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Book barns are dead, long live cosy indies

The closure of Angus and Robertson and Borders has rather suddenly and destructively destroyed a large part of the Australian publishing industry’s value chain.

Capital city dwellers living close to the inner city retain plenty of choice. But out in the suburbs and regions, the picture is bleak. There are now important Australian cities — such as Rockhampton or Woollongong — in which there are no general bookshops selling new books. Rocky and The Gong have important regional universities. But no bookshops. How did it come to this?

The story of the destruction of book retailing is a story that has been recounted many times, not least here in Crikey. Kill Your Darlings carried an excellent feature by Matthia Dempsey on the issue recently. But the take-home message is simple: industrial change. To understand why publishers and authors are so worried, it helps to understand the structure of the publishing industry (known in the trade as, well, “trade publishing”) as it had developed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Luckily, cultural sociologist John B. Thompson has done that for us, in his magisterial history of trade publishing, Merchants of Culture. Thompson’s book describes in fine-grained detail the way that large chains came to dominate book retailing, and the way this changed the type of books publishers published, and the nature of their dealings with authors (see: agents). With deep pockets and a lot of industry muscle, big chains have been able to monster publishers for better deals and bigger discounts, at the expense of independent bookshops everywhere.

Now the chains are collapsing and publishers and authors find themselves selling goods to a shop window with a “closed” sticker hastily pasted up. The alternative, digital retailing, is an even bigger chain — indeed basically a monopoly: Amazon, which recently bought the Book Depository. Can book retailing be saved?

The answer is almost certainly: it depends. Big chains with big retail footprints had big overheads to match. Their book-buying experience was often sterile, consumerist and cheap. I love books and I can’t resist wonderful bookshops, but the book lover in me rebels at supporting retail outlets where books are less prominent than merchandise, where in-shop displays scream bargains in high-vis nikko, and where books are scattered on trestle tables with bibliophobic disorder.

Should we really mourn the passing of glum, fluorescent book barns paying exorbitant rents in soulless shopping centres?

On the other hand, many independent bookshops offer something the big chains rarely mustered: character, passion and charm. When I recently visited Adelaide, I found myself magnetically drawn inside Imprints Bookshop on Hindley Street, with its bespoke bookcases and muted, effortlessly tasteful, gentlemen’s club ambience. On noticing a collection of essays by Charles Taylor on discreet display, I reached greedily for the volume, before checking myself and asking the kindly man at the counter. He was nearly as excited about my excitement at Charles Taylor as I.

Book buying should be like this: an induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.

The story of the fight to save iconic Brisbane record shop Rocking Horse offers a glimmer of hope. This independent record shop had grown to become one of the most-loved of Brisbane’s music retailers, surviving the demise of chains such as HMV, and then the downfall of the CD itself. It was a centre of the Brisbane independent music scene — among other things, it was a┬ásignificant┬áticket seller for independent gigs and small music festivals, as well as a trove of local music knowledge and a repository of wisdom on rare independent music from around the globe. If any shop could truly be said to have its own fan base of motivated customers, it was Rocking Horse.

So when the store announced it was shutting down last month, there were howls of dismay from across Brisbane and indeed the rest of the country. But this story does have a happy ending. A campaign was launched to save the shop, and customers flocked to show their support. Self-described “gig pig” Lyndal Cairns wrote on the “Save Rocking Horse Records” Facebook page:

Congratulations to all those who put their money where their mouth is and supported a great local business. But a CD splurge and a Facebook event will not keep Rocking Horse alive in the long term.”

Cairns is right, of course. A once-off CD or book splurge can’t save independent music and book retailers. But passionate customers just might.

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  • 1
    Michael James
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I collect specialist books on a couple of subjects. As I have done so for many years, I have a significant collection of them. I was musing the other day on who they might go to when I die, an event likely in the next 20-30 years.

    I have no children, so there is no one to pass them on to, even assuming they would even have an interest. I considered passing them on to a library, but I am not even sure that a library will still exist in the format we understand. In a decade or two (or possibly much less) I can see a council library being a single person who undertakes a wide variety of roles, who operates in a small area with a counter.

    When someone wants to read a library ‘book’ they pass over their great-great-grandson of today’s Kindle or IPad and the ‘librarian’ downloads a time limited version of the book into the device. It might be good for a week, or a month, but at that time it will delete itself unless the reader decides they wish to hang on to it, at which point they pay a small fee to the library to disable the delete timer. The library then automatically sends a % or the fee to the author.

    That is if the whole process has not been automated to the point that the reader never actually interacts with a real person anywhere in the chain. That if anything is the more likely result.

    What does this mean for people looking for specialist books? Where will they find them, how will they be archived? I have lived through vinyl records, 8 track and cassette, CD, MP3 and more; just for audio files. None have been backwards compatible, so if you don’t have the right equipment you can’t access older delivery systems. If the music you like hasn’t been digitised then you cannot listen to it on your MP3 player.

