activity.

    Mind you whenever a politician makes broad sweeping statements like the one referenced I take it with a grain of salt.

      • You have to “trap” customers in your store, engage with them build a rapport and make you there first point of call, for a number of interrelated things. I think we will see the end of big franchises, and I think supermarkets will kill off discount book stores too.

  3. Pingback: The Indie bookseller vs The Amazon Imprint | Literarium – The Blog

  4. Pingback: A New Form of Price Gouging? (via @PnPBookSeller) | Literarium – The Blog

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