Who wins (when achieving a goal turns out to be a hollow victory)?

One of my book-related goals this year is to only buy books in Australia (audio books excluded as these are not easily available in a downloadable format here and I need my audio fix). I knew this would mean I would buy less books overall as it’s always at least two times and often three times more expensive to buy a book locally than from Amazon or Book Depository but I wanted to see if I could still read the books I want to read AND support my local book shops AND not go broke. The purpose was really to assuage my guilt about the fact it’s people like me – people who fell upon sites such as UK-based Book Depository like thirsty wretches in a desert…gobbling up more cheap books than we can read after decades of being slammed with some of the highest price books in the world – who have helped to cause the closure of so many book stores in this country. If the last one does shut its doors in my lifetime I didn’t want it be all my fault.

At just over half way through the year I think it’s clear that though I’ll meet my goal (so far all but one of my book purchases for the year have been made in the brick and mortar store around the corner from my house or a local purveyor of eBooks) my radically changed habits will do nothing to stem the tide of local book store closures. Because I’ve hardly bought any books at all.

It seems that I can change the habit of wanting to read new books NOW (I’ll wait for the library or do without if it’s not to be published locally), but I can’t change the habit that makes me gasp each time I’m expected to pay more than $30 for a book I don’t even know if I’ll like. Perhaps the best evidence of the intense psychological pressure imposed by the cost of books in Australia is that I’ve had a voucher since my birthday last November that I haven’t yet spent. I’ve wandered through the store at which the voucher is valid (not the one around the corner from my house) at least once during each of the past eight months but can’t quite bring myself to part with the voucher for something I’m not sure if I’ll like (and of course the couple of times I’ve been desperate to purchase a particular book I’ve been nowhere near this store).

But enough of words…what this post clearly needs is a chart or three.

Starting simply this shows how many books I’ve acquired during the first 7 months of this year and last. For the purposes of this figure ‘acquire’ includes any method at all, including borrowing.

Books Acquired 2012 and 2013 first half

There’s nothing that startling about that chart but it sets a context for the next one. This one shows what percentage of books acquired have fallen into the categories of bought, borrowed, received via a gift (including vouchers) and ARCs or received as part of my judging panel duties.

2012 and 2013 Book Acquire categories

The percentage of my acquisitions coming from purchases drops from 78% to 28% between 2012 and 2013 and borrowing books rises from 9% to 28% over the same period. The anomaly is of course the fact I received a swag of books as part of my judging panel duties but I did not include in that number the 11 books I judged but had already bought or read. Of the 15 remaining books that make up the 18% figure there’s only 2 or 3 I’d have willingly bought with my own hard-earned cash.

But the most telling chart of all is the one which breaks down my purchased books by format

2012 and 2013 books bought format

I have purchased a whopping total of 5 ‘print’ books (i.e. eBooks and physical ones combined) so far this year compared to 40 for the same period of last year. Looking at this chart, the fact I’m buying “all” my print books locally is hardly a huge score for local book sellers. Are they any worse off than if I’d repeated last year’s purchasing patterns? I think not.

I don’t have any sort of detailed records of my book buying habits from back in the day – pre 2008 or so…before Book Depository, Amazon et al – but I would guess I bought more books than this even at our over-inflated prices. Because I didn’t know any different. Now it’s just…hard…to justify $30+ for a book I’ll almost certainly read only once and might not even like when I know the same thing is available for $15 or $10 from across the seas.

I suppose in the end I am the winner in that I am spending less money on books (and I definitely needed to reign in my discretionary spending). But I’ll still be sad – and probably feel guilty – when that last book shop shuts its doors.

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27 Responses to Who wins (when achieving a goal turns out to be a hollow victory)?

  1. Bernadette – I’m very sad to hear of the state of bookshops where you are. As you say (and you’ve shown it clearly), you’ve made a commitment to supporting your local shops. But if a book costs that much, I don’t blame you for not buying what you did. As you say, a hollow victory… I can see why you’d feel sad, but in my opinion you’ve nothing to feel guilty about.


  2. Maureen says:

    Dear Bernadette – can I send you books – is the cost of shipping high for Australia? Let me know – sincerely, Maureen


    • Oh Maureen it is sweet of you to offer but I am well supplied with books, honestly. My library system has become a lot more useful this year as we are now allowed to request books from all over the state, not just our local branch. My issue is not that I can’t afford to buy books here but rather that I baulk at paying double or triple what someone in the US or UK would pay for exactly the same item. I try to imagine all the good that money does in the local economy but I still feel like I’m being ripped off which is what irks.


