Written by Georgia Jordan, originally published by Urban Walkabout.
“When a new form of technology comes through, it always affects the art form itself,” observes Alec Patric, celebrated Melbourne author and bookseller of about ten years.
The dawn of the e-book and the rise of online offshore retailers cast this truth like a shadow across independent Australian bookstores, which suffered a period of destabalisation that stretched a decade, recalls Patric.
“Five years ago, when it became really problematic, people felt like the end was nigh.”
In 2011, Labor’s then small business minister Nick Sherry predicted bookshops would be dead by 2016. “I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist,” he told a conference in Canberra.
“What we saw when bookstores were closing was this multi-pronged sort of panic,” Patric explains. “Firstly that e-books would become bigger and bigger and print would no longer be the major form that people use to read… and the secondly huge warehouse-style businesses like Amazon that can have some massive warehouse somewhere in the middle of the desert if they want to and pay barely any rent on it—and pay their workers as little as possible—can sell books incredibly cheaply…”
People began to fear the e-book is to the physical book as the iTunes track is to the CD.
Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) Joel Becker explains how the physical book endured: “The physical form of the book has existed for nearly 600 years and as a mass-produced form since Gutenburg invented the printing press.
“Even if people look at it and say, ‘Well, this isn’t digital’, it’s still a highly successful form of technology itself.”
UTAS student Laura Blades purchases physical books exclusively. “I prefer reading physical books. It’s a lot more tactile and easy to absorb. When it’s on a screen I don’t tend to remember much. There’s something different about having the book in your hands and feeling the pages.
“It makes it a more rewarding experience.”
“If a book’s worth reading it’s a book worth buying,” maintains secondhand bookshop owner Pamela Bakes, of Fitzroy’s Page Two. “To read your book online when you’re on a plane or on holidays is fabulous,” she concedes, “but most people want to have their own copy of Wuthering Heights or Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow or To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I have a vast range of customers but the majority of them are looking for classics or really beautiful art, fashion or interior design books that there’s no point having digitally because you want to have them on your coffee table to sit down and flip through every now and then.”
Among these genres thriving in physical form, children’s books maintain a strong presence thanks to parents wishing to minimise screen-time. And according to Becker, children are on the same page. “When I asked my son if his friends read e-books, he said they spend so much time on the screen that—and this was universal across his particular friendship group, and they are readers—when they read they want to actually read from a physical page.
“Looking at screens for hour after hour is physically exhausting, it’s a more tactile experience reading a book physically,” he explains.
Once the novelty of the e-book settled, readers returned to the inimitable appeal of the physical page. “Eventually the e-book stabilised to a point of, from what I’ve read, 25 per cent of book sales generally for a big publisher,” Patric recalls.
“E-books probably reached a peak about two years ago in terms of sales. There’s been a plateauing and then actually a decrease in sales of e-books over the last couple of years as they find that their place,” confirms Becker.
Secure though bookshops may be in their faith in the physical book, this does little to abate the threat offshore giants pose to independent Australian outlets.
“If I’m planning on buying a book I’ll buy it online from the Book Depository,” says UTAS student Laura Blades.
“I know often the consumer, understandably, is looking at price,” concedes Becker, “but there’s a bigger picture. Amazon and the Book Depository are using a business model in which they’re prepared to make a loss selling books often at below cost to capture you as a customer.”
Becker is not alone in the belief the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) should take action against this ethically and legally questionable anti-competitive behaviour. He explains the additional ethical and economic ramifications these offshore retailers pose: “If you stop buying everything that you buy—and it’s not just books—locally, then you wind up not having the option of occasionally shopping in that bookshop or in that record store, because they won’t exist.
“[Amazon] also pays their staff appallingly.”
These are issues discerning Australian consumers are aware of and do factor in to their buying decisions. After a decline in onshore book sales between 2010 and 2014, research by Macquarie University revealed 2015 actually saw an increase.
