Lies, damned lies and statistics

As you might expect there has been much news commentary about the collapse this week of the parent company which owns Borders and Angus & Robertson, collectively Australia’s largest bookstore chain by a long shot. One of the best roundups of opinion appeared on Crikey on Friday. The online-only news outlet talked to a range of industry pundits about the issue. I can’t help but respond to two points made in the roundup:

  • Sophie Cunningham, author and former publisher said “I don’t see this is about parallel importation”.
  • Maree McCaskill, CEO of the Australian Publishers Association said “Ultimately if you look at the stats of the average shopping price, it’s cheaper to buy in Australia”

To both of these comments my response is “bullshit”.

My evidence is in form of a small chart. Here are the prices of a half-dozen current release books:


As you can see there is not a single book that is cheaper to buy in Australia (not even the one by an actual Australian author) and I promise you if I had more time I could have made the chart 100 books or 1000 books long and nothing would have changed. Some things you should know

  • These were the first six books I thought of, not a carefully selected set of aberrations.
  • Book Depository offers free shipping to Australia
  • Boomerang does not offer free shipping in Australia (shipping is $6.95 per order regardless of how many books you buy so if you want to take advantage of their low-ish prices you really have to order in bulk otherwise each book costs $6.95 more)
  • All of these titles have been officially published in Australia.

To Ms Cunningham I say, “how can it not at least partly be about parallel importation (i.e. the regulation preventing an Australian book seller from importing a title from overseas if the same title has been released in Australia or is planned for Australia within 30 days)? If Dymocks or Readings or Boomerang were allowed to buy their stock at the same places and at the same rates as Book Depository then one of their biggest cost pressures would be significantly reduced and that has to be a factor for them all.

To Ms McCaskill I say “do you think if you say a lie often enough we’ll believe it?” Clearly it’s not cheaper to buy books in Australia and only a fool would pretend otherwise.

Obviously there are a number of factors at play over the collapse of REDgroup, not the least of which appears to be that the company really did have the business sense of house bricks, and the book selling landscape is changing worldwide, not just in Australia. But I am heartily sick of being treated like a moron or cast as un-Australian by pundits like Ms McCaskill (who in the same article claimed Australian consumers don’t care about Australian companies) simply because I don’t choose to throw my limited disposable income at overpriced, badly run businesses.

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15 Responses to Lies, damned lies and statistics

  1. I’d like to know the specific of what McCaskill was talking about. What’s the ‘average shopping price’, and how is it calculated. As far as I am concerned though they can say what they like I will be the book that is cheapest when all I have to compare things on is price.

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  2. You tell ’em, Bernadette!

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  3. kathy durkin says:

    Yes, Bernadette. And to add to your attributes, you are refreshingly honest, and not afraid to tell the truth.
    I guess these things apply to the U.S. Ordering books from the Book Depository is less expensive than getting them from Amazon US which charges shipping and also taxes now. I just saw a book at Amazon which had the same price as the BD was charging, only Amazon was adding $3.99 for shipping, and taxes.
    And also booksellers and libraries here in the States won’t (maybe they can’t) buy European-published books. They wait for the U.S.-published version. So that sends me back to the BD.

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  4. It’s cheaper to buy in Australia? Does she think the entire country is one big idiot? If it WAS cheaper to buy in Australia then clearly, these companies wouldn’t be tanking because we’d all be buying there!

    I’m so over the attempts to make Australians feel guilty for not buying in Australia. How can you justify to the public to pay 2 or 3x more just for some ridiculous self satisfaction at purchasing in a bricks and mortar Australian store?

    Call me incredibly greedy but I’ll take more books for less money over self satisfaction at being patriotic and a “good Aussie” any day!

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  5. Bernadette – Good for you! Thank you for taking the time to show so very clearly how the Australian book consumer really fares. Unbelievable! It would be nice of those large booksellers would be as loyal to their Australian clientele as they expect you to be to them!

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  6. Carmel Fauth says:

    Thanks for highlighting the facts to us Bernadette, it’s typical that some people choose to keep there heads stuck in the sand! Love your blog:)

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  7. Maxine says:

    There’s a post at the (Australian) book club blog about this, http://sparrowreads.com/2011/02/20/a-sad-end-to-ar-and-borders/ .
    The post seems to be arguing that yes, internet purchases are cheaper (and that the Australian industry and govt are aware of the amount of online book buying that goes on – worrying?), but that this is not the only or main (not sure which) reason why the chains went bust – the international financial crisis has something to do with it. I’m not so sure – it still seems to me that Australian chain booksellers are/were in a completely predictable situation and failed to adapt and hence survive (as so often happens with corporate, inflexible entities that cannot change their internal organisation structures or business models – Nokia anyone?). But I don’t live in Australia. In the UK, where I do live, the “actual” booksellers are in the main dying, but the death is much slower because they don’t behave towards their customers with such contempt as the Aussie booksellers. Here, the main competition is the internet, but because many people like browsing in bookshops, and the price differential is not that extreme, some “actual” bookshops are surviving (though Borders UK died over a year ago), hard though it is for them. And probably some of them always will, for niche markets.

