Monday, March 14, 2011

An Opinion on the Australia Book Industry

In the current book industry debate that has been reignited with Borders and Angus and Robertson going into voluntary administration there has been a distinct lack of Independent Book Industry voices. There has been a lot of consumer complaint generally on prices and misinformed discussion on the rise of online shopping and e-readers. This has been reinforced with the REDGroup choosing to deflect attention from poor business practices in favour of inflaming consumer sentiment against the Australian book trade.

In response to these assertions the Australian Booksellers Association has been slow to defend the industry. In the media there has been a consistent campaign to discredit the trade and in the face of this so-called popular discourse there has been especially little or no public support for Independent booksellers. Australia has a unique industry where unlike anywhere else in the world over 20% of the shops are Independent Retailers.

Debate is a good thing, no one is disputing that. But for an accurate and informed discussion to be taking place there needs to be two sides. It is time for the Australian Booksellers Association to take a strong stance on this issue. Consumers might have a right to source books from wherever they desire but this right should be informed. The current one-way traffic is misleading for online experiences and e-readers are not as fabulous or choice-educing as we are being led to believe. It unsurprisingly can be much more rewarding to head to on down to a local bookshop to have a chat, get a recommendation and fabulous service with a smile.

The REDGroup might be taking the line that their failure is all to do with people sourcing cheaper books online and e-readers but this is clearly spin that distracts from their shops not catering for customer needs. But of course, when your business has millions and millions of dollars owed to creditors, blame the government! Stock in these stores had become so diversified that it diversified into nothing. Do we as customers really want a bookstore that sells kitchen appliances? Or to be frank, do we really want the Recommended Retail Priced raised on most stock to subsidise unrealistic specials? In times when the retail market gets tough it is most often the poorly run businesses that fall. A large part of working in the book industry is about reading and sharing your reading with others. It is not about grabbing market-share and launching failed attempts at monopolies.

Buying online is not necessarily cheaper, it fluctuates. There is not the opportunity to see the book you are buying and if you need to return it for any reason, good luck with that. It is a complete fallacy that people have always an improved shopping experience online. Apart from anything else, Borders has an extensive online presence and their own e-book business. Maintaining that it was increased online sales that busted their business is untenable. It may be a contributing factor to a changing industry but is not the root cause of their voluntary administration. Secondly, in regards to industry publishing protections the REDGroup supported the 30 day overseas embargo even under their proposal to ease import restrictions. The Rudd Government was right to reject the Productivity Commission recommendations to allow parallel imports of books. It would not have reduced prices for consumers and it would not have prevented the business failings of Angus and Robertson and Borders.

E-readers are the other ‘life-changing’ and exciting technology that is certainly challenging our book industry. Or becoming an integral part of our book industry, depending on whose spin you are buying into. Clearly they do have a role, but the extent and popularity of e-readers is generally overplayed. There are many situations where they are completely impractical and the quality of the print, backlighting and ink has yet to match the quality of the printed text.

There is no replacement for the tactile feeling of turning a page, of breathing in that simultaneously fresh and musty smell of a new book. As you flick through, inhale and savour those pages that hold the story. Remember that iconic image ingrained into our collective consciousness of a lady on the beach, with a big floppy sunhat, lying back on a towel with a paperback bent open. This might sound a trifle nostalgic, but it is also practical. Sand does not agree with technology. Neither does water. Or for that matter young children. The e-book you bought might have been cheaper but the e-reader you have to replace is a whole lot more expensive.

Where is the Australian Bookseller’s Association voice here? It is time that our industry body advocated for the book industry in all its forms. The amount of discussion with customers in the shop about Angus and Robertson and Borders going into administration has been enormous. Contrary to the persistent mutterings in the media about prices, internet and e-readers the majority of consumers are genuinely concerned about the book industry. You do not get a many opportunities for a face to face gossip on the internet. Nor will you also receive cheerful advice on what to buy for an eight-year-old or your mother-in-law, before having your chosen gift wrapped in pretty paper.

We need to move beyond the spin of REDGroup and their so-called justifications for their collapse in order to preserve the integrity of the remaining businesses in the book trade. A bit of love and a positive attitude for books would go a long way to reminding people of how lucky we are in Australia to have many alternatives to Angus and Robertson and Borders. Perhaps what our industry needs is more creative solutions and responses to the changing market. The recent release of the Popular Penguins range is a casing point of a publisher responding to a need and then capitalising on a gap in the market. The incredible reception of these retro-style paperbacks has excited much interest overseas with the idea gaining traction with Penguin in the UK as well as the US. Popular Penguins have fast become amongst the biggest sellers for the United Group. Let us creatively respond to the shifting dynamics in the book trade rather than blaming the internet, technology and the government.

Personally I think that whatever happens we will not stop reading, people instead will read in different ways all at the same time. People love books and there is something inherently human about escaping into the pages into another world. Some consumers may choose access this from a screen; others might ship it in from overseas, but a substantial number of them still really love the opportunity to pop back into where they bought the book and share how much they loved it. And you know what? We love that interaction too. It informs our hand-selling; our buying; our knowledge of books and ultimately our service.

Currently our representatives are underestimating the wonder and uniqueness of what lies within our Australian book trade. Fortunately like books you cannot judge an industry by its cover.

I wrote this for my boss at work, you might end up seeing it somewhere else too. Who knows? Also I feel I should mention that knowing people who work in Angus and Roberson and Borders makes this harder. Companies have to take responsibility for what their staff have to endure.