Why it’s worth saving the local book industry
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 83 autumn 2011
The Australian book industry has been under the microscope recently following the announcement that RedGroup, owners of Angus & Robertson and Borders in Australia, were going into voluntary administration. Bookseller Jon Page says that the Australian book industry is one of the most vibrant in the English-speaking world. So If more people buy books per capita in Australia than anywhere else, why is the future of local booksellers under threat?
Traditional booksellers are a vital part of not only the retail landscape but also communities as a whole. I shudder when I hear about American cities where there are no bookshops left at all.
Books are social glue and bookshops are community hubs. They are where people gather to talk about ideas, stories, food, people and events. Bookshops are businesses that give back to their communities, support local schools, promote literacy and get involved with charities.
While there are new and exciting ways to build and connect with communities and customers digitally, there are still things only a bricks and mortar stores can do. Going online is an easy way of finding what you are looking for; going into a bookshop is a fantastic and easy way of finding something you are not looking for.
books are social glue and bookshops
are community hubs
Bookshops are the point of contact between readers and the books they want to read. Booksellers are the first to know what readers are looking for and what they are dissatisfied with. A local bookshop is even more vital.
Local bookshops are under threat from online overseas retailers like Amazon. This challenge is not new, Amazon has been around for over fifteen years, but it is becoming harder for local bookshops to compete and the competition is increasing.
The tyranny of distance that once protected the local industry is being broken down by cheaper and more efficient freight to Australia. The growth of ebooks and digital downloads will close this gap completely.
The economies of scale that exist in the UK and US markets are enormous when compared to Australia, and coupled with the ‘strong’ Australian dollar, means it is impossible for local bookshops to compete on this new global stage.
A local bookshop is important to locally-published books and local-publishing is important to local bookshops.
What does an ‘Amazon’ care about the next Tim Winton or Kate Grenville? Or for that matter the current Tim Winton or Kate Grenville?
Amazon promotes what they are paid to promote or what they need to promote to stay competitive. Australian authors are not important to Amazon because our market will never be big enough for them.
The Australian market is big enough and important enough to local bookshops. A local bookshop knows the appeal of a local author and is invested in promoting and growing that author’s sales. A good local bookshop will host a local author for a book signing, at the library, invite them to a book club discussion or take them to a local school. Bookshops are not just found in a local community – they engage with it.
In the past, the bookshops that have been most under threat have been the independents. Australia has a very strong independent bookselling market, 20% compared to 8% is the US and 3% in the UK.
going into a bookshop is a fantastic and easy way
of finding something you are not looking for
The reason independent bookshops have fared better in Australia than overseas is that we saw what was happening in the US and the UK and reacted earlier. Rather than compete on price, which is what RedGroup tried to do and failed, independent bookshops compete on service. Rather than discount the price of a book independent bookshops try to add value to the book a customer is purchasing.
Independent bookshops know their books and they know their customers. Independent booksellers do not simply unpack books, place them on display and walk back to their registers to mindlessly scan items and place them in a bag.
They read books and talk about books. They are passionate about books. Books are not just potatoes. They know their customers’ names; they know the names of their children. They recommend books and also un-recommend books when a book and a reader are not a good fit. They stock their books according to what they know about their customers. They do not take money to promote books they are not committed to or passionate about. They are proficient at researching books and being able to source them from around the world. They bring readers, authors and books together and will continue to do so even in the new digital world.
A book is more than just the price you pay for it. A book is something you will open again and again. A book is something you want to share with family and friends. A book is something you care about and remember for the rest of your life. A bookseller is passionate about all these things and your local bookseller is passionate about finding books for you.