Books, Guest Posts

A paler world: book culture in a jiffy bag?

by Martin Shaw , January 19, 201151 Comments

One of the most depressing days of my bookselling career came in late December of 2010, deep in the Christmas gift trade. It wasn’t that sales were lousy or the weather was extreme or any of the other typical retailer gripes during silly season. No, it was that Chris Flynn, one of the most enthusiastic literary types in the town – former publisher of a literary journal, host of a popular literary salon, and short-story writer in his own right – ran a piece called ‘Book Depository vs Book Stores’ on his blog, Falcon vs Monkey, which suggested readers were lemmings to be buying books from local bookshops: ‘Only a fool would believe the public will rush to spend 2-3 times as much for their product in order to sustain book stores just because they’re nice’ and that overseas titles (although anecdotally I believe a lot of locally originated books are also being sourced this way) were available more cheaply and efficiently from abroad. A UK company, the Book Depository – registered I believe in Guernsey, on the UK Channel Islands, no doubt for tax reasons – which holds no physical stock whatsoever at its mainland warehouse and only supplies order to order, was held up for special praise.

Responses to this post were mostly favourable amongst the online community, who excitedly shared that they too had found the literary Promised Land, where you never had to pay full price. Meanwhile the Harvey Norman GST campaign has been keeping the issue bubbling away in our media into the New Year. Books – as consumer commodities that are often available across a number of world markets – are popular products for those who just love comparing, in all their permutations, prices in terrestrial and online shops, both here and abroad.

Enter Michelle Griffin to the discussion in The Age on January 8, in a column entitled ‘Provocateur’. What first caught my eye was her sub-editor’s (presumably) choice of phrase: the headline ‘Forced on to the internet’, and the byline that read in part ‘we (buyers) know what we want and we want it now’.

Now, I thought that one of the commonplaces of the role of the bookshop in our cultural fabric is that it is, at its best, a place of discovery. Sometimes you enter with a particular purchase in mind, sometimes you just want to be stimulated by what you see on display or what your bookseller personally recommends. So that could be a new US novel composed of nothing but a series of questions, for instance (Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood). Or, for that matter, a French novel composed of only one sentence (albeit a very extended one!) (Mathias Énard’s Zone). Or the collected stories of one of Australia’s prose masters – published by a small local press that depends on the bookshop’s support to give its writers a modicum of exposure in a media world that often has little time for small press publishing (Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories). My point is that often you do not know what you want, and online sites, as much as they invest enormous sums into software that will suggest products you might like, cannot match the experience.

On the other hand I am with Flynn and Griffin that the Oz publishing industry needs to respond with greater vigour to the unparalleled environment it now finds itself in. The weakness of the pound and the US dollar for a considerable time now, and increasingly aggressive online merchants in the Australian marketplace (abetted in part by the price comparison site, which derives its revenue from commissions paid by some of the vendors it features) threaten to cannibalise all the efforts that have historically been put into bringing to market – in far-flung Oz – the wider world of English-language publishing. I quite share the frustrations sometimes experienced by book buyers regarding supply and/or price that occur in our book market. But I’m not across all the whys and wherefores – and I do not doubt that there are a raft of them! – as the sales directors of our major publishers may be. Just in the last week the blog Literary Life, in a laudable series on the topic of book pricing, has managed to attract at least some initial comment from members of the publishing community.

How I can respond to the likes of Flynn and Griffin and other discontents is that your bookshop, if it has any integrity, will be sharing these concerns with their suppliers, the publishers, on a regular and consistent basis, and probably has been for some time now. The results aren’t necessarily ones you will hear about (good news outcomes being rarely reported after all) – but I can attest that progress has and does result in a myriad of ways (if still not to the extent that I might like).

What is more, if your bookshop has any genuine belief in its cultural role it will be making available exactly those books from abroad you read about in various international forums in a timely and cost-effective fashion. Griffin mentions the non-release of a Commonwealth edition of Bolaño’s epic 2066 a couple of years back. I couldn’t agree more! An absolute travesty – an example of the dismal rights management of a multinational publisher that left our market completely out of the picture. They heard as much from me at the time, I can assure you! But it was also piled high, on import, in my store from the get-go – and I’m sure in a good number of other quality bookshops around the country too. Ditto the recent Jennifer Egan novel A Visit from the Goon Squad from June 2010, to turn to one of Griffin’s other examples (although the UK publisher, Constable and Robinson, is considerably smaller in this instance than in the former example, and they also have – in contrast to Bolaño – a living author on their hands, so presumably they are timing their April 2011 publication for a UK author tour). Griffin’s contention that Franzen’s Freedom was not released in Australia for a month after the US and UK? Wholly wrong – it was released simultaneously in all markets, and I’m sure HarperCollins Australia were grossly offended by this remark about a title that they had made a significant investment in.

