Saturday 10th February
Opinion - The Age/SMH
In his inaugural State of the Arts oration, Minister Tony Burke lauded the “history and legacy” of Labor’s commitment to the arts, tracing it back to Gough Whitlam.
Burke faulted recent Coalition governments for defunding many cultural programs. Writers have been “the most underfunded”, he added.
The Labor government has pledged $286 million to support the arts, the centre of its national cultural policy, which it has dubbed Revive.
It all sounds wonderful. But there is a glaring omission from Labor’s policy in Burke’s speech: how do you support writers if the market for their books is being steadily destroyed?
Sixty-five per cent of Australian bookstores shut their doors between 2013 and 2023, according to WordsRated, a research data and analytics group.
That’s an alarming number. But it’s a reality, and one that corresponds with the increasing plight of Australian writers whose books, with rare exceptions, do not sell in the numbers they did 20 years ago.
Yet, nothing in Labor’s policy, nor in Burke’s speech, calls for support of Australia’s small, independent bookstores. These shops provide shelf space, and a life, to writers who would otherwise toil in obscurity and poverty.
“Without independent bookstores, there is effectively little market for Australian literature and no future for Australian writers,” Richard Flanagan, one of our leading writers and public intellectuals, tells me.
The Albanese government doesn’t need to do much if it’s serious about its commitment to writers and the arts. It doesn’t need to give any subsidies or tax breaks. Nor does it need to spend any taxpayer dollars.
All the government needs to do is level the economic playing field: for a limited period after the publication of a book’s first edition, disallow discounting.
It’s not a radical idea. Fixed-price laws for books are the norm for most EU countries including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Norway and Hungary, as well as Mexico, Argentina and Japan.
In Germany, the publisher fixes the price at which a book can be sold for the first 18 months after publication. It applies to every bookseller in the country, large or small, and to books being sold online. There are fines for violating it.
Everyone seems to benefit, including publishers, who have “flourished under the fixed-price system”, the CEO of a large publishing house noted in an article examining the German literary scene.
Books are on average less expensive in Germany than almost every other European country, including Britain, which operates a deregulated market like Australia’s.
According to Michael Robotham, the best-selling Australian crime writer, fixed price laws are a bonus for authors. His books have sold millions of copies around the world, but he told me recently that he makes the most money – and his royalties are highest – in Germany “because of the fixed-price laws”.
Delivering his arts oration at the University of Western Sydney in November, Burke lamented that the suburbs are routinely neglected when it comes to government funding. He could have talked about the dearth of independent bookstores in western Sydney. It won’t be easy getting new ones to open.
It used to be that you could sell enough books to pay the rent and the wages, and earn a modest return. Modest means 2 or 3 per cent, not the 10 or 20 per cent that Wall Street wants. That is no longer possible. Rent and wages have gone up, dramatically, while volume has declined.
Amazon isn’t the only culprit. Independents also can’t compete with the discount department stores that often sell books at less than cost – loss-leaders designed to draw customers into the store to buy socks, laundry detergent or toys, all items that have bigger margins.
Labor’s cultural policy calls for the establishment of a Writers Australia body “to support writers and illustrators to create new works”.
Where are they going to sell them? Not at Big W, Target or K-Mart, where shelves are reserved for bestsellers, the blockbusters, the authors who have already made it.
One publisher told me recently that of the 100 books that the company publish in a month, only eight to 10 will be stocked by Big W. That’s 92 writers to add to Burke’s morgue of the “underfunded”.
The first day Prince Harry’s memoir Spare was published, a woman came into our bookshop in Avalon and asked how much it was. $59.99, I told her. With that, she took out her phone and showed me that she could buy it at Big W for $35.
Big W boasts that it sells books at “50% OFF RRP” (the recommended retail price, which is what independents sell at). That is less than what it costs independents to buy them from the publisher. Fair?
A “fixed-price” law in Australia won’t drive Big W or the online retailers out of business; they can still sell books at a huge discount, they just have to wait six months or a year. But it will save many independent book stores – and with them Australian writing.
Raymond Bonner is former New York Times journalist and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy. He is co-owner of Bookoccino bookshop in Avalon.
Thursday 15th February
2024 marks 100 years since the formation of the Australian Booksellers Association. 100 years of supporting Australian bookshops and booksellers to do what they do best — promote and nurture Australian literature.To celebrate this milestone, we invited our buying group booksellers to participate in selecting 100 must-read Australian novels. The result is a list featuring some of Australia’s national treasures, some underdogs and forgotten classics; award winners as well as breathtaking contemporary novels on their way to becoming modern classics. Now it’s time to share the list with readers through our 100 Must-read Australian Novels promotion. A range of point-of-sale materials has been supplied to participating bookshops.
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Thursday 25th January
This year our Health of Business report comes off the back of repeat surveys in 2021/2022. It is always good practice to compare periods and back-to-back reports given with this opportunity. With all the pressures booksellers face it is helpful to step back and consider those things we can control. The Health of Business Report provides information on various income and cost aspects of respondent’s businesses, their inventory mix, staffing, and the factors that contribute to profitability.
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Friday 8th December
Although we are no longer selling the Australian Book Vouchers, any vouchers still in circulation can be redeemed by bookshops. BookPeople will continue to guarantee bookshops that once they have exchanged a valid dated Australian Book Voucher for goods, an agreed monetary amount will be reimbursed on the return of the voucher.
It is important to remind staff to accept both Australian Book Vouchers and the new BookPeople Gift Cards whilst we are in this transition phase.
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