I will admit it. I buy the occasional book (okay so we really should have a warning sticker on the car along the lines of - "Will stop suddenly in the presence of book stores!"), but last week, the day before the announcement of the Angus & Robertson / Borders voluntary administration I was in an A&R shop in Ballarat - desperately trying to find a book to buy. And I did leave that shop wondering what the hell was happening to book retailing in Australia. When I can walk out of a bookshop with nothing in my hand there's something very wrong.
I wasn't necessarily planning on blogging about this subject - who cares what I think really - but a wonderful post from Henry Rosenbloom at Scribe (http://www.scribepublications.com.au/blog) got me thinking (and frankly made so many points I've been pondering recently) that I just had to mutter something to myself in public.
Am I upset that A&R and Borders are probably going to go completely belly up? Sort of.
Am I worried about the state of book retailing in Australia? Sort of.
Do I buy books from those awful awful awful overseas online retailers? Absolutely.
Do I buy books from local online retailers? Absolutely
Do I buy books from local independent booksellers? Absolutely
Do I have an ereader? Yes and I buy books for it on a very regular basis now.
Is my ereader "hard-wired" to a particular retailer? Absolutely not.
Do I buy books from the "big chain" booksellers? When I can actually find something that I want.
So we've established that I am a book buyer. I am also a genre reader (as is himself). And there is NOTHING more frustrating than being a genre reader in a big chain bookshop.
We always supported specialist, independent genre bookshops. The shelves full of hard-core (real) science fiction that he likes, and the shops full of noir, hard-boiled and interesting crime fiction. Not the big-name / big selling / big advertised few that you can find shoved under your nose at the chains - but the good, interesting, unusual, mid-list authors from here and abroad that float the boat of dedicated readers like us.
When Borders first arrived in Australia one of the things that they did better than any of the existing chains in Australia was cater to Genre readers. And that decimated the specialist independent shops - so many of them disappeared. Borders created an unfair playing field for everyone because, as they shut down the local competition, they also started to play silly buggers with their own inventory and it got harder and harder and harder to find anything that wasn't run-of-the-mill in any of their shops. (And I'm not commenting on the period in which they stopped being a book shop and started being a something else as I'd abandoned any pretence of even looking in Borders a while before that happened). But getting back to the books - dedicated readers introduced to that sort of choice simply don't willingly return to reading The New York Times bestseller list without a lot of kicking and screaming - and many many many of us went online.
But that's not the only problem with the chain store model. It's also the rapid turnover and the constant lack of availability of even current day books. For ages I've been wandering in and out of the A&R stores looking for something from local genre authors. Sure you can find a couple of more "mainstream" things - but they have to have been books that have been published in the last eye blink. If for some reason you miss a month of wandering around a shop - your options are even more limited. Try and find something from a local author that was published, say, in January in mid February and most of the time you're whistling into the long dark tunnel of the Internet. Where local online retailers have backlists and can source books and deliver them to you without you having to place an order with the bookshop, hope like hell that they'll bother to ring you back to tell you that they've actually ordered you a copy - or even tell you that the damn thing has arrived in the shop. (As you can probably tell I gave up ordering via bricks & mortar chain shops a long time ago - mostly if it's not on their shelves it's not worth their bother).
And don't get me started on hardcore Science Fiction, which in chain stores has morphed into 99.9% Fantasy and sod all Science Fiction - which is fine if you like that sort of thing.. but he doesn't.
Now I know that there's an awful lot of bleating and whinging and whining about the GST component of online buying and an oft-voiced allegation that we online shoppers are just in it for the cheap stuff. In my case that's bullshit (and bloody insulting bullshit into the bargain). Really if the GST was all we're talking about does somebody want to explain this to me:
Jo Nesbo's latest book - The Leopard (in paperback):
Large Chain Store in Australia (online price): $32.95 + $9.50 delivery
Online retailer in Australia: $29.66 + $6.95 delivery
Large online retailer overseas: AUD$18.88 + 0 delivery.
I'm no mathematical genius but I can't see the GST being a factor in these numbers. But I do know that the GST is not a consideration in where I choose to buy my books. And price is a factor but it's not the ONLY factor. For me the importance in rating is:
- Ease of purchase
- TRUST (I place an order, you tell me what's happening and we all get on just fine)
- Speed of delivery
Looking at my local author options I HAVE to go to the Online retailer in Australia as I can't get what I want from any of the chain stores (and frankly driving for 2 hours there and back to not get what I want is a turn off... full stop).
Looking at my overseas purchases, I'm an impatient little flower - I'm not waiting months and months for the canoe carrying the latest releases from overseas to be paddled this way. I know what books are being released in the US and UK marketplaces and how long we have to wait for the few that get here to eventually show up (okay so the time has shortened somewhat in recent years - but it's still waiting and why the hell should I just so I can have the pleasure of trying to find the blasted thing in a local bookshop obsessed with flogging cross-promotional cookbooks and footballers "memoirs").
How do I factor in my ereader purchases? I am starting to buy a lot more ebooks these days simply because there's only so many physical books you can fit into a confined area and still be able to see daylight occasionally. It's a sad fact that I don't like giving away books - most are lifelong friends once they come through the door and I'm an accumulator. So ebooks have a practical application that is hard to resist. Availability is also of interest - although territory management by publishers is frequently annoying and utterly pointless as there are plenty of ways to circumvent the system if you really want something badly enough. And I can see that bricks & mortar stores are going to struggle against the onslaught of ebooks - if they don't have an effective, useful and engagaging online prescence. And really if they don't - why the hell not? Ebooks have been coming for a while. Didn't take a genius to see what was going to happen.
So other than the standard emotive stuff of another Australian retailer going to the wall, it's retail. Most of the genre fiction they were selling is not local content - they have a listing which is made up mostly of overseas product, overseas based marketing hype, and frankly of limited interest to this dedicated reader. If the role of selling books locally is going to devolve anywhere - I would think it will likely devolve to specialised independent bookstores and online retailers here - who have got a real potential to pick up market share if they a) work out the sort of deals with shipping that "the large online retailer overseas" has and b) they have an inventory (or access to an inventory) that means that a reader can trust that no matter what it is they will have it.
Either way - whilst I understand this is a difficult time for employees who will most likely lose jobs - we need to separate the hysteria from the practicality. And I suspect Henry Rosenbloom has a point when he said (and I paraphrase) "look at the business model - not at the government".