First published in Books+Publishing, 19 October 2022.
As the Australian Booksellers Association rebrands to BookPeople and prepares to re-launch its national vouchers scheme, CEO Robbie Egan says the industry is ‘criminally under-using data’, but argues bookshops won’t be replaced by technology, ‘rather it will be used to augment and enhance our offering’.
Last weekend I went to a gig in the town I moved to just a few years ago. The town is in South Gippsland, on the way to Wilsons Promontory, and features several fine places to eat and drink, a classic small-town pub, a fine jeweller, a maker of outdoor steel sculptures, a saddlery and more. An outstanding feature of the town is the hall, not for its architectural splendour, but for its acoustic properties. Rebuilt after a fire nearly a century ago, the story goes that some bright spark used an acoustic engineer, blessing the town with a venue that both musicians and music fans love equally. The artist this night was a country singer and guitarist. Not my style but I love live music, so there I was. The three-part harmonies, the fiddle player, the double bass and the singer’s acoustic guitar rang clear and true, and the thing that art is supposed to do occurred. It moved me and stirred in me a dormant feeling, after the Covid-19 years, of the importance of human interaction.
Forgive me my indulgence, but this night of music also got me thinking of books and bookselling and our place in the world of human interaction. I remind you of a day in June 2011, when a federal minister of little consequence spoke at a conference about online commerce, where he said, ‘in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore’. Bookstores, this genius opined, would almost cease to exist. After Love Your Bookshop Day 2022, it seemed appropriate to reflect on that sentiment and to consider what we’ve all been through, how far we have come, and what the future might hold. Clearly it is a risky business to predict the future with such bold sincerity, but I suggest it is particularly so when one says patently stupid things.
Of course in 2011 many were making the same bold predictions, and they weren’t entirely without merit. The tyranny of distance has wrought myriad of inadequacies and fecklessness on Australian life, and our incredible luck has often stunted the national imagination. Bookshops? Imagine that. I’m still asked by people in social situations whether bookshops are still going concerns. I’m universally polite about it. The truth is that bookshops are growing in number, and independently owned bookshop businesses are strong, though this is despite our industry’s structural impediments to that outcome.
Bookselling now sits at a delicate inflection point. Numerous campaigns promoting shopping locally and keeping money in your community have had reasonable success, and the efforts of bookshops during Covid-19 lockdowns in getting books out to readers were extraordinary, but we can only dine out on that story for so long. The ugly fact is that while bookshops may be archetypal third-places engaged in meaningful and supra-transactional engagement with their customers, where a book is purchased does not imbue it with additional value. Pricing is a one-way street, from a recommended retail price to a massive loss-leader, and it is this dynamic that sets independents up for a clash of ideologies that is unedifying at best, and ruinous at its economic extreme.
A quick internet search will reveal a raft of new releases sold at up to 50% discount. That is below the margin of most independent bookshops, so we have a bifurcation of the market, a distortion that favours large businesses over small, privileges those able to avail themselves of scale and global tax minimisation strategies, and hurts labour-intensive, tax-burdened, rate paying small businesses. This should, in a Friedman-esque house of horrors, eliminate almost all bookshops immediately, but it doesn’t, and here’s the thing—it probably won’t. However probably is not a business strategy, or a lobbying tactic, or even a heuristic for street gambling, and we really should be able to conjure a better narrative than that.
Capitalism is a margin stripping beast. The worst system we have, as they say, except for all the other ones. Where margins are stripped we enter into a volume game, where efficiencies of scale compress unit prices and everyone makes more money, right? Scale is the answer, but the problem we run into then is the supply chain. It is always easier to deliver to one, or a few warehouses than it is to an array of far-flung small businesses. Again, this suggests that bookshops should not exist, so why is it that we do? We are able to invert that pyramid because the connection between a writer and a reader has an extension through the bookseller, and the personality of each bookshop engenders a proprietary sense in the customer, an unusual affinity we have when we talk about our favourite bookshops. Talking to people about books, whether directly to a staff member we get to know, or through the displays and layouts of the physical space, is vital to the health of the art form. Much like the live music I took in last weekend, learning about books is more than an online review or a BookTok—and that is important—but it’s an act of entering, feeling, and absorbing a space that is given over to the books. A good bookshop, like a good music hall, is a cathedral to the form.