  3. I found that fascinating Bernadette – you present your case so well. It does sound as though it is mad for the prices to be so high – is there ever any reason given?


    • Oh it’s a complicated issue I think Moira – some of it is reasonable I suppose (our wages are generally higher for most of the basic jobs incorporated in the supply chain of book selling, we are a relatively small population concentrated in a few cities which are actually quite a distance from each other so distribution is costly) and some of it is …if not lunacy then a hangover from a bygone era. We have something called a parallel import restriction on books which means that if a local publisher has the rights to a book (even if they haven’t released it here yet) a local seller cannot import the same title from elsewhere so local sellers cannot negotiate (or become partners with those who negotiate) the kind of cut throat deals that Amazon et al can demand. I used to think it was just publishers being bastards but I’ve come to realist it’s not that – or not just that anyway…though it does still feel like many are trying hard to ignore the realities of a global economy.

      But to be fair it’s not just books. We recently had a Parliamentary enquiry into what is often called The Australia Tax on technology. Companies such as Apple and Adobe and others had to front up and explain why their products – some of which are downloadable digital files – cost double or triple in Australia what they cost in the US. It’s a bit galling to realise you can buy Adobe’s premier photo editing software from a US-based website for half of what it costs if your IP address happens to be in Oz. It’s little wonder we are an increasingly tech-savvy nation of people ready and willing to break the law by setting up fake US addresses and making use of virtual private networks to be able to purchase what we want at the same price as our American friends.


  4. Kathy D. says:

    Yes! Charts! Always interesting.
    It’s awful that book prices are so high over there. I don’t think I’ve ever paid $30 for a book, then over here there’s tax and shipping costs.
    Bookstores are closing here, too, the wonderful Partners and Crime last year and even a Barnes and Noble in a well-situated spot in Greenwich Village. But I don’t blame myself as even if I bought several books, it wouldn’t make up for many factors, including skyrocketing rents and unemployment and the recession, which leave many people with less discretionary spending money.
    I, too, turn to Book Depository and Abe Books for used or remaindered books, and sometimes the same at Amazon, which I admit.
    I try to get the library to buy global crime fiction, but the buyers are consumed with purchasing 300 copies of dvd’s of popular movies or of Carl Hiaissen’s latest book — I like his humor, so no criticism of his writing.
    But, when I ask if they can buy 2 copies of a particular book I’m told the budget won’t allow it.
    So, it’s all frustrating, leading me to know that I just won’t read some books on my TBR list — which I won’t anyway; I’d have to live to be 120 to do so. And I have to strictly prioritize.
    When I see the Davit Award or Ned Kelly nominees, I just wish all of these books were available in the States and at reasonable prices. Are any booksellers or library buyers listening?


    • I honestly don’t blame anyone for using Amazon or BD or anywhere else they can get books Kathy – it’s a case of needs must. So annoying though to hear of your library’s buying habits – though I wonder if some of those multiple copies of popular books are cheap or free – apparently here there is some of that sort of thing done as it does the PR of a book good to have it popular at libraries and some of the big publishers can wear the cost of give-aways.


  5. Kathy D. says:

    Sorry — Davitt Awards.


  6. Sarah says:

    When I visited Australia (in the pre-kindle days) I couldn’t believe the price of books. You have my greatest sympathy!


    • Thanks Sarah. My niece was just here from the US and being a big reader like her Aunt Bernadette she was excited to find I live just around the corner from a bookstore now. Until she went in and discovered the prices. Then she bought me a cake in sympathy 🙂


  7. Jose Ignacio says:

    I also have mixed feelings Bernadette. Books in Spanish, even through Amazon, are usually much more expensive than books in English. Even a softcover book is usually in the EUR 20 to 30 price range and, unfortunately, many bookshops are closing. But in my view most publishing houses are not able to adapt to new times. I might be wrong though.


  8. I am absolutely amazed by this. Prices that high will not only be making bookstores close their doors but I imagine it could be putting people off reading in any kind of quantity. I’m guessing children’s books are as expensive? So they will have less books in their rooms as they grow up. A sad state. I understand Australia is a vast country, but like you say, electronic files are also more expensive. I’m sorry you have to write a post like this.


    • Funny you should mention children’s books Rebecca. I know a woman who for many years owned and ran my city’s only specialist children’s book store – she always used to say that the majority of people who bought from her weren’t parents but all the relatives – grandparents, aunts and uncles and so on – because kid’s books were seen as luxury gifts (her store was also based at a very high-end shopping mall in a wealthy part of the city). I suspect that’s still the case though now you have to go to the kid’s section of a general store. I do think the price of books is one of the reasons that public libraries here have not come under the same cuts as those in the UK and US – a LOT of people rely on them, and most of them have excellent kids’ books sections and programs (story time, holiday programs, book clubs and so on)


      • I’m glad it’s keeping the libraries open but it is sad that children don’t grow up with as many books on their shelves.