    If the same happens to books, how will someone looking up a specific subject find the right book, especially if it hasn’t been digitised?

    Pick a subject like the Second World War, one of the most analysed subjects ever. Many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of books analysing every aspect in minute detail have been written covering the war, the seminal event of the 20th century

    20 years from now, who will decide which book on German aircraft engines or political cables between Curtin and Churchill or the battles in the South Pacific will be worthy of the time and effort to convert to whatever is the current format? Will their decision be the right one and how will they know which book to digitise? Particularly if the person making that decision is a member of I-Gen, who has no personal connection to events prior to 2000, let alone in the first half of the 20th century?

    Is then the entire industry of publishing printed books to be lost, the industry of centuries gone in a decade or two? Are we the last generation who will feel the joy of holding a heavy book, gloriously illustrated, beautifully hard-bound, in our lap?

    Will the future be looking at low rez digitally scanned versions of books, with images at 75dpi and limited to the size of the e-reader?

    I sit here and contemplate several walls of shelves filled with a lifetimes worth of books, which have given me uncounted hours of enjoyment and I feel old, for I feel the passing of something very dear to me.

    The future for these volumes is likely to be pulp and landfill, for they may exist in a world that has no use for them.

    Vale the printed book, your time is almost over and I fear your passing will not be remembered, let alone missed.

  • 2
    davipoll
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Book buying should be like this: an induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love”.

    I’m uneasy about the idea of “secret” (and “love” sounds like hyperbole), but the key thing I want to say is that 99% of the value of books is in the reading, not the buying.

    Indie bookshops are hopelessly outdone by internet retailers when it comes to price, range, specialisation and, most of all, information about the book and author. There’s no way my local indie proprietor can provide sophisticated and authoratative advice on even a small fraction of her stock - that’s where the internet comes into its own.

    The singular commercial advantage of indies is in speed, provided they have what you want in stock - but keeping inventory is expensive. Those who are nostalgic for the ambience of traditional bookshops will have to buy a helluva lot of books from indies to make them a viable long-term proposition. That’s just not going to happen.

    To survive, indies will need to reinvent themselves in the business of reading, rather than the business of book selling.

  • 3
    kate
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    destructively destroyed”?

    Is there any other way?

  • 4
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Michael James, apart from Project Gutenberg, there are quite a few groups currently digitizing both general and specialist books. Digitizing does not mean low-res scanning. It means scanning with optical character recognition (OCR for those who don’t know the term), the accuracy of which is then checked manually by an interested human. Images/diagrams are scanned high-res. There is a wide and committed movement in preserving our cultural heritage. I am sure any of these groups (e.g. Distributed Proofreaders who contribute voluntarily to PG) would be delighted to have your help and your access to specialist books.

    In the future, I think there will be people like Captains Kirk and Picard who value and retain some printed books. However, it will be a market similar to antiques. It won’t be able to compete in day-to-day terms with the enormous advantages of exponentially-increasing data storage and the amazing variety of access methods. As a species, we will benefit from this more easily-accessed-and-stored information, just as we did from the invention of the printing press.

    DaviPoll, I’m also a little uncomfortable with the metaphor of a secret book-buying experience, but I think Ben is also describing the individual relationship you have with other bibliophiles, including staff in good bookshops. This relationship can be a delight, and adds value to your reading experience. It also recalls the private joy one finds in libraries as a child.

    While oligopolies certainly need to be watched, there is no doubt that Amazon is currently doing a lot for both authors and readers. (I say this with great reluctance, as I am still p*seed off with them about not licensing Mobipocket, which is a whole ‘nother story.) Amazon continues to fight the Agency 6 (oligopoly of publishers) over extortionate pricing and abuse of authors. It provides a platform for self-publishing, used by many established authors, and through which quite a few very good new ones have been established. Their very easy-to-use self-publishing platform makes it possible to publish specialist books which wouldn’t have been seen as sufficiently profitable by traditional publishers, and pays 70% royalties to authors. You may or may not have been aware that when you buy a paperback, the author gets as little as 7% of the cost price.

    Amazon has also created a very comfortable and accessible reading experience, which also allows you to share books, share your interest in books, and read books on almost any device. They fought the Agency 6 publishers over access for blind people (“read aloud”), where previously audio books were prohibitively expensive as your main source of reading. Their store provides a quick and informative buying experience. Australians’ main problem with Amazon and other e-retailers, geographic limitations, is actually caused by the Agency 6 publishers (are you seeing a pattern yet?). independent publishers don’t bar us from buying their books.

    By contrast, Barnes and Noble (Amazon’s main competitor in ebooks) refuses to sell to Australians at all. Borders Online Australia was our big hope for reasonable competition and access, but its future currently appears uncertain.

