Thursday 6th July
Booksellers and industry figures gathered in Adelaide for the 2023 BookPeople Conference: the 99th of its kind but the first under the rebranded name. As well as an opportunity to discuss sales strategies and new developments, it was to prove a welcome reminder – in a tough season for retail business – of the urgent, tangible value of books. It was also a chance to address the necessity of achieving a collective, consistent voice in our efforts to advocate for changes in our industry and communities.
We arrived at the Convention Centre early on the frozen Sunday morning. After a Welcome to Country from Ngarrindjeri/Kaurna Elder Major Moogy Sumner, BookPeople CEO Robbie Egan kickstarted our brains with talk of metamodernism, quantum entanglement, and the possibilities of AI. He also spoke about the joy of the rebranding process, which has resulted in not just a new name, but a renewed sense of focus, a spruced-up office space, and a clear direction for his team and the organisation.
Following Robbie’s speech, keynote speaker Julia Baird began hers by describing bookstores as places of sustenance and solace, and booksellers as pharmacists who prescribe books like healing remedies. Many in the room had of course done just this with Julia’s own gorgeous memoir, Phosphorescence. Her forthcoming book about the concept of grace, Bright Shining, promises to be another soul-restoring read.
After Julia reminded us why our industry matters, the Nielsen BookData report from Bianca Whiteley provided detailed data on the who, what, when, and where of bookselling, with insights into consumer and retailer habits. It revealed that a greater percentage of consumers now identify as ‘cautious spenders’ due to inflation and the rising cost of living. Encouragingly, statistics regarding where customers shop showed a slight increase in the percentage of those who bought print books at independent stores (with a decrease in internet retailer sales). Bianca shared findings from the most recent BookPeople Health of Business survey, noting that many stores are seeing greater profit from non-book items (such as candles, socks, or stationery) than from books themselves.
The report also identified key areas of growth over 2022 and 2023. Happily, the Australian book market has seen continued overall volume growth, most noticeably in the adult fiction market (up 19.4% in 2022). Bianca highlighted the importance of ensuring your store layout prioritises high-growth genres, which currently include romance, graphic novels, sci-fi and fantasy, travel guides, and royal autobiography (up by a staggering 51,917% so far in 2023, thanks to the efforts of one enterprising British royal).
Visiting speaker Fraser Tanner followed the Nielsen report with a presentation on Batch, the Booksellers Association of the UK and Ireland’s payments and returns system. Fraser took us through the development of their new POS system, Batchline, which they aim to make as intuitive to use as Google.
The last session of the morning focused on the vital work of the Indigenous Literary Foundation. Ben Bowen and Dr Jared Thomas emphasised that literacy development is accelerated when young First Nations readers have access to books by First Nations authors that reflect their own stories and culture. They noted that ILF’s Book Supply program and its curated catalogue of titles not only provides reading material for remote Communities but has also helped to promote Aboriginal voices in publishing (it’s a fantastic resource for booksellers too).
Most of the afternoon was taken up with the Trade Exhibition. Everyone came away pleasantly burdened with bags full of new proofs and accompanying treats, having enjoyed the opportunity to chat with sales representatives and other exhibitors. Two of the most exciting upcoming releases on offer were Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Edenglassie and Killing for Country by David Marr, both of which explore the brutal legacy of colonial Queensland. We had the privilege of hearing from both authors in a panel session later that afternoon.
While some attendees stayed on for the BookPeople member forum and AGM, the rest took a break to freshen up before returning for the Gala dinner. Author talks from guest speakers Suzie Miller and Richard Flanagan during the event provided compelling examples of the power of literature. Suzie’s play (and soon-to-be novel) Prima Facie is creating real-world change in the UK, being used in training programs for judges and inspiring others to reexamine court procedure in sexual assault cases. Richard spoke about his forthcoming novel, Question 7, which charts the chain reaction from H.G. Wells and Rebecca West’s love affair to the development of the atomic bomb. He left us with the sobering idea that “a novel destroyed Hiroshima”.
Christian Wilkins, our fabulously charming MC, and captivating guest performer Kate Ceberano brought a touch of glamour to the evening, which ended with award presentations for the books and booksellers of the year.