So there’s nothing to worry about then? Isn’t the book, as a product described here, price inelastic? Are bookshops not free from price considerations and able to focus entirely on customer service, displays, and a beautifully curated range? Sure. And people who buy from Amazon do so because they love the atmosphere and the deep connection they have with the bookseller. That’s Amazon, a company with monopolistic heft and practices, unimpeded by the Department of Justice and the ACCC in their apparent zeal to place price as the central consideration in all assessment of benefit to the consumer. All those millions of individual parcels making their way out across the continent must be part of the most sustainable practice in human history, as there could be no other reason for organising the distribution of goods in such a way. Forgive me my sarcasm, but I fear we have been sold a pup. Books are subject to price elasticity and millions of parcels being sent out to individual homes is not good for many things—the air we breathe, roads we drive on, jobs in local communities, our tax and local rates base. I’m not suggesting this will end—the horse has bolted—but surely there are alternative narratives we could strive for, models more holistic and open to our environmental footprint and the human connectedness that mental health experts are telling us we need.
I’ll lay bare my slight hypocrisy now to get it out of the way. Bookshops who had not embraced social media and ecommerce did so very quickly during the pandemic, and those that were already there increased their activity and engagement dramatically. We too are online. The internet is a miracle, and in many ways I wish I had grown up with it in my life, as my kids have. I would like to know the environmental and economic impact of enabling us to sit at home and order books to be delivered to us. The cost of the servers and computers to be replaced in only years. The carbon footprint of the deliveries and the packaging (as the same books and boxes are sent to a warehouse as to a shop) into and out of the distribution centres. The cost of road damage and traffic congestion. The cost of tax minimisation. I won’t even mention the carbon footprint of ebooks. Then we might be better equipped to discuss the ways in which we clean up our own act as the last point of the supply chain and as takers of price and commercial terms.
So what is the bookshop of the future? How do we remain extant against national and international behemoths? We continue to do all the great things bookshops do, connecting people, helping kids discover reading, delivering to elderly customers who can’t leave their residence. Picking up rubbish in our streets, attending meetings at local councils and schools. Hiring local kids in part time jobs during Christmas holidays. Giving generously to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and local charities. Local bookshops are the places that build and create careers for Australian writers, hosting author launches, readings, signings, debuts, running literary events, and selling books at writers’ festivals. What bookshops do is endless. But let’s go a little further than the obviousness of our wonderfulness. Let’s talk money.
The French don’t allow excessive discounting, and have moved to eliminate free shipping. Before anyone has a heart attack, consider the proposition as a curb on predatory pricing. Perhaps the cap is on new releases for 90 days after release. What about an agreement on returns caps to reduce diesel freight, and aggressive firm sale deals to give bookshops the opportunity to take a position and hedge on margin and not returns? Perhaps we could develop sophisticated API’s and use our collective data to improve forecasting and better manage inventories across different territories. We could seek government support for more recycling and pulping instead of sending trucks across the country for that purpose. We are criminally underusing data and could likely improve our forecasting and stock allocation with the use of AI.
There is plenty more that bookshops can do here too, individually and as a whole. I must shoulder some responsibility for a degree of recalcitrance in working together. Our BookPeople buying group is a significant account now but I have not been able to realise its potential. I believe there is significant value to be unlocked in engaging in group forecasting and centralised marketing that accrue the benefits of scale without diminishing our individuality. Discussion about terms is difficult as a small bookshop because the asymmetry is too pronounced, but with combined heft we can begin to discuss broader options for co-op, rebates, and other incentives usually reserved for chains. Our Gift Cards have been neglected for decades, but this year we will relaunch them newly with digital cards and redesigned physical cards made from recycled paper. The model is the UK’s National Book Tokens, a scheme that promotes books year-round, gives significantly to charity and contributes to the BA’s running costs. We hope to grow the BookPeople Gift Cards to do the same, to drive readers into bookshops, to promote Australian writing and to form partnerships that make bookshops indispensable.