        I didn’t have masses as a child. I went to the library but I suppose that because it wasn’t something I was bought a lot of. But for me now, well, I just bought my little man two books this weekend and each book is the first in a running series. If he likes them both – Percy Jackson, which he’s reading first and loving, and Artimus Fowl – then I intend to keep buying him the next ones he needs to collect the series. It’s nice for them when they’re grown, to have them to look back on and re-read.

        We’re all in a difficult place economically I suppose right now. It would be nice if things were better but we cope with what we have.

        You know in relation to not wanting to spend money on a book you may not like? You could always download the free sample on Amazon to help with that decision then go to the bookstore.


        • Rebecca you are right about using the free samples more – I never look at them and I should do. Plenty of people use bookstores to browse then go buy from Amazon so I don’t see why I can’t go the other way 🙂


  9. I pay too much at the local branch of our chain store, knowing I could get it for less on the Internet, but the penalty I pay is not as severe as you experience in Australia. Conflicting principles, no fun.


  10. TracyK says:

    That is quite a quandary. I buy lots of used books online, and I often wonder if it hurts the author by not supporting them directly. (Some of them are already out of print… thus I have no other option.) I often buy discounted books via Amazon or a warehouse type store and worry about not supporting local bookstores. And sometimes we will spend full price on hardbacks or paperbacks at a wonderful local bookstore just to be supportive, but when we do the bill is always high.

    The prices you are dealing with are much higher though. It is good that audio books are an alternative for you. I have not tried audio books because there is no situation where the audio book seems preferable… I don’t commute or do other things where I want to be listening to a book.


    • I always feel like buying from the local store is a bit like donating to charity Tracy – it makes me feel a little more virtuous…probably not a bad thing 🙂


  11. Kathy D. says:

    Today’s news in New York City was of lawsuits being filed against the $300 million renovation of the main and world-reknown branch of the public library system. This remake will send tens of thousands of books to storage facilities, and install computers and other high-tech equipment. Writers, historians and preservationists are fighting this, but the administration and real estate moguls are pushing it.


    • Oh that is very sad Kathy…it does seem that the purpose of libraries is being watered down. I do understand that governments need to offer new services such as access to computers but surely these should be in addition to the access to books which libraries are so well loved for. I know our libraries too have less storage space available on site but I must admit their online catalogue is excellent and you can order anything that’s ‘in storage’ via the catalogue and it will be delivered to your local branch within a few days – of course the problem there is that you generally have to know of a book to order it…what having oodles of books on site allows for is the serendipity of discovering some new author or title that you’d never have heard of otherwise.


  12. Kathy D. says:

    Yes. I worry about the children who will grow up without the joy of reading real books, holding them, carrying them around, rushing to finish homework to take out a book. And also without the neighborhood library as a refuge and place in which to browse books — and to look forward to visiting starting at a young age up through adolescence. What a loss!


  13. I’m in Australia and I know exactly what you mean. It’s not just price, either. I recently decided to purchase a book from my new local store in an effort to help keep them around (after two years without a bookstore at all in my largish regional city). The book I wanted wasn’t in store, but I was told it was in stock at the warehouse. I paid for it, only to then wait three weeks for the book to be delivered from warehouse to store. It only takes just over a week to get most books from the Book Depository all the way from the UK. They’re not helping themselves with these sorts of practices, on top of the high prices. I will continue to try and support bookstores, but not exclusively. I find that I’m reading a lot more now that I have access to cheaper books through ebooks and overseas channels, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.


    • I too read a lot more these days than I used to Catherine. I used to get so bored with the books I could afford (there’s always a cheap James Patterson novel lurking close by but who wants to read them) – it could take me weeks just to find something that interested me that I could save up for. Now I am spoiled for choice…even if it doesn’t all come from my local store.

      As for the postal system…it’s a joke. It can’t possibly be quicker for a book to come from England than from somewhere in Oz (I sometimes wonder in those situations if the local store isn’t ordering from BD themselves rather than accessing their own ‘warehouse’ but I’m a natural cynic).


  14. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    Sadly, even if I made a commitment to buy locally (Adelaide), I wouldn’t be able to get most things without ordering them in. I do, however, suspect that the one thing that will rein in my kindle habit is the falling Oz dollar.


    • hey I am in Adelaide too…and yes I usually have to order books in also…and yes that falling dollar is going to hurt, I was getting used to the price of my audio books


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