In June 2019 I got a new perspective on an industry I’ve been part of for twenty-five years. I have attended many Australian Booksellers Association’s (ABA) conferences as a bookseller, but this year’s ninety-fifth annual conference in Melbourne was my first as CEO of the ABA. More than three hundred delegates came together to discuss the industry, to hear from publishers and authors about the hottest new titles, and to catch up with friends old and new over a drink. Authors such as Elliot Perlman, Kitty Flanagan, and Clare Bowditch were provocative and entertaining, as was the Gala Awards Dinner MC, Benjamin Law. Seeing the conference from this fresh perspective provided valuable insights into the state of the industry. The industry presentations focused on innovative events programs and improving the supply chain, and it was pleasing to find the mood among booksellers both realistic and guardedly optimistic.
Bookshops, to be honest, have always needed saving. Not from themselves – many of them are profitable businesses with solid ties to their communities – but from hearsay or conventional narrative. My first exposure to this narrative was Borders’ opening in Australia in 1998 (Jam Factory, Prahran), when it was widely thought that existing bookstores would be crushed by the US giant. People wondered how Readings in Carlton, say, could possibly survive having a Borders across the road from 2002. Readings’ owners, faced with an international giant on their doorstep, were concerned. Yet the new Borders store helped to increase total book sales in the area by seventy-five per cent. This is known as clustering: similar businesses open in close proximity to a successful business. In 2011 Borders, succumbing to private equity mismanagement, collapsed under the REDgroup’s debt burden, but the narrative hardly changed. There was much interest in Borders’ demise, and media interest was intense. Given the collapse of Borders, the death of bookshops was surely nigh!
So here we are, supposedly lurching from one near-death experience to the next. It is something we hear in the industry often – I thought bookshops were dead – but it isn’t really the case when you scratch the surface. What is happening in bookshops is a struggle reflecting the mounting indebtedness of Australian households and falling consumer confidence. A few bookshops have closed recently, always distressing for proprietors, staff, and customers. A few have opened, while others are renovating or expanding their premises, increasing staff hours, and diversifying stock. Bookshops are more dynamic and sophisticated than the narrative of existential crisis suggests. They occupy a unique space at the intersection of art, knowledge, and commerce. Booksellers and their customers tend to think of their interactions as equal exchanges, a sharing of information rather than a commercial transaction. This form of ‘soft capitalism’ does not provide for hard-selling or scripting, so bookshops depend upon relationship marketing and the perception of authenticity. It’s genuinely romantic, but it is repetitive, labour-intensive work, and the challenges facing the sector are myriad.
What are these challenges? How about the old chestnut, ‘books are too expensive’. The reality is that the average selling price of a book in Australia is now lower than it was sixteen years ago. Paper prices have also increased, crunching publishers’ margins and leading to much hand-wringing. No one wants to increase prices – consumers think them too high already – and Amazon runs retail at a loss to maintain its discounting practices. Authors’ incomes are averaging $12,000 per annum. If they fall much lower, will people continue to write? If fewer people write and there is less money for editors and designers, we may see a decline in quality and volume, with lots of people out of work. Meanwhile, wages continue to rise (though modestly), and rising property prices increase leasing costs. Besides, reading is so yesterday! Perhaps the narrative is true and it is simply a matter of time.
Nonetheless, bookshops aren’t going anywhere. The ABA’s membership is stable. It is full of smart, passionate booksellers. The major growth area in book sales over the past decade has been in children’s books. This growth has been significant enough to stimulate the opening of a host of new specialist children’s bookshops. One of my last projects as a bookseller was the design, fit-out, and launch of Readings Kids in Melbourne. I still derive much pleasure when I see it lit up at night, filled with children of all ages clutching piles of books. I can report from the trenches that the readers of the future are consuming now in great quantities, and they are choosing Australian stories. The quality and creativity in Australian children’s publishing is incredible. Bookshops carry huge ranges of Australian-authored titles, and they take pride in championing our authors.
At the recent ABA conference dinner, Archie Roach read from his upcoming memoir and performed songs with Paul Grabowsky. It was a deeply moving experience. At one point an old colleague squeezed my arm and asked, ‘Can you believe our lives?’
More than mere retail outlets, bookshops are places of art and entertainment, of creativity and contested knowledge and ideas. They are democratic and tolerant too. Bookshops support Indigenous literacy programs, asylum seeker support centres, and other marginalised people. I’m familiar with the way they nurture young people through their first jobs and into adulthood.
It’s no exaggeration to say that bookshops saved me. I started working in one twenty-five years ago, a university dropout with a young child and no money. I’m familiar with the way booksellers nurture young people through their first jobs and into adulthood. My task now is to help support Australian bookshops so that other young people can have these kinds of opportunities.
Love Your Bookshop Day, the ABA’s annual celebration, is on Saturday, 10 August 2019. Full details: https://www.loveyourbookshopday.com.au/events