“When people see the price on a book for $22 in Australia, for example, they should be aware that $2 of that is tax,” says Becker. “Whether you like to pay tax or not, tax serves the purpose of providing a range of services and fortunately the government is changing the laws effective July 2017 and [offshore vendors] will have to collect GST.”
The 2017 tax reform Becker mentions will provide competitive neutrality for all Australian businesses, allowing booksellers and booklovers alike to breathe a little easier.
Australian consumers remain invested in the livelihood of local bookshops for services and experiences simply not attainable online.
“The Book Depository and Amazon—these various sort of amorphous entities online that are selling books incredibly cheaply—have become less popular as it seems to me more people want to go to bookstores because they recognise on some level whether conscious or unconscious that it’s a curated experience,” says Patric.
“It’s okay to go online to get the cheapest book if you know exactly which book you want,” he continues, "but for most people the world of books is a pretty esoteric sort of world: they don't know what the best books are. If the booksellers behind the counter are genuinely passionate about books and are discerning, they’re going to be putting books onto the shelf they feel to be genuinely good books rather than the ones that have been hyped.”
“The net is great to buy books when you are looking for a particular book,” concedes bookshop owner Pamela Bakes, “but it’s certainly not the place to browse just to find a good read.
“Most people just don't know what they want until they see it… like a book about skin diving or something quite esoteric that you’re not going to search the net for because you didn't even know you wanted it.”
“When I ask writing and business students who’ve gone into a bookshop at some stage and maybe regularly about the role of the bookshop and if they’ve ever walked out with a book they didn’t know existed before, the answer from every one of them is ‘Yes’,” says Becker.
Laura Blades, who usually turns to the Book Depository for her books, will still visit a bookshop about once a fortnight. “I often walk through and impulse buy books,” she says.
“What people in feedback give to me is that when they walk in the appeal is in that discovery,” explains bookseller Susie Arambasic of Brunswick Bound.
“Online, it’s a database… it projects things, suggesting ‘If you like this you’ll potentially like this,’ but we [booksellers] talk about books we’ve read and books that our customers have loved… It’s also visually and intellectually stimulating to people to come in and to browse.
“They love the experience.”
“In a world that seems so decentralised, a bookstore has the potential to become a cultural centre,” Patric observes.
“Occasionally an employee will have a conversation over the counter with a customer and there’ll be other customers listening to that conversation and they’ll join in and they’ll buy books that were talked about. In the bookstore I work at we have reading groups as well every month.
“We’re actively involved in the community.”
Digital disruption is not a force to be ignored, however, as Ibisworld predicts that 19.7 per cent of book industry trade sales in 2016 will be through online retailers.
In response many bookstores are setting up online stores.
Little Lonsdale Street’s Embiggen Books, however, has such faith in the value of the in-store experience they’ve decided not to follow the fold and instead devote all their energy “into creating a store that’s a pleasure to browse in and that pays respect to the books we hold”.
That said, even Embiggen Books boasts one of the most beautiful websites, maintains a blog and an active social media presence.
Thanks to reflexive business development such as this, Patric reports, “Over the last two years there have been real recoveries from a lot of bookstores”. Combined with increasing mindfulness from the Australian consumer and the settling of e-books, the Australian book industry’s decade of destablisation seems to have come to an end, at least for now, meaning bookshops are enjoying the flourishing of a new optimism.
“New bookstores are opening,” reports Patric, “and Readings—the bookstore that I work for—is opening two new bookstores this year so that’s indicative of how well books are doing.”
Page Two: www.pagetwo.com.au
Anti-competitive behaviour: www.accc.gov.au/business/anti-competitive-behaviour
Macquarie University research: www.businessandeconomics.mq.edu.au/our_departments/Economics/econ_research/reach_network/book_project/about/?a=468230
Brunswick Bound: www.brunswickbound.com.au
Embiggen Books: www.embiggenbooks.com