How it really feels to close a bookshop

Field's Wattpad profile page.
Field’s Wattpad profile page.

Bookseller Greg Field is an inspiration. While he closed the NSW bookstore he has run for 10 years, Sunset Books, last week in the face of tough economic realities, Field has also posted the first third of his new mystery novel on global story sharing community Wattpad and launched an app business. His is a story that demonstrates what can be achieved as the book industry faces dramatic change, as he explains …

When did you decide to close Sunset Books, how long had you been pondering it, and what were the key reasons behind your decision?

The moment? I’m not sure when exactly but I knew things at the shop had to change by Christmas 2012. By January 2013 I knew it was over. The key reasons for closing my beloved Sunset Books were like this:

  • Given the rapid change in the publishing world recently I was keenly aware that my shop had to stay both relevant and profitable. It stayed relevant but it didn’t stay as profitable as it needed to be. Bookselling is damn hard work; it takes energy, passion, drive, intelligence and business skills just to stay afloat as a ‘bricks and mortar’ bookseller right now (well anytime actually – but right now is harder). I never made a loss as a bookseller but things were getting too hard for me to justify continuing. Bookshops are not public amenities, they have to make money – and mine was making less and less every year.
  • I wanted a change. I’m a person who embraces change and I’ve been working as a bookseller for over ten years now. I’m ready for new ventures – so bring it on!

What would you say to a friend who said they were planning to open and bricks and mortar bookstore in the current climate?

Not all bookshops are in the same position as mine. There’s still a place for relevant and profitable bricks and mortar bookshops in Australia. I have the greatest respect for the lovely people that front up at their bookshop’s every day and try to make ends meet. But – to repeat – bookselling is hard work and to succeed you have to be passionate and inspired. If they had the desire and the business plan right, then I would advise my friend to approach with caution. I would recommend they seriously consider both the state of physical retail and the state of publishing in Australia before sinking their ‘hard earned’ into a bookshop.

Did you consider running an online only version of Sunset? Or going into ebook sales? If not, why not?

I did briefly consider an online only version of Sunset but knocked back the idea because I’m not in love with my own brand. I inherited the name ‘Sunset Books’ from the previous owner and if I did go into an online only business I would consider starting a brand from scratch.

I tried ebook sales but found it difficult. There are a number of obstacles for the average bookseller wanting to morph into an ebook seller. Firstly, you’re taking on a massive market and numerous powerful competitors. Most bricks and mortar retailers need to learn new skills to create a successful online business. Even if they already have those skills, the nature of selling ebooks puts you toe to toe with marketing giants and there are issues surrounding both price (product and platform) and DRM which can inhibit success.

You’ve said you might consider opening another bookstore one day. Under what circumstances?

I’ve always loved dealing with people face to face, and one of the greatest joys for a bookseller is being able to assess a person ‘in the flesh’ and recommend an appropriate book. While search engines and social media are good ways to discover a new book, there is something very human and magical being able to have this type ‘real time’ interaction.

My personal opinion is that ‘bricks and mortar’ retail has to progress to a place where either:

  • Customers are prepared to pay a premium for the physical interaction and experience of browsing. (Currently I don’t think they are.)
  • Or, internet retailers have to expand to include physical experiences for their customers.

If I felt the business plan was viable, I would consider re-opening a physical bookshop under one or both of those circumstances.

You had some fun with the closing down sale by updating us all via social media on which books were last to sell. Did this help boost sale sales? Were there some surprises?

Ummm, no, I don’t think it helped boost sales. But it did help me stay sane and not yell at people when they walked in wild eyed and started the inevitable set of ‘but why’ ‘you can’t’ what’ll I do now?’ ‘what’ll you do now?’ ‘the internet is killing us all’ conversations.

The Twitter hashtag #lastbookstanding was really just a distraction for me as things came to an end. Predictably, children’s books sold out early. I was interested to see that hardcore reference books (dictionaries, etc) sold out even before children’s. I thought Google had killed most of that – but no… not yet.

I was shattered when my two long term favourites (a dog eared Robert Pattinson bio and ‘Your Horoscope 2011’) were knocked out of the running on the last day. For the record, I was left with only three titles on my ‘everything one dollar’ final day: ‘Top Stocks 2010’, Cliff Notes for Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Drama Classics Notes for Ibsen’s ‘The Dolls House.’ I assume the last two were not on this year’s syllabus.

What will happen to Sunset’s social media channels now?

I’ve switched my Twitter handle from @sunsetbooks to @GregPField and I’ll close down the shop’s Facebook page.

You’ve been an early adopter of new technologies (social media, apps etc) while bookselling. Has this played a role in your decision to move on?

I guess so, I’m excited by the possibilities opening up via the ‘digital revolution’.

How did Lazy Dad Studios come about? Any upcoming apps we should know about?

Lazy Dad’s was the result of my quest to create an app. I started investigating ebooks about the same time I got my first iPhone and I immediately realised ebooks could be apps and vice versa. From that point I’ve used many apps and started investigating how to build them.

