Jul 27, 2011

Death of the bookshop: what you pay for when you buy local

Many book lovers might choose to shop locally rather than on overseas websites if they had the chance to ponder some of the implications of their decisions, says editor-in-chief of Bookseller+Publisher magazine Matthia Dempsey.

Early this year, I did something I had always sworn I’d never do. On a quiet, late-night hour I set foot in IKEA, wandered its furnished labyrinth and behemoth aisles, and came away with four Billy bookcases, which my boyfriend and I spent the next day assembling and loading with the books that were overflowing from our other, less-disposable shelving.

IKEA. Now there’s a company that understands price-points, starting with the price range it believes consumers will pay for its items and then working its way backwards to create objects at those prices. As we stood before the rows of bookshelves, I noticed several signs informing customers that, due to IKEA’s buying power and recent negotiations with suppliers, the price of Billy bookcases had actually come down in the past year.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

36 thoughts on “Death of the bookshop: what you pay for when you buy local

  1. RamaStar

    “there’s no denying that REDgroup Retail’s demise has highlighted some of the pressures facing all local booksellers.”

    I think REDgroup’s demise highlight the pressure all local retailers are facing, not just the book/publishing industry.
    It also highlight how it’s not a good idea to debt leverage a company up the wooza, and have it run by poor management/private equity firms.

    But Matthia, thank you for your piece it was nice to read some positivity about the book industry, there is far too much negativity at the moment, and too many uninformed individuals talking about ‘price’ and the death of publishing/book industry.

    You’ve pointed out rightly so many good points about the local industry the one I liked the most is reference to the publishing industry “They, in turn, are ensuring both that fantastic [local and] overseas titles continue to be brought to my attention… and that books of social and cultural import… continue to be published.”

    This argument I think applies the same to parallel importation rights. Without these laws, we would see a reduction in the amount of local content published.

    Your point
    “assumption that so long as prices are getting lower the consumer must be benefiting is a pretty naive one. Something that is often assumed when modelling economic behaviour is that an individual has ‘perfect information’ on the outcomes of their purchasing decision.”
    Is also excellent. Something again that is so often overlooked, especially by those that carp on about buying online overseas.

  2. Tristan Morgan

    I would be more inclined to purchase my books locally if I could be somewhat confident that what I wanted would be in stock, and if ordered would arrive sooner than the Book Depository equivalent.

    It would also help if I could justify $99 for a book that is $40 online, with free shipping!

  3. Michael James

    Same here Tristan!

    My local specialty military history bookshop (the only one in Sydney now Napoleons has closed after years of poor management) charges $120-190 for books that I obtain via Amazon for $60 plus postage.

    That is if the book is in stock, which more often than not it is not.

    Amazon is happy to tell me it is not in stock and will send me an automated email stating when it arrives, which is a damn sight more than I expect (or get) from Battlebridge Books in Parramatta.

    I triy to support them, I really do, but it’s very hard to do so I can get two or more books for the price of one locally.

    I am not an endowment fund for badly managed bookshops, rather I spend my money where I get best value for it.

  4. calyptorhynchus


    You make bookshops sound like the Swedish welfare state!

    Seriously, in my areas of interest there is zero chance that bookshops will stock the titles I’m interested in (most aren’t even in print) and it’s obviously easier to order online.

    As for the information provided for people less sure of what they want I’m still not convinced. I’m familiar with Readings and Gleebooks &c and I haven’t found their shelves are stocked with well-chosen titles and the best books in each area. Nor have I found their staff very knowledgeable either. Both bookshops, and other, ‘specialist’ bookshops I have visited, seem to be overstocked with ‘litteratainment’ and other subpar publications.

    I think with bookshops the physical bookshop is on the way out.

  5. RamaStar

    It’s interesting to note that at least two comments so far have talked about their unique taste in books and not being able to find it in mainstream bookshops. And that therefore bookshops are suffering because they’re buying these sorts of books online.

