On balance, I’m not sorry

Earlier this year I had a bit to say to REDgroup which owns Borders and other bookselling brands here and in New Zealand about the reasons why I don’t shop with them. I’m not sure if my assertion that they had the business sense of house bricks was correct or whether today’s announcement, that the company has been placed into voluntary administration, was an inevitable consequence of a changing world. Either way it is big news for book lovers in Australia.

I have been meaning to write a follow up to that original post which prompted a long and heartfelt response from Chuck, a bookseller in Melbourne, who agreed with some of the things I said and disagreed with others, providing some great insight from the retailer’s point of view. The reason I haven’t written the follow up is that I couldn’t really think of the right words to say to someone who clearly is a passionate book lover and who wants to make a long term living from the selling of books. Because I’m just not sure that’s going to be possible for very much longer in this country.

It’s clear I’m not alone in choosing where to buy my books based largely on price. Last weekend my face to face book club met for our monthly get together. We met in a local independent bookstore that is also a coffee shop and it came up in conversation that although we have bought coffee and cakes there not one of us has ever bought a book in that shop. Why not? Too expensive.

It is always sad to see businesses flounder and I genuinely feel for the people who will undoubtedly lose their jobs out of this process. I will also be sad if this is the beginning of the end of bricks & mortar bookstores in this country. But even then I can’t summon any guilt over my part in the downfall of book selling in Australia.

Ever since my brother moved to the US in 1988 and I started making regular trips there I have had personal evidence that Australian readers get royally screwed by ‘the industry’. I really don’t care if it’s the publishers or the sellers or the parallel import restrictions to blame. The point is that for decades we have paid, on average, three times what the rest of the English speaking world has paid for the same book. Until recently we put up with it because we had no alternative but now we have, en masse, adopted overseas retailers and eBooks and any other option newly available to us because we love books but we were sick to death of getting screwed.

Is there a future for bricks and mortar book selling in this country? I’ve no idea. Certainly not if the industry continues to behave in the way it has done both in the distant past and recently. But even if they do adapt and respond intelligently I wonder if this particular genie is out of the bottle for good.

Meanwhile, I’m buying all my books online. And not feeling guilty about it.

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11 Responses to On balance, I’m not sorry

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this post. I, too, feel for those who are losing their jobs as the world and the economy change. And I love bookstores – the brick-and-mortar kind. But the fact is, publishers and booksellers who want to remain in business need to consider what the consumer wants and does not want. They also need to be aware of and keep in mind what business they are actually in. The actual business is getting books to people whether or not those books are in paper or electronic form. If those companies want to continue to do that, and in the brick-and-mortar way, they’ll need to get a sense of your market and adapt to what your market wants.


  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    Fully agree, Bernadette. The business model has changed and brick and mortar bookshops will have to adapt themselves or disappear. Willy nilly.


  3. Maxine says:

    I think this aptly sums up why these bookshops have gone bust. In the UK, many independent bookstores survive even though they cannot sell at the same level of discount as Waterstones or Amazon because they don’t charge 3x as much, more like 10 or 20 % more. And many customers like the local, specialist, personal service. (Of course, bookselling bricks and mortar style is a dying business in the UK, too, but some shops do survive in the way outlined, by providing a good service and not taking the mick out of their customers).
    I do so agree that any industry that continues to charge one sector of its market 3 x more than the rest, when that same sector can obtain the same product cheaply elsewhere, is heading rapidly for a fall. What a pity they could not adapt to survive, the problem they faced was of their own making and was not exactly hard to diagnose.


  4. kathy durkin says:

    In the U.S., many independent bookstores, including mystery-related ones, have closed. Recently, a very popular store in Los Angeles closed down, to the dismay of many readers and bookstore lovers. There are a few left in my environs; one is a woman-owned store with selective titles and one is a mystery-themed one. Both are wonderful for their own reasons.
    Although Amazon.com is less expensive–or used to be, but they charge tax and shipping, and the Book Depository is cheaper (no tax, no shipping), and AbeBooks, which sells used books is also cheaper, I feel a loyalty to the two real stores. I do go in and purchase paperbacks sometimes, and pay a few dollars more, but avoid shipping charges. I don’t do lots of purchases there, but a book here, a book there.
    I do hope that somehow some of these independent stores survive. There is nothing like a chat with a bookseller who knows his/her books, and can suggest titles, hold books for someone when a new title comes on–and phone when it’s available, and store events with authors. Those may be evaporating, but it is a big loss.
    I was brought up with a healthy love of libraries and bookstores–I equate both with bakeries; the anticipation is worth half of the enjoyment, the smells, sights and treats are compelling and fun. The experience is good. It’s sad that new generations will grow up without this.