And special order titles, where customers are being quoted a wait of six or more weeks? This is becoming less and less usual, thank goodness; booksellers bringing pressure to bear on suppliers has improved supply, as has the ever improving range of international wholesalers that provide booksellers with alternative sources.

But obviously, we as booksellers can’t be across everything, there will always be recidivists (a small minority, thankfully!) amongst our suppliers, and there is also no way we will usually be the cheapest option on a particular title in the crudest economic sense. To my mind hats off to the Book Depository in some ways – they recognised that the ‘stopper’ for so much e-commerce in books was the freight component. Obviously with a war chest behind them, they rapidly built up their business to the sort of volume that has reduced their freight expenses to a level way below those accessible to those most publishers and booksellers, let alone individuals.

But one thing the Book Depository or Amazon can’t provide is the experience of a physical, community-based bookshop: its committed staff, whose vocation bookselling is; the community of writers and readers that forms around it; and the genuine commitment to the life of words that it represents.

All this puts me in mind of an image of Pablo Neruda’s, who remarked that those readers who had not yet read Julio Cortázar were like someone who has never tasted peaches:

Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder, noticeably paler and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair. I don’t want those things to happen to me…

I wonder then where Chris Flynn expects to launch a book of his own? Okay, I guess a bar would do. But what sort of message is he sending out to young writers, who possibly consider him an authority on all things literary, and who, in his new role as ABR fiction editor, could be the one who provides a helping hand to their careers? That Australian bookshops are about screwing the public and making big profits at their expense? There are indeed folk out there saying that not just the bookshop will be bypassed in the future, but also the publisher – such is the perceived power of social media as a potent tool for sales and marketing. But I predict that such a scenario will continue to be the absolute exception, and that the surest way to market for a young writer will be to have the backing of their agent, their editor, their publisher and, dare I say it, often the first consumer of the book (in the form of an advance proof) the bookseller.

To be sure, it’s fun to get packages in the mail – it’s just like getting a present, just as long as you keep your credit card bill out of mind! But I would feel empty if there wasn’t a good bookshop to drop into (we only need to look at the impoverishment in this regard in most US and UK cities to see a possible future; and conversely the cheerier picture in a fixed-price book market like Germany, where the level playing field enables bookshops both large and small to thrive). I love going to a book launch of an evening to celebrate an author’s achievement, to be moved by just how much they (and their publisher) have put into creating the book I am holding in my hands. Do I sometimes have to pay a few more dollars that is partly a result of the very complicated factors sketched above, but partly also to underwrite a physical space, people engaged in the profession of bookselling, and a business that not just pays its taxes, but serves its community like almost nothing else can in the more intangible realm of the provision of ‘culture’?

No guesses as to where my consumer decision falls, of course. It would really be a much paler world. But don’t get me wrong, either. As an ardent bibliophile, my company’s mailroom is regularly receiving packages for me from all around the world – usually secondhand or rare books, it must be said; sometimes signed copies of new books that really take my fancy. The net is a fantastic resource for book nerds, obviously!

So my hopes out of the current discussion? Consumers simply become more mindful of their buying choices (I haven’t even begun to discuss some of the more sinister sides of some of those big online retailers – see my contribution to the earlier discussion around this topic at Killings); booksellers (the good ones*) strive to impress upon their patrons that they’re on their side in terms of providing the best possible range, quality and value; and publishers, particularly the multinational ones, go back to their head offices in NYC and London and negotiate better terms that allow them to remain competitive in today’s ever more transparent global book market. For a lot of them, distributing their parent company’s books is the trade that underwrites their locally originated publishing, and god knows that’s a fragile ecosystem at the best of times, so we need them to stay strong! However, it’s no joy to have been reading the UK trade press over the last year or two and to learn that export receipts are the only growth area in their own stagnant market – ours has been flatlining too, so someone’s making some money somewhere! And, finally, that people that profess a passion for writing and the arts are more conscious of the implications of their words when they talk about the ‘best’ place for readers to buy their books.

* I have already commented in another forum (last year’s Australian Book Industry Awards) about the tragic effect of ‘up-pricing’ by some of Australia’s larger chains on the repute of the bookselling sector as a whole.

Martin Shaw is Books Division Manager of Readings, a large independent bookshop in Melbourne, and an editorial advisor at Kill Your Darlings.


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