Would we be better off without local book sellers?

One of my resolutions for this year was to buy less books but to ensure that the ones I do buy are bought locally. I’m honestly not sure that anyone wins out of this (certainly not the authors whose books I won’t be buying at all) but it is a genuine attempt to support the local book selling industry which I hope will survive at least as long as I do. Though at times I wonder if it wouldn’t be kinder to shut it all down immediately and put everyone out of their misery. Because the industry surely cannot survive when it is engaged in such lunacy as charging 3-4 times the price of the exact same edition of a book bought from America.

I listen to a lot of audio books and I buy all the ones I listen to (my library has a lousy selection and their brand new digital loan system is completely unusable anyway). I have been a member at Audible – a US based site – since 2008, paying on average $12AUD for each of the 100+ titles now in my library. I’d love to use a local alternative, especially now that Audible is owned by the behemoth that is Amazon, but I can’t. My choice is not between using Audible and using a local provider of a similar service for a slightly inflated cost. My choice is between using Audible and not listening to audio books at all.

Because in Australia audio books are ridiculously, prohibitively expensive and the few that are available are being sold by (and presumably to) people who live in  2004.

Here’s a comparison of the price and other features of the book I most recently listened to: DEATH DELIGHTS written by Gabrielle Lord, narrated by Francis Greenslade and published by Bolinda Audio in 2011.

Audio Book Comparison

They’re charging nearly four times as much for a product which is significantly inferior? What possible basis could there be to justify such bullshit (pardon my language)?

Thanks to Jon Page**, independent Sydney bookseller and current President of the Australian Booksellers Association, I have learned about some of the reasons for the disparity in pricing between Australia and other English-speaking markets. Indeed my gradual move back towards buying books locally is largely due to Jon convincing me of the need for people like me to do so and that it’s not all price gouging on behalf of ‘the industry’ as I have previously argued (here, here, here and here). For example our higher salaries and better working conditions contribute to the higher prices and it doesn’t seem fair of me to blame the book industry for a national reality (and one we should be striving to maintain).

But even with the best will and intention in the world I cannot believe that there are enough legitimate reasons for it to cost $27.16 more to sell me a book from within Australia than to sell me the exact same edition of the book via the US. For heaven’s sake Bolinda Audio has provided the edition to Audible to sell in a better format than they are offering locally. I have to wonder if they are, Mel Brooks-style, trying to go out of business without appearing to do so.

I have no industry statistics to back up this claim but when I first joined Audible its advertising claim was that it played host to over 50,000 titles and that number has doubled in the last five years so I believe audio books are a growth part of the publishing industry. Given the paucity of Australian books available in the format and the prohibitive cost of purchasing those few titles locally this has the potential to be yet another opportunity for local publishing which will go begging. Either the local industry is too stupid to do a modicum of research to find out what is an equitable ‘going rate’ for its products or it is banking on us, its customers, being that dumb. Either way it’s a losing strategy and one I refuse to support. Frankly if this is the best that the local industry can do then I might have to seriously re-think my charitable notions of doing my bit to keep them afloat. They don’t deserve it.

*my monthly membership is $22.95US which entitles me to 2 credits which in effect equals 2 books as only a very few enormous books cost 2 credits, I have never bought or wanted a book which costs more than one credit. That means each book costs just under $11.50US which at today’s exchange rate is about $10.89 and at the worst exchange rate we’ve had in the last five years saw me paying around $13.25 per book.

**Jon’s written some great articles including What Price a Book in Australia?, The difference is 16% and Repeating the same mistakes only on a bigger scale. He also tweets intelligently on book industry related topics from @pnbookseller

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13 Responses to Would we be better off without local book sellers?

  1. Bernadette – I understand completely why you’ve gotten so frustrated at this. It doesn’t make sense at all that it would be so much more expensive to get a product locally (and an inferior one at that). I’m not Australian, so I’m probably not being very polite at all by commenting (sorry about that), but it doesn’t seem reasonable at all to me. I really do hope that the local industry will see what’s happening and wake up to the fact that it’s in their own best interest to offer a competitively-priced and good-quality alternative to buying abroad. Otherwise that’s what people will continue to do.


  2. Jon Page says:

    Bernadette I totally understand and share your frustration. The audio market is a completely different kettle of fish in Australia. Bolinda are effectively the only company standing as the other audio book publishers have gone out of business (ABC Audio was the biggest). Audio is a small portion of the market and we are a small market so it is highly unprofitable.
    And then there’s Audible…You can’t escape them. They own ALL of the digital audio market. Audiobooks from iTunes? Supplied by Audible. I have searched high and low for an alternative because I do not want to give any money to Amazon and can’t find anyone else anywhere in the English speaking world.
    For print and digital books please keep supporting the local industry and I thank you for doing so but for audio I think it is impossible


    • I’ve bought a few audio books direct from UK publishers but you’re right Jon it is almost impossible to avoid Audible – however they didn’t used to be owned by Amazon when I joined and even then there was no other, affordable option – and the monthly price was the same then as it is now (it has not risen in 5 years) and as a company Audible still operate somewhat independently and still do great things like putting money into making older books available in the format – something I know a heck of a lot of blind people (as well as commuters and the rest of us who listen when we can’t read print) are eternally grateful for. In some ways I can’t blame Amazon for realising it was a good model and a good market – why didn’t anyone else see it? In the case of digital books – audio or ebook – I definitely get the sense the publishers are still testing the waters to see how much we dumb customers will put up with in terms of pricing and it’s incredibly short sighted of them – then again we’ve put up with the expensive print book pricing for ages so I suppose they can’t be blamed.