  5. shelleyrae@ Book'd Out says:

    Like you Bernadette, I feel for the retailers but I can’t but help think that the Australian publishing industry has hammered their own coffin nails. Both publishers and the government have been very short sighted and I can’t feel guilty about paying the third of the price for a book either.



  6. JoV says:

    I echoed what Maxine said. If I walk into Waterstones bookstores in the UK, I am spoilt for choice with options of 3 for 2. If I pay an average of £14 (£6.99 x 2), I walk out of the store with 3 books. WH Smith does the same, so these brick and mortar bookstores survived in the market.

    Interesting to know that Amazon.com in the USA charges for shipping, because starting Christmas 2009, Amazon.co.uk no longer charge any shipping or postage for local delivery, they are cheaper than Book depository with wider selection and I buy from them mostly.

    Wonderful post on the topic Bernadette, as always.


  7. Maxine says:

    On the Amazon/Book Depository comparisoin, BD tracks Amazon prices. I have many times looked at a book on UK Amazon and BD, and found that the Amazon price (or Amazon marketplace seller price) is the same as the “BD including postage” price. (UK) Amazon UK sells books free of postage as JoV says, if the book costs more than £5. Also if you are a real book junkie like me you can pay £40 per year for Amazon Prime and get any book, any price, delivered next day. US Amazon has a similar prime programme.
    Abe books are good for books that you can’t buy on UK Amazon for “rights” reasons (such as you have often ranted about Bernadette!), you can get various Aussie and NZ books via Abe UK that you cannot get on Amazon. However, Abe charges very high postage, eg the other day I looked at a second hand NZ book that cost £6 on Abe but the postage was £12.50 (from NZ). Another eg, you can get Peter Temple’s White Dog (Jack Irish #4) via Abe UK if you are prepared to pay £20 plus a lot of postage, but you can’t get it at all via Amazon UK or BD until Quercus finally publishes it officially in the UK (currently scheduled for Oct 2011 but it keeps changing – and how long ago was this book first published?! – no need to answer that.)


  8. janebbooks says:

    Well, this has been a great subject.
    I co-owned a brick and mortar bookstore here in the USA South in a small town for four years. But it was mainly used books. Mainly mysteries.
    It was a struggle…keeping staff and 7 days a week schedule. And although I loved the bookstore…when my partner had a stroke, I didn’t last long.
    Customers wanted the new best-sellers and the B & N price. In August 2000 when we opened the store, we didn’t have the competition of online buying and e-books. But it was hard to make the rent selling used paperbacks! And quite frankly, the public’s taste in reading material is so fickle.
    The profit margin is so slim for new books…and ordering from a wholesaler requires a bunch of capital and a bunch of time in ordering and returning books.
    It was a no win proposition.



  9. kathy durkin says:

    Amazon US with some books will link to booksellers -for new and used copies. However, they add on postage costs. I just ordered two books from Book Depository. One was listed at Amazon with a similar price to BD’s but Amazon then added on $3.99 for shipping while BD did not. And Amazon US now adds taxes (it did not used to do that), and BD does not. So it was cheaper from BD. I budget everything out frugally and compare prices, adding shipping and taxes.
    Abe Books does have shipping costs, but I just reserved a book there recently and the lower cost plus shipping from Britain was cheaper than buying it from Amazon US.
    So for those of us in the US, those shipping costs and taxes from Amazon make books more costly usually.


  10. Barbara says:

    The major role for bookstores is discovery that is shaped by an understanding of the local community. When it comes to delivering a book you know you want, it’s difficult for a brick and mortar store to compete with an online retailer with a vast catalog. When you know you want a book, but aren’t sure which one, a savvy bookseller is your best friend. (Well, a well-read librarian might be, too, but you can’t stay friends if you plan to keep the book.) A bookstore also can create a constantly-changing catalog of books for a very specific place and community and this is how they will survive. I also would love to see some kind of print on demand equipment made so affordable that stores or groups of stores or a local coalition of libraries and stores could fill the needs of those who know which book they want – and it would be greener, too. Less transport, less waste.

    All this is predicated on my belief that not all books will be e-books in future, but that we’ll have digital as another format option. Which I firmly believe for a great many reasons.


  11. @Jane thanks for sharing your experiences as a book retailer. Clearly it’s not just in Australia that it’s a tough business to be in due to the competition from places like Amazon with their lower overheads and buying power.

    @Barbara I would love to have experienced a bookstore like the ones you speak of, sadly here in my small city (around 1m people) we have never really had such a thing. There are only a couple of independent stores and neither really has much expertise in the way of crime fiction so I don’t get that ‘discovery’ experience. They both do a nice line in misery lit and classics but I’m not really enthralled by either of those genres which is why I turned to the internet and book blogs to get that discovery experience. I do think print on demand would prove a genuine game changer but boy it’s slow in coming and may be too little too late for some places.


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