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  8. JoV says:

    I am a great advocate of supporting arguments with numbers and facts. Your price comparison tells the truth better than any word can. Kudos to you Bernadette, for saying as it is!

    I am equally shock by the Aussie books RRP.

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  9. Richard Newsome says:

    To use Book Depository as your base is extremely misleading. They indulge in predatory pricing and their offers are by no means a true indicator of sustainable pricing. Redgroup’s woes are down to leverage — the private equity owners tried to expand and bloat the revenue line in an attempt to get a float or trade sale away at an inflated price. I’m not privy to Bookdepository’s accounts, but buying sales is not a long term viable business plan. Sorry, but blaming Redgroup’s woes entirely on PIR just doesn’t hold water.

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  10. I work in the library supply industry and have worked in the publishing industry for some 21 years now. We have been grappling with prices for more years than I care to remember. I prefer to have a local sourcing policy when – and that’s a big when – the local market supports us. And that means price, service and availability. We use wholesalers around the world for price and availability conflicts. (And goodness knows there’s a lot of them!) It’s either that, or lose the business. Local publishers need to get more competitive and stop the bullshit. Amazon is already selling in $100 million into this market annually. Publishers KNOW this but still we don’t see prices coming down. What’s more the Australian dollar has been on parity for a while now but only a small number of publishers have comparative pricing. It’s a disgrace so thanks for being brutally honest about the messed up industry we all work in.

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  11. @Maxine thanks for the link, I’m sure all those business factors are at play too, though I don’t think they account for the closure of all the independent stores (6 in Sydney within the last 7 months according to one report I read last week). Surely they can’t all be badly run? We don’t have a huge indie bookstore presence here in Adelaide – a handful of stores only and a couple of them look to be in trouble too, though one in particular caters to wealthier people who probably don’t know or care they’re paying way over the odds for their books – but the majority of readers (like me) can’t afford to support that model. Without cheap online options I would simply revert to using the library for 90% of my books like I used to before amazon and Book Depository came along which means local stores would still not get my business – at least this way some authors are getting some money as I am actually buying books.

    @Richard yes I agree that it’s not just PIRs (as I said in my original post, there are numerous factors, not the least of which REDgroup ran a fundamentally unsound business) but PIRs are without doubt a factor in the book selling industry in Australia, and one that can actually be dealt with locally. Predatory behaviour, (if that’s what BD does as you claim, I have no idea) by offshore companies is not really something that can successfully be tackled by the Australian government or Australian industry, whereas both could take action on PIR. I followed the submissions to the productivity commission on the possible removal of PIRs and I saw little evidence that the aim of PIRs (supporting local authors) has been met – it’s still virtually impossible for an Australian writer to make a living wage solely via their craft (there are probably only 2 dozen in that category) and that hasn’t really changed in the past 30 years. Some day we have to wake up and realise we are a small fish in a big pond with respect to the written English word.

    I don’t think I was misleading anyone though by using BD as my base. I am a book reader and buyer and it is from that perspective I used them. They are the online shop that the majority of my book loving friends use and we have been doing so since 2008 – it may not be sustainable in the long term but it has been THE biggest factor in the change of my book buying habits for 3+ years and will continue to be until they go out of business or someone else comes along offering a better service and competitive pricing.

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  12. kathy durkin says:

    Right, Bernadette! I agree. I did not really buy books, only used the library or “mooching” from friends, as you often put it. And very occasionally, bought a book from Amazon US online, if I coupled it with something else, a gift for a friend, so I could get the free shipping, and then wait several days. Or I used gift funds from friends to get myself an occasional book. And, now, not only does Amazon US charge shipping for many items or under a certain total amount spent, or books from their linked booksellers, but they added taxes to purchase price.
    So I discovered Book Depository and use it, spending $23 for two books recently, no shipping fee or taxes. And there’s Abe Books for used books, but one has to be careful as shipping fees or rarer books add on the dollars.
    The publishing and bookselling industries are highly competitive. Everything is about the bottom line. If they don’t make money, or the profits they aim for, they merge with other companies, are bought out, contract operations by shutting down plants or laying off staff, or they declare bankruptcy or simply shut down.

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  13. kathy durkin says:

    What I would not like is if I learned that BD pays its employees horrible wages and gives no benefits. That would affect my buying from them.

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  14. Louise says:

    Buying books in Denmark is also enormously expensive due to taxes, and we are not allowed (because of tax ryles) to buy from US sites. We Can, however, buy from UK sites (with added taxes)

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