Day Two kicked off with a focus on children’s bookselling. Mem Fox stirred up childhood memories of everyone’s favourite storybook marsupials with her speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of Possum Magic. A panel of First Nations authors then discussed children’s literature as a fun and effective tool for creating change, noting that while kids are particularly receptive learners, these books are also an opportunity to educate the parents who read alongside them.
Next up, Jeremy Neal and Stefen Brazulaitis provided practical ideas for selling genre fiction. Jeremy highlighted manga as the largest subgenre of graphic novel sales, observing that manga series are often more affordable and easier to navigate for consumers than the convoluted world of superhero comics. Stefen’s tips for selling speculative fiction included following specialist stores (such as his own, Stefen’s Books) online and stealing their ideas for what to stock and how to promote it, and having someone on staff who reads spec-fic and paying attention to what they like. He also emphasised that to inspire consumer confidence, it is vital to stock all volumes of a given series and keep them in the correct order on the shelf.
Non-fiction was not forgotten on Monday either, with two author panels dedicated to upcoming non-fiction releases. The first, titled ‘Behind the Headlines’, featured journalists Ben McKelvey, Rachelle Unreich and Nick MacKenzie as they discussed the idea of truth-telling as an antidote to trauma. In the afternoon, writer and comedian Wendy Harmer and musician Deborah Conway chatted on stage like old friends, swapping the kinds of deliciously entertaining stories readers can expect from their forthcoming memoirs.
While everyone in the room was raring to dive into some new books, Anna Burkey from Australia Reads reminded us that the rest of the country may need some extra encouragement. Statistics show a decrease in the number of adults and young people who read in their spare time. More worryingly, 44% of Australians have been identified as having low literacy levels. To combat this reading crisis, Australia Reads aims to use research data to inform policy, design reading programs, and provide practical tools and resources. Anna announced two upcoming projects that she hopes booksellers will get involved with: VOLUME, an online industry-wide conversation to be held in September, and the Live Literature Research Project with the University of Melbourne.
There were industry conversations to be had here too. Those on the bookseller and book industry panels spoke of community and collaboration, urging that our bargaining, negotiation, and marketing abilities are stronger when they are collective and consistent. Anna Burkey suggested that we look to what has been achieved in other countries (for example, the book token system in the UK) and decide together the kinds of initiatives we would introduce if granted similar funding. On a more local level, these sessions reminded us that our stores should be an integral part of our communities as places that support local writers and readers.
Various practical concerns arose during these discussions, particularly around how to be environmentally and financially sustainable. Stock return was identified as a particularly onerous, costly, and unsustainable process. Some suggested that publishers could offer mark-downs instead of returns, incentivise low return rates, or donate rather than pulp returned stock.
Andrew Ritchie’s quick-fire marketing session focused on ideas for building an effective loyalty plan that comprises both emotional and rational factors. His examples included using personalised communication such as emails targeting genre preferences, nurturing the customer relationship with community events, asking for feedback (which centres the customer) rather than a review (which is business-focused), and ensuring staff are seen as trusted experts.
David Parritt followed with a presentation on the new BookPeople vouchers. He emphasised that their convenience and flexibility allow us to compete for consumer gift spending, and that all profits go towards supporting independent bookshops. Businesses receive a 5% commission on all gift cards sold and retain 92.5% value when redeeming a gift card (the small percentage lost is usually made up for with extra purchases). A range of marketing efforts are going into promoting the vouchers, with the eventual goal being to get them into supermarkets and chains where other gift cards are sold.
As the conference drew to a close, our flagging energy was revived by 24-year-old Nedd Brockmann who bounded on stage to tell us the extraordinary story of his 4000km charity run across Australia. As he described the intense physical challenges he faced, it became clear that this feat would not have been attainable without a closeknit support team and his community of followers from around the country.
In the same way, the BookPeople conference was a heartening reminder that what we do is possible thanks to the support of our industry, peers, colleagues, and communities. It was a joy to gather again in the same space to trade insights and ideas. Sharing knowledge, after all, is what book people do best.