I don’t see extravagant growth in physical bookshops in the short term. Our membership is stable (growing slightly) and I see a period of solid growth in sales across our membership. The extravagant discounting seems unsustainable, and it becomes a drag on business as the model is difficult to reverse. I do see an increase in author events in stores, as there isn’t a better way to meet and grow an audience. Bookshops will continue to evolve and refine their online presence, but there will not be hundreds of large ecommerce businesses—online engagement will be calibrated to drive physical store visits. Book subscriptions, not as pure online plays, will also grow, with the gift of a subscription becoming a significant value-add as a personalised service that initially begins in person, but may transition to an ongoing digital (and iterative) relationship. We will see this hybrid likely extend to common use of chat functions and more sophisticated pre-orders, click and collects and technology driven suggested likes. Technology will not replace our network of beautiful bookshops, rather it will be used to augment and enhance our offering.
We will, much like the touring musicians I have the privilege to hear in my local town hall, be the analogue face of an increasingly bland retail landscape. Like Kafka’s axe that parts the frozen sea inside us, bookshops will pierce the digital heart and we will thrive in our wonderful individuality. We will be more connected, sophisticated, efficient, sustainable and powerful. That is the vision I have not just as someone doing their job, but as a man in the world. In our industry, the telling of stories is the point. We curate possibilities, moving through time and space and infinite temporalities. The book is a technological marvel and the bookshop is its natural gateway into the world. We must do everything in our power to keep them in the world and to ensure that gateway is always wide open.
The Australian Booksellers Association recently undertook work around positioning ourselves to be a successful and future-facing organisation. After extensive workshopping and discussion, we determined that our direction was to be the place where Bookselling Business meets Bookselling Culture.
From this, we wanted to embrace Generosity – to be supportive and assured as sustainable and strategic retail partners for our members.
This was further articulated with sentiments like Nurturing a Prosperous Future, Better Bookselling, Trusted Industry Voice, and Strategic Bookselling, ultimately sitting with the statement that Bookshops are Transformational.
The process took us through to naming, and another extensive whittling process until we arrived at the trading name BookPeople.
It is important to note that nothing has changed within the organisation, but in name, we will be BookPeople. We will work on the day-to-day and specific projects as always and remain your Association, but with a contemporary consumer-facing brand. With its connotations of personal and professional, BookPeople represents booksellers’ uniqueness, individuality, and expertise.
Our legal name and ABN aren’t changing so we remain Australian Booksellers Association ABN 56 365 379 358
Recent action by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (a non-registered Union) in book retailing has prompted inquiries by a number of members and led the BookPeople Board to determine that a fact-sheet would help with any questions or anxiety members may have about this.
Workers and business owners have certain rights and obligations and these differ between registered and non-registered unions. Hopefully, this fact sheet helps with that differentiation. Log in below to access the pdf.Members read more ...
BookPeople is thrilled to announce the winners of the BookPeople Book of the Year and the Bookseller of the Year 2022 Awards.
BookPeople Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice - Adult Fiction Book of the Year
Love & Virtue by Diana Reid (Ultimo Press)
BookPeople Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice - Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year
Love Stories: by Trent Dalton (HarperCollins Australia)
BookPeople Kids' Reading Guide Booksellers’ Choice - Children's Book of the Year
Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad (ABC Books)
BookPeople Hardie Grant Children's Publishing Children's Bookseller of the Year
Becky Lucas, Shakespeare’s Bookshop
BookPeople Penguin Random House Australia Young Bookseller of the Year
Kimaya Charlton, Where the Wild Things Are
BookPeople Text Publishing Bookseller of the Year
Melanie Peacock, Constant Reader
Congratulations to all our winners!!
You can view the latest guide on the Reading Guide website.
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