Two weeks ago the Wheeler Centre hosted a standing-room-only Meanland event (which you can watch here). The crowded room was possibly explained by the timeliness of the topic under discussion: REDgroup’s collapse and the future of the bookshops and the Australian publishing industry. The panellists were full of interesting statistics and anecdotes, but it was a question from the audience that caught my attention. Earlier in the evening, one of the panellists had asked how many people regularly used an e-reader. From my memory, there were two hands raised in a crowd of a few hundred. Later on, an audience member asked for a show of hands as to how many people bought secondhand books. Almost every hand went up.
So why aren’t secondhand bookshops booming? As Amy Roil writes on the Kill Your Darlings Blog, secondhand bookshops are facing the same tightening of belts as the new book industry. But as Roil pointed out, and from the anecdotal evidence of the audience at the Wheeler centre, the problem isn’t that people don’t want to buy books, the problem is that costs have increased beyond the ability of some booksellers to absorb them. And unless you are offering something extra, a personalised experience, literary events, a pleasing atmosphere, people think twice about bookshop buying when there are so many cheap book outlets on the internet.
One of the key facts to come out of the Meanland event was that people are not reading less or buying fewer books, in fact compared to other forms of entertainment, films and games etc., books are doing well. The problem is not that books themselves are dying, but that traditional ideas about bookshops are dying. Stores like Borders, the supermarket of books, whose selling point was low prices rather than atmosphere and personalised service, are no longer viable when they can’t even offer the lowest prices anymore.
The Borders model is no longer working, but the small secondhand model doesn’t seem to be working very well either. I don’t want to speculate on the business practices of all secondhand dealers, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that secondhand bookshops will never make a great deal of money, and the ones that cost a lot to run and don’t have online stores, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of internet shopping and increasing rents and overheads.
Secondhand bookshops are something I know pretty well, having lived in and above them for many years. When I was eleven, my mother set up her first secondhand bookshop. It was a roaring success, but only if you measure success as living modestly and working at something you enjoy (which luckily she does). Since then she has operated three other secondhand bookshops and it is difficult now to imagine her doing any other kind of work (her Bernard Black-esque attitude to customer service would not sit well with employers).
Despite this modest success, she is certainly not someone you would think of taking business advice from. But just maybe there are lessons to be learnt about the future of publishing from her small bookshop. In the 70s my mother ran a shop selling new books, but she gave it up after a few years and never went back to new books. I asked her why this was:
“What I didn’t like about [the new bookshop] was always feeling that the only good books were the ones being talked about in the press. Getting the advance publicity about the marketing campaign for a book and being pressed to buy multiple copies. Then by the next year, those books were passé. I wanted to have a bookshop where books stayed the same. If they were good books, they were always good books. If they were crap, they were always crap. I hated the manipulation of both the shop and the public into all wanting the same thing at the same time. What else can I say? I just like the enduring value of good books.”
For her it was about being able to make your own judgements about books, free from the media and marketing hype. My mother views what she does as akin to a library, as providing a public service. She buys books from people (who often really need the money) and sells to people who can’t afford new book prices, don’t want to pay them or can’t get what they want new. Secondhand books are kinder to the environment, and provide exposure for forgotten or little-known authors. And importantly, secondhand bookshops have a degree of freedom from the new bookshop hierarchies which preference new books over older titles, or one genre over another, allowing the book buyer’s choice to be guided by individual taste and specific needs, rather than by promotions and fashion. This democratisation of taste that has always existed in secondhand shops has also proven to be a key feature of the internet age.
There’s a good reason everyone keeps talking about the ‘fracturing of the market’. People are more likely to seek out recommendations from blogs, facebook, and sites like Goodreads. Even the dreaded Amazon allows you to instantly see the consensus around a book without having to go to the effort of even reading reviews. The internet allows you to make judgements based not on what publicity departments, or even professional reviewers think, but based on your own research, interests and the consensus from the general public. Obviously this has downsides, as anyone who’s ever read a YouTube comment section knows, but the net effect has been to distance/free readers from the influence of top-down tastemakers.
The benefits of this are evident in book deals signed by bloggers like Julie Powell (of Julie and Julia fame) and the success of certain self-published ebook authors. Though the majority of bloggers do not make any money from their efforts, there are the thousands of people who can supplement their incomes a little, who can perhaps afford to work part time, or who have even made enough from their e-endeavours to live off them, modestly perhaps, but passionate about the ideas they are pursuing.
In this way, these moderately successful…what are we to call them? E-ntrepreneurs? Professional Internetists? These people are like my mother and her bookshop. They have found a way to lower costs (getting out of new books and moving to a country town for my mother, moving online for the others) but as importantly they have lowered something else. Their expectations. Like secondhand bookshops they have low overheads and low outgoings. They don’t make much money, but often they’re not trying to. They buy cheaply and sell (hopefully) cheaply. They do these things because financial gain is not what they’re in it for.
Likewise for the publishing industry, digital technologies offer a huge opportunity to lower costs (while accepting profits will also be lower). An ebook that costs $4 will not make as much money as a bestseller that costs $29.95. But the costs of printing and distribution are radically reduced (there are still costs associated with digital distribution of course, but many of those costs are one off development and set up costs, meaning digital publishing becomes more economical over time).