    However, your local bookshop can do something that Amazon can’t. It can forge a personal relationship with you. It can offer you local deals, local events and added value in author contact. This local bookshop could just as well be online, selling ebooks from a large distributor like Amazon, but providing the individualized information and access you want. Before long, you will be able to walk into a virtual bookshop and sit down with your local book club or group of like-minded book lovers. “Locality” will be less about geographic postion and more about common interest.

    I think there is a place for independent brick-and-mortar bookshops here, but not in competing on price. It’s in speciality, personal relationships and extending their range through a participatory web presence. They could even talk to a site like GoodReads or LibraryThing about forming “local groups” based on the books they sell. As Ben says above, it’s the sterile and indiscriminate nature of the “book barns” which discourages us. We want reasonable prices (which currently don’t occur in Australia) but we also want the feel of a good indie bookshop. Even at their size, Borders did well as long as they retained book-loving staff and a wide range of books. Once they cut the range and personal support, people stopped walking through their doors. As one chain-bookstore employee said recently online, “a lot of people come in, but we don’t have anything they want”.

    As you can see, access to books is an issue about which I feel passionately. ;)

    For further info, I recommend the international book site Teleread and the Australian book site BookBee.

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I see a glorious future for my used bookstore - it’lloutlast me and provide a sinecure for my kids in the sub-literate decades to come, with or without Bradbury’s firemen..

  • 6
    Lambikins
    Posted Friday, 22 July 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    couldn’t agree more

  • 7
    Ruv Draba
    Posted Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    destructively destroyed” - really?
    “the story of X is a story” - truly?
    “Almost certainly depends” - that almost does sound very certain, depending.

    It’s sad that the Gong doesn’t have a bookstore. It’s especially sad for a Gong-transient as I sometimes am — there’s not much to do there but eat and read, and you’re not normally around long enough to buy a book online…

    There’s ebooks of course… but our Parallel Importation Restrictions mean that you can pay as much as 60% less for an e-book if you buy it from anywhere outside Australia…

    Like Port Moresby, say.

    Hmm… if the price of a book is the measure of civilisation, is it now official that the Gong is less civilised than Port Moresby?

  • 8
    Alan Davies
    Posted Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Ruv Draba: I’m surprised you saw “the story of x is a story” and so on, but missed “Woollongong” in the 2nd para!

  • 9
    GlenTurner1
    Posted Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It’s not specialist books that are threatened. For those, there will always be specialist retailers, even if that retailer is in a far-off country and most of their sales are over the net. Specialist knowledge is even less threatened, with so much of it being found in open mailing lists, forums, blogs and the like.

    Digitisation of existing books is simply uneconomic. This is partly due to the high labour of digitisation, but mainly due to the current copyright cabal ensuring it is a high priced activity available only to Google-sized entities. The cabal would rather see a book become unavailable than allow any leakage of possible revenue. With that in mind it is important to ensure that the state’s cultural institutions (ABC, etc) are funded to digitise their archives, rather than allowed to sell them to the cabal as the only way they have available to digitise (and thus save from degradation) their archives.

    We are actually living in a boom time for print, as opposed to books. Specialist shops have zines from around the world; we have beautiful art-inspired magazines like Frankie and Dumbo Feather; even the Port (Adelaide) Dock Railway Museum members’ magazine has high production values and stunning photography. Sure, Meanjin might be in crisis, but I view their being outsold by a railway enthusiast magazine as a Meanjin problem, probably partly caused by the much better informed discussions of Australia’s future that I’ve read in that railway mag.

    One thing threatened is the mass circulation book. That’s not anything to do with publishing so much as to do with the Internet. People have a certain amount time used for entertainment, and that used to be split between TV and reading; and now it is split between TV, reading and the net. And reading is loosing. This isn’t to spell the end of reading, no more than TV spelt the end of radio.

    Another thing threatened is a unpopular, low-sales, mainly unreadable, mostly irrelevant niche of publishing called “Australian literature”. The best of today’s writing isn’t in books or in the OzLit journals. The deepest thought about Australia and Australians isn’t written by the literati. Take Clive James’ recent effort where he disproves climate change using textual analysis (because the Laws of Nature care about the writing of those who document them? WTF?). That’s representative of OzLit inability to come to grips with those subjects it avoided in high school — economics, physics, chemistry and math — and so say something meaningful about the challenges of the times.

  • 10
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    GlenT1 - do you mean James’ March 2011 article which was less textual analysis than cut’n’paste for a hatchet commission? I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t written it so badly and banally as some sort of Green joke on the deniers but, alas & alack.. not so.
    Or something more recent?

  • 11
    Michael James
    Posted Tuesday, 26 July 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you Clytie, you give me some hope, I will look into their work.

    Michael

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