Recently, I got together with an old uni friend of mine who is now a full time coder and we started Lazy Dad Studios. Our first app, Words4Cards is about to be released, it’s a collection of occasion appropriate quotes and sayings categorised into ‘Funny Birthday’ ‘Inspirational Birthday’ ‘Get Well Soon’ etc. Each quote has a direct link to Twitter, Facebook and email. Just for fun we also threw in a ‘shake for random’ feature which ended up working like ‘Magic 8 Ball’ except instead of – ‘concentrate and ask again’ you get Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde.

You’ve used Wattpad to publish your novel Death on Dangar Island. Why Wattpad? How have you found it as a platform for promoting your work?

I’ve posted the first third of Death on Dangar Island on Wattpad so far. Posting publicly has helped me focus on editing the manuscript to the best of my ability. I love writing and hate editing, so I can get lazy when it comes to going over my work and tightening it up. Posting on Wattpad in small sections helps me get through that.

The story is a murder mystery and I would love people to start reading it and trying to figure out who the killer is, but promoting my work and building a platform using Wattpad is actually secondary at this stage. The user interface on Wattpad is good, they make it easy to post and edit your story. I think of it as a working version of the manuscript available for public scrutiny and comment.

Are Lazy Dad Studios and writing your main gigs these days? Any other work/projects on the cards?

Yes, at the moment. I have some ideas about the future of book retailing that I would be interested to work on down the track.

I reckon booksellers are exactly the kinds of people who can succeed in the world of digital publishing. Would you agree, and if so, why?

Experienced booksellers could make ideal digital publishers; they have business skills, the marketing skills and an eye for a decent book. Many traditional booksellers would have to make an adjustment to the digital world if they wanted to participate, although there are some I can think of that would be ideally suited to the role.

Many of us feel torn between lamenting the demise of the book world we’ve known and loved, yet embrace emerging opportunities in the sector.  What will you miss the most about your ten years running Sunset, and what do you look forward to most about this brave new era in your life?

The smell of the place, the splendid, slowly moving panorama of covers and titles. Friendly customers sauntering through, stopping every now and then to inspect a title that’s taken their fancy. Little children laughing with glee as they run through the doors. The warm, intelligent people that have been my colleagues and peers. That’s the good stuff.

I look forward to working hard at something fresh and new and to the challenges and opportunities that arise from my current projects.

(Phew – that was a cathartic experience.)



Taking the Nano-vella-wrimo challenge

Do you love books?

Silly question. You’re reading a blog all about things related to these literary objects of desire. Of course you do.

If you’re as much as a book lover as me, you’ve probably contemplated boosting your involvement with books by opening a bookshop (or working in one or spending all your disposable income and then some in one), starting a small book publisher (or working for one of any size), working in a library (or spending all your spare time in one), or writing a novel (or just writing about them as I have done as a literary editor, reviewer and blogger).

I’ve dreamt about becoming a bookseller (with a vegetarian café/wine bar on site), publisher (or commissioning editor) and novelist ever since I can remember.

In my first year at school, I devoured the “readers” (I think we started with a series about a dog called Digger), getting way ahead of many of the others by spending lunchtime in the library (my favourite read in that library was a little book called Lyrico, about a winged horse) and afternoons inside reading. Back then, I looked up to our school librarians, Mrs Goodes and then Mrs Dartnall, and thought I might follow in their footsteps one day.

At around that time, my mother bought a children’s wear shop next door to the original Paperchain Bookshop in Manuka here in Canberra. I used to browse for hours while she worked, pondering which series I’d read next – from Beatrix Potter and the Mr Men books through to Enid Blyton, Elyne Mitchell, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. It was a magical place for me, and may have something to do with my passion for shiny new books. I’ve never been big on second hand books or libraries since, which is great for the book industry but not for my bank balance.

I do still have romantic pipe dreams about owning a bookshop (though these days I’m thinking more of an ebookstore). Hey, I finally work for one at least – with this blog – after all these years. Paperchain never would give me a summer job back in my student days. I’d still love to become a book publisher (and if I play my cards right with my current day job employers just might manage this in the next year or so). And after decades of talking about it, and one or two aborted attempts, it’s probably about time I sat down and wrote a novel too.

That’s where all this is leading. I’m going to try my hand at a lite version of the US’s National Novel Writing Month. The full commitment, to write 50,000 in a month, won’t work for me this year. I have uni marking to do, two magazines to put out, a toddler to hang out with, and blog posts to write.

So I’ve decided instead to focus on writing a novella of say 20,000 words, with as many of these as possible coming during November, and the rest by the end of the summer.

If you’re contemplating writing a longer work of fiction, there is no better time to start than today – November 1 is day one of the international challenge. Check out the Nanowrimo website for details. Connect with fellow would-be churners from all over the world – or just around the corner. Sign up and get writing.