Today marks a sad day in the history of bookselling. It is always a sad day when a bookseller closes its doors, no matter how bad that bookseller it is.

The industry has been going through some difficult times over the last ten to fifteen years – not just book stores, the whole publishing industry – but bookselling in particular has been attacked on several fronts. The first and most important was not the internet or GST as many would have it. The most devastating attack on the industry came from the discount department stores (DDSs) such as K-Mart, Myer, Big W.

These stores account for the sale of over 30% of all books sold in Australia. They turn over, they move books without the benefit of a bookseller in sight, without any more knowledge of the product than of a toaster, probably less, and at a discount which makes normal retailing of books marginal at best. They stock no backlist, they have no stake in the industry whatsoever, they pick the eyes out of the market and sell them at massive discount.

Take Harry Potter as an example. On the day of release these books, at a recommended retail price of $45, were sold by the DDSs for between $22.50 and $27, which was less than most booksellers were buying them for. What this meant was that, if you were a small independent shop who wanted to retain your loyal customer you had to pay for a magician and a party, blow up balloons all night, and sell your stock at a loss. This for a bestseller, for a book that should have been the one item you could count on to bring in a bit of profit and support the provision to your customer of all that backlist lining your shelves.

The extraordinary thing about it was that the DDSs weren’t making a profit either. No-one, except the publisher and J K Rowling were making anything. People would have paid anything for those books, it was a no-brainer, but because the DDSs believed they could give the books away and make a profit on the possible sale of a toaster they were prepared to outbid each other to the lowest price. The independents and chain bookstores were only collatoral damage in their fight.

When the Red Group bought Angus & Robertsons they thought they could beat the DDSs at their own game. They would turn their bookstores into supermarkets for books, books at discount prices, tables groaning under the signs of ‘three for two,’ ‘two for $20’ and the like. In the process they forgot to notice that they weren’t also selling toasters, and that what customers have always wanted in a bookstore is not a bargain, but a book, something they will treasure, purchased from a venue which gave them a valid experience.

I’ll come back to price – because, clearly, price is important, that’s why so many people are buying books from the internet. But it’s not the only thing. In the English language each year some 215 000 new titles are published. That includes education, training, manuals, children’s books, everything. But even then it’s a lot of books. If you’re an avid reader consuming, for the sake of argument, two books a week for forty years and you never reread a book you would read 4160 books. That’s all. At that rate it would take you 52 lifetimes just to read the output from one year.

What a good bookshop does is sift through the dross. A good bookseller says no twenty times for every time he or she says yes to a title. More. Which means when you go into a bookshop run by a good bookseller the dross has been whittled out for you, the books on the table and on the shelves represent an eclectic and individual view of the world which speaks to the individual in you. Give that away, as the Red Group so willingly, so forthrightly did, and you’re left with nothing that anyone wants.

Of course price is important. Books are expensive. They are also, however reluctant I am to admit it, at the discretionary end of the budget. If you’ve read a good review of a book why not order it from an online shop with a just-in-time stock line, and get it a price substantially less than you will at the local independent? Why not get it overseas rather than in Australia? I can’t think of any reason, except that bookstores, good bookstores, are wonderful places, full not of products, but of books, and browsing in them puts me in contact with titles I wouldn’t otherwise see or hear about and certainly never touch.

The industry is still changing. The internet which is bringing us the advent of the eBook, will also bring us, before long, print-on-demand books; that is books that are printed and bound at the moment we order them, the text delivered electronically to the shop, obviating the need for transport, for returns, loss through damage. The complete backlist of forgotten authors will be available at the flick of a switch. What I hope, though, is that these machines will be in shops on the main street which still have real books on their shelves, run by people who love and read books themselves, who value the experience of reading and writing. One can but hope.

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One Comment on “Bookselling”

  1. Jim Murdoch Says:

    I think there’s a bigger issue here. If I’m down the town I’ll happily pop into a bookshop to while away a few minutes. Last week I was down the town and popped into Fopp and Waterstones but I didn’t buy anything and it has been a long time since I have bought a book in a shop. It’s also been a long while since I bought anything more than a pint of milk and a loaf of bread in a shop. My wife and I do virtually all our shopping online – weekly groceries, the lot – and have done for many years. She even orders clothes online since we’re easy to please. Shopping wastes a lot of time, time I can spend doing other things. Do I miss browsing? Yes and no. I have found a few gems purely by chance in shops but I’ve also done the same online by just following links and seeing where they take me.

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