Death of a Bookseller


I can’t tell you how many times we’ve buried the book in my lifetime. The fact is that we haven’t buried the book, and however all this works out, we’re still not going to be burying the book. People are still going to be reading books, and whether they’re going to be reading them on a Kindle or as a regular physical hardcover book or a paperback or on their phones or listening to audiobooks, what’s the difference? A writer is still sending his or her work to you, and you’re absorbing it, and that’s reading. – Super editor Robert Gottlieb in an interview on Slate.com

If you’ve been reading the book news lately, you will have heard the media, the Australian Booksellers Association and cultural figures large and small ream out the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, for predicting the death of the bookshop. Just to jog your memory, here is what Senator Sherry said:

I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist.

We don’t need to put our thinking caps on for too long to realise that the Minister for Small business probably made a bit of a tit of himself when he made this proclamation – as a piece of political rhetoric it was clearly a misstep. But just how wrong is the senator, and how upset should we really be?

The pundits would have us believe that we should be furious. As Don Grover, chief executive of Dymocks, said on the ABC: ‘I think it’s bizarre that he’s made that assessment … People love curling up on a lounge with a book, the physical nature of the product. The smell of a book still rates as one of the most significant reasons why people buy books.’

This from Mr Grover’s exhaustive study on the book-buying public entitled, ‘Why We’d Rather Smell Books Than Read Them’.

I mean, seriously, people. If the most significant reason for buying books is the smell, then the book trade is in even bigger strife than Nick Sherry believes. Luckily for those of us who love books, it’s not the main reason people buy them – and even if it were it wouldn’t save bookstores. You see, it is entirely possible to buy nice smelling books from the internet. And that is the threat to bricks and mortar bookshops – the convenience and range offered by online shopping.

The book trade is in flux, and that means physical bookselling is under threat. There will certainly be casualties. Some of them will likely be booksellers. Some of the fallout is likely to happen within the next five years. Get over it.

Conflating the ‘book’ as cultural artefact and the ‘bookstore’ as cultural institution is not helpful. Nobody thinks bookstores aren’t a big part of how people have traditionally discovered, obtained and fallen in love with books. But the changes confronting physical booksellers are an economic and cultural reality. Just as the bulk of independent booksellers were swamped by giant book chain stores over the last two or three decades, so the chains will be eclipsed by online booksellers. However, online bookstores do not, for the most part, provide the same kind of curation and community that bricks and mortar stores do. If booksellers want to remain relevant, then these are issues that need to be confronted head on – not ignored because we have dared question the viability of an existing institution. Not mentioning that bookshops are closing does not mean we didn’t notice the going-out-of-business sales all over the country.

The times, they are a-changin’, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. We are more literate and books are more accessible than ever before. They’re about to get even more so. How we help people find the books they want to read is one of the main challenges facing the industry. So let’s stop the hysteria in response to any suggestion that things are going to change. They are, but booksellers clinging to traditional models will not help them to reinvent themselves.

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

Anyone who follows book news cannot have failed to hear about the collapse of REDgroup’s Borders and Angus & Robertson bookchains last week. But what does this mean for ebooks? Depending on who you listen to ebooks are one of the causes of REDgroup’s slide into administration. But is this true? Are ebooks destroying the common dead tree bookseller? And did video kill the radio star? Read on to find out more.

For those who don’t know, Kobo is a Canadian ebook platform that partnered with Borders in the United States, and Borders/A&R in Australia. As I said back at Christmas, it may not have been the brightest move on Kobo’s part to tie themselves so closely to Borders, but they did. And that means that even though Kobo is not REDgroup, they will suffer some of the consequences of the collapse, including the withdrawal of books by some publishers from their joint library.

Although I’ve complained about the Kobo ereader and their flaky platform before, they were the only real competitor to Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem and Apple’s iBookstore. They were unique in Australia because their partnership with Borders brought them mainstream, nationwide legitimacy and a physical retail presence – something neither Apple nor Amazon can compete with. From all reports this partnership has been relatively successful – it was one of the few areas of their business that REDgroup wasn’t entirely bungling. This is part of the reason why ebooks cannot be blamed for the collapse: like it or not ebooks are still only about 1% of the industry here in Australia – and REDgroup had already carved themselves a healthy chunk of that 1%. While that number is growing very fast, ebooks are not putting booksellers out of business just yet.

No, what destroyed REDgroup was incompetence and greed. While various pundits have tried to blame parallel importation, the GST, and even the internet as a whole – the fact of the matter is that REDgroup are the only Australian bookseller currently under administration. And while plenty of booksellers are struggling, they haven’t had fraught relationships with suppliers for the last twelve months, and they haven’t been jacking the prices of their books up over RRP. And they haven’t been selling barbecues instead of books.

Regardless of the outcome of REDgroup’s period under administration, the Borders brand has been seriously tarnished by this collapse, and that’s only going to get worse with issues like the recent decision not to honour customer book vouchers. You can safely predict that Kobo’s ascendancy in Australia will be slowed for a while to come.

So where does that leave ebook buyers and readers? Or rather – where does it leave readers who don’t want to submit to the Amazon or Apple gulag platforms? Well, with the recent news that Google are looking to partner with groups of retailers rather than individual booksellers, things on the indie front appear to look a bit bleak. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The annual post-Christmas survey in Bookseller+Publisher demonstrated that while the dead tree book industry is trembling under the threat of a shrinking market – ebook readers and ebook sales are healthy and growing. Not only that, but 40% of booksellers not already selling ebooks are planning to do so in the next year. This is great news for readers – with the freeze of Borders/Kobo, there is a lot of room for new growth. And new growth in books can only be a good thing.

As a culture, we’re currently undergoing one of the largest paradigm shifts in cultural consumption ever. It is now more than any other time that we cannot afford to have dead weight like REDgroup dragging the rest of us down. So I say the king is dead – long live the king.