  3. Kathy D. says:

    Amazon is just gobbling up the world. It even owns Book Depository now, although I did buy some books at a reasonable price without shipping or tax fees.
    The whole pricing thing is maddening. I wanted to buy a book from Oz but it was $43 so I gave up the idea.
    Good luck with it all.


  4. Beth2 says:

    I know I am tired and my brain has been boiled after 4 hours at the public swimming pool with two under-10’s in 35 degree heat, but in what way is the digital market different to the audio books one? This is a genuine question, and I think probably stems from my Kindle having been a gift – so I didn’t do the whole comparison bit. Conseqently, I have to get my ebooks from Amazon (although my local public library does lend ebooks, the Kindle format is excluded), and I buy my unobtainables from Book Depository. So, ok, Amazon has taken over my world but as the service is examplary and affordable to a retiree, how can I actually complain? I would love to support local bookshops, but find I only do so for specific things like reference works simply on the basis of price. The only time I found a book similar in price in a bookshop than at Book Depository it was a Field Guide to Australian Birds, so I triumphantly saved some air miles in delivery. I would miss the treat of a visit to a bookshop, but over the past five years or so it has definitely become a luxury. My nightmare is that Amazon will put all book sellers out of business and then with a captive market, charge whatever they please. I sincerely hope that in that instance I could still get new books from my public library, even if I am number 57 in the queue!


    • In many ways Beth I don’t think the digital market is different from the audio book one – though I suppose audio books are a smaller more niche market – but that really doesn’t explain to me why there is such a disparity – not really – the only difference for me is that I can sometimes buy digital eBooks locally at the same or near the same price as is available via Amazon – though my no means is this always the case. But via Booktopia for example I have bought 3 or 4 eBooks that I can read on my sony eReader for around the $10 price which is what a fair few of the titles I want to read cost via Amazon (the ones I want always seem to be at the $9.99 price point not the $1.99 price), $10 is better than $32.95 for the paperback bought locally

      I don’t blame you or anyone else for using Amazon – I find some of the company’s business practices reprehensible and I do worry about their growing near-monopoly which is why I personally am trying to find alternatives – but on a tight budget it’s hard to go past them and they do offer what people want. I wish a few more publishers and sellers would stop complaining about them and start seeing that they too need to offer people what they want even if it’s not all about price. I still have to wade through shelves of crap American authors at my local store (how many James Patterson novels can one store actually sell?) and have to order titles by Australian authors in especially – that’s daft. They must know what is being published in advance so I don’t understand why they don’t offer a service to customers telling us what books are due for publication in the next 2-3 months and asking us which ones we want to pre-order – that way they could order in the number wanted and get some idea of popularity – but no – I have to tell them that there’s a new book out by an Australian crime writer – very frustrating


      • Beth2 says:

        The point you make about booksellers knowing in advance what is going to be published really resonates with me. And especially about Australian authors. After your reviews of Geoffrey McGeachin and Adrian Hyland (particularly Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road) I tried to buy them locally, without success. Interestingly, I was told in two secondhand stores that they rarely get books by those authors and they are quickly snapped up. So, Amazon once again won my dollars. Sulari Gentill’s books for a while were unobtainable on Book Depository and now show as “currently unavailable”. So yes, I agree, it is not an easy thing to support either Australian booksellers or authors! On the other hand, I never have any difficulty obtaining translated Nordic crime authors, even the not-so-well publicised ones like KO Dahl or Pernille Rygg. Good on you for raising the issue, and I promise to keep trying to support homegrown, but it would be nice if publishers and local booksellers met us halfway.


  5. janebbooks says:

    Bernadette…I wondered when you made that fine resolve to buy from Australian booksellers this year…and now you are having panic attacks about the cost.
    . I ran a used bookstore, mainly mysteries, in a small Southern USA town for seven years…and learned how to buy inventory…used at thrift stores and library sales. Unfortunately, I had to change my personal reading habits also .And the authors I admired and collected do not get royalties for used books. It’s a triple threat…and one that destroyed brick-and-mortar bookstores.
    So in order to read what I want to read now on a limited income, I find new authors that haven’t hit best-selling lists yet or old authors with a large backlist. I buy new books by only favorite authors from Amazon and limit my purchases. I read the backlists from a discovered “new” authors by using the public library. And I frequent thrift stores and library sales. I occasionally get books through Amazon marketplace sellers by buying collectible books wisely…and lately awesomebooks sold me the second Gerard O’Donovan “used” DUBLiN DEAD for $4.01 including shipping…and it came in 1st UK edfition, nice mylared dust jacket, and SIGNED. And once a year I donate the books in my TBR stack to the public library that I haven’t read….just to feel good!
    As for authors not getting royalties…they got the royalty when the book was first sold..
    And I don’t participate in challenges anymore…although I did a thread on a blog on Irish authors that was very satisfying….I collect Irish short stories and modern Irish crime novels.

    These ideas don’t help much with audible books….I have friends that stock up with sales on them…
    but doesn’t someone sell used audibles in Australia?



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  7. It’s very romantic to take up the cause of the little guy and, like you, that’s a cause I believe in. Then when you look at what the big boys serve up it’s hard to stay loyal to the cause of the little guy. I’ve been an Audible customer for about a year and, yes, it’s virtually unbeatable for price and convenience. Your analysis was as accurate as it was heartfelt. I really can relate on every level.


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  9. Great post! We have exactly the same issues here in South Africa, which makes it very difficult to support local booksellers.


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