We still rely on publishers to bear the costs and the risks associated with bringing an author’s work to the public. But in minimising those risks, a degree of conservatism has probably been necessary. A digital model provides opportunities to take greater risks in publishing. Under such a model of reduced printing and distribution costs the chance of a young and untried, but potentially revolutionary, author being published are probably far greater.
We cannot yet do without the services of publishers and editors who select and improve works for publication, who enable the communication of ideas from author to reader. There is no denying that most authors, booksellers, secondhand dealers and anyone else who lives off books, even tangentially, owe their livelihoods to the traditional model by which the publishing industry still operates. And though this model is changing, perhaps the need for editors and publishers will actually increase with the volume of material published electronically, and their role may become as much curatorial as editorial. But it seems undeniable that in a digital age they are less and less the gatekeepers of publication.
If publishers can embrace a changing role, where eBooks and self-publication might no longer be the exception but the norm, where editing might be accomplished through anonymous crowd sourcing, when manuscripts are selected for publication based on the will of the internet’s hive mind, in short, where their role might be less to filter than to facilitate. If they can open themselves to such possibilities, hopefully they will not merely survive the coming transitions, but prosper by them.
We are still only on the threshold of change, and digital publishing will doubtless evolve in unimagined ways . But there is no shortage of people who love books, who love words. It’s simply yet to be decided how those words will reach them, and who will profit from the transaction.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
13 Apr 11 at 13:18
Thank you, Zora. Your reflection addresses this topic for what it is: a question of change, not demise. This issue is suffering a fatigue. Essayists and panelists keep uttering the same platitudinous lament, “the book is dead!” and I’d rather read a book in bed than engage with it. You’re right—this could be the first time writing can be celebrated for what it is, good, bad, populist, or marginal, rather than what traditional publishers determines it for sale....
13 Apr 11 at 17:22
Thank you for this essay, Zora. I wholeheartedly agree with almost all of the above, but I am concerned by the thought of crowdsourced editing.
I think the editing process works best when there is intimacy, or at least sympathy, between editor and author. Although in my experience tutorial workshops, for example, can be very useful, I’ve always found they’re no substitute for the advice of a friend or family member whose advice I trust, who takes the time to read my work carefully, and who knows (through familiarity) what I might be trying to communicate. I don’t see how crowdsourcing can replace that.
As for hivemind manuscript selection, in many ways it’s an excellent idea. Similar to how many self-publishing bloggers take preorder commitments on a book, and then only do a print run once they get sufficient commitments. If a populist system became the dominant form of publishing, though, you might reduce the chance of uncovering that “young, untried, but potentially revolutionary author”!...
14 Apr 11 at 7:27
Hi Zoe, I was asked to go on this panel but declined as it seemed like a hiding to nothing. People who don’t think bookshops can survive telling people who think they can why this is so. Those who insist on buying online to save money aren’t as smart as they think they are – the Australian dollar is a speculative trade and is caught up in an international currency play. The geniuses that wish bookshops ill as they are ‘too expensive’ are only cocky due to an historical anomaly, not their amazing ability as futurists. Let’s see them shrink away when the dollar is at US60 and they don’t have a job. Long live the delight of browsing in a well stocked bookshop!...
14 Apr 11 at 12:47
Thanks for the comments everyone!
Yosh: I think if we look at what has happened to the music industry, the internet has allowed artists to reach huge audiences without the backing of record industries, and I know personally the internet is the biggest source of new music for me. I would hope that something similar could happen with internet publishing. Not that it would be more ‘populist’ so to speak, but that niche authors can reach the readers who want them.
And Robbie, yes I have similar hesitations about panels which just rehash the same old circular arguments, but I think this one did better than most, hearing some hard facts about what’s actually happening in Australia, as opposed to the US or UK where the situation is really very different, was interesting.
And you’re right, one day we’ll be back to 50c on the US dollar and Book Depository won’t look nearly as attractive....
20 Apr 11 at 10:18
Great article Zora, thanks.
I work in a bookshop (not second-hand) and so many customers are concerned about price matching online but its much easier to defend or discuss the price when you’re not buying in bulk.
And you’re exactly right it’s all about offering extra value to customers. Good secondhand and firsthand(?) bookshops that offer this will still thrive.
Really I think there was a huge initial concern about the REDgroup collapse as being a terrible omen for the industry, and it will have flow on effects, but I think that isn’t the key issue. The industry will survive and from where I’m standing doesn’t seem to be suffering all that much.
I think really what the collapse indicated was a poor business model that never really bothered to meet its customers needs (both before and after the REDgroup purchase). Before the model was too Americanised and after, too worried about maximising profit. I’ve put more of my thoughts down here if anyone is interested http://wordbirdyellow.blogspot.com/2011/02/ex-tells-all-thoughts-on-bordersangus.html
But basically REDgroup were not operating in the right space for a lot of customers. Lots of bookshops are. Lots of them even support independent publishers and self-published authors. Bookshops have to be places of discovery and interest. I know this is what my friends also describe when they talk about second-hand shops: the (sometimes mouldy and crumbling) hidden treasures they have found.
Then as you point out, the only thing real-life bookshops can’t compete with is the internets massive pool of knowledge and pricing power.
But sometimes its nice just to see what your local bookseller recommends, you can find some gems that way and I know usually after a good conversation I don’t mind paying a bit more for it.
Also I really wish i had gone along to that forum…...