    Because you cannot find an obscure book, does not mean that trade, non-fiction and children books are not well stocked and bookshop do not do well out of these.

    Bookstores are hardly going to be on the ‘way out’ because they don’t stock [inset random book here].

  6. Ilona

    if it’s more ethical to buy books from a bricks and morter book store than from book depository, where does that leave me as an almost-exclusive library user?


    Ramastar, the upshot of going online for specialist books (though I fail too see design books as specialist) is that the consumer (ie. me) becomes familiar with the benefits of online service and is now more likely to go to the online service first for any discretionary book purchases.

    I now buy most books, be they travel, fiction, non-fiction, from online services because it is easier, cheaper, and now more familiar.

    I still like nothing more than browsing the shelves at a good independent bookstore, and do still make purchases in this way, but I am less inclined to make the special trip to a bookstore for that sole purpose.

  8. Jimmy Nightingale

    REDgroup Retail’s demise had more to do with its business model than overseas sales via the internet.

    Both Borders and Angus & Robertson ran a business model based on largely charging RRP for books and maintaining extensive and expensive bricks and mortar retail spaces. In addition, new releases from popular authors were usually available close by in the major department stores, like K-Mart, Target, Big W and Myer, for $10-$15 less than they were charging.

    REDgroup was poorly managed and carried a high level of debt. In addition, the global financial crisis tightened the reins on its credit and caused a plunge in consumer sentiment – books are nice things to go out and buy when you have some spare cash, but when times are tough you can always go to your local library. From a chat with staff in my local library, they have seen a large increase in borrowing activity over the last two years or so.

    As for the future of book shops in their current form, it isn’t going to be easy. The above factors are all working against them and I can see that e-books are going to do the same for the book industry that Apple’s i-Pod and digital music did for brick and mortar record stores. There will always be people who want to have a physical book in their hands, but it is difficult not to see a massive shift to e-readers in the next few years.

  9. RamaStar

    Jimmy, you make excellent points about REDgroup. Something that I was trying to say, and pointed out in the mapping article also on Crikey.

    As for eBooks, we’ll have to wait and see, but seeing that e-book sales make up approximately 5% of all book sales in Australia at the moment, and considering that the kindle has been out for quite some time, I can’t see growth being big enough in that area to threaten bricks & mortar the way same way music has. Also, I think what hurt record stores more, was the piracy of music, which book piracy is not as a big an issue or as threatening (yet).

  10. Simon Mansfield

    Wow what a value loaded article – on the one hand Matthia is happy to hand over hundreds if not thousands of dollars more a year to a local bookshop than would need be the case if purchased online, but then is not willing to spend a few hundred dollars extra on some quality bookshelves made from real wood that doesn’t sag or comes apart after a few years in Sydney’s heat and humidity as Ikea shelves invariably do.

    When you buy the a book from an online store or from a bookstore you get the exact same merchandise – or more often than not the hardcover version printed on quality paper if bought online from an overseas print run – rather than the junk our local publishing houses sell at double the price – meanwhile if you buy cheap bookshelves from Ikea you get junk pure and simple – whereas if you buy a slightly dearer one made from solid pine you get something of quality that will last 30 years or more.

    Seriously, if you want to care about the value chain and ensuring that local employment is kept strong – save money buying books online and use the saving to buy a quality bookshelf from a local shop made from local timbers, fashioned into a long lasting piece of furniture by a local tradesperson.

    If anything this article is an object lesson in the elitist values that so many on the Right side of politics bash us Lefties with day after day after day. But the real kicker is that it’s okay to have a protectionist racket in place to protect local publishers but it’s perfectly okay for a manufacturer like Ikea to flood the market with their crappy furniture that if the Dept of Fair Trading actually did it’s job would require that a sticker be placed on all Ikea products saying this product will most likely break and be unusable with two years. Moreover, local publishers should be required to place a sticker on their locally printed paperbacks saying this book will last no longer than 10 years before its binding dries out and the spine breaks when opened.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details