This letter appeared in the October issue of News on Bookselling, the official journal of the Australian Booksellers Assocation.

 

My esteemed editor has, on indulgence, given me space to proffer some views as I head toward the door.

When I was appointed CEO of the ABA in 2010, two of my closest friends responded in the following ways:

‘Congratulations! You’re on a hiding to nothing.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’

It was a time of great turmoil in the book ‘industry’. Amazon was ubiquitous, and consumers were moving in droves to online purchasing. Borders was in global disarray.  There were concerns about the viability of RedGroup in Australia. Amazon had developed this product called Kindle, and other companies like Sony, Apple and Kobo were getting in on the game. Prognosticators were saying that a combination of online and eBooks were going to kill the ‘physical book’ and by extension, the ‘bricks and mortar bookshop’. An Australian Small Business Minister declared that most bookshops would cease to operate in five years.

There was a toxic air about the joint.

Along comes ‘positive’ Joel with a Pollyanna approach to the state of the sector. I’ve always regarded myself as a positive person. Note I didn’t say optimistic. Those are very different things. If there are issues, I look for the best possible outcome. That may not be a ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ outcome, but the best that can be achieved in the circumstances.

I argued that the technology of the book was more than 560 years old, and that there was a reason that the form had existed successfully for so long. I tossed in a few lines about how cinema didn’t kill theatre; television didn’t kill radio; FM didn’t kill AM. E-books was not going to kill the tactile, sensual experience of reading from a printed page. That didn’t mean that one didn’t have to make adjustments to face the challenges.

I pointed out that the so-called prognosticators arguing that e-books would be 50% of the market in five years were generally the marketing divisions of these companies, or commentators in their thrall. Sadly, some heads in the industry were shaking. A suggestion from other parts of the book ‘industry’ inferred that we had lost touch with reality, that we were ‘dinosaurs’, and they were figuring out ways to operate without bookshops.

So, what was the outcome? RedGroup went down the gurgler… arguably because of poor business models (private equity in a tight, slightly shrinking market) and inappropriately sized shops. E-books never touched 20% of the market in Australia and have shrunk as more and more devices wind up in the bottom cupboard next to the bread-maker. The potential for additional turmoil.

My view was, is and will continue to be that it is in our collective self-interest to behave as a community. Hence a shift in language from being a book industry to a community.

A visionary approach from Kim Carr and the Federal Labor Government of the day led to the creation of the Book Industry Study Group, led by Barry Jones. Even though many of their recommendations were never advanced by government, it forced the ‘industry’ to talk to each other, and to understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between bookseller, publisher, author, library. If one part of that community rolls over, the economic model collapses.

We continued talking to each other. Liaising. Negotiating. Sharing information. Aligning interests.

Since then we have had many victories and continue to face challenges.

GST is now being collected on off shore purchases (score one for the good guys).  The ABA never wavered from its position that whether someone is spending $1 or $1000, domestically or internationally, collection of the GST is the responsibility of the agent selling the goods or services.

The 30/90 rule for PIRs has been voluntarily reduced to 14 days and working collectively the book community has (so far) successfully resisted the removal of PIRs.

Authenticity is crucial, and ‘Love your Bookshop’ and Kids’ Reading Guide’ has formed a focal point for the role of bookshops in the ‘shop local’ movement.

Amazon has its beachheads in Australia; one would argue that books are now down the list of products; but a watching brief is essential.

For fear of sounding too ‘sci-fi’, a major challenge lies ahead with AI – and we all need to watch that space; and stay focused on the impact that this might have for not only the books community, but the wider society.

Governments come and go (and as Mel ‘Blazing Saddles’ Brooks might say, ‘…and always too soon…’), so issues like PIRs and copyright may periodically re-emerge.

International Cooperation

The ABA has worked actively with booksellers around the globe. Over the last eight years, particularly strong lines of communication have developed with other major English Language Bookselling Associations, with sharing of information and resources between the US, NZ, UK and Australia. This has allowed me to meet with colleagues virtually, or actually, and share best practices and strategies. I have little doubt this has led to positive outcomes around issues like the GST and other advocacy. Latterly we have been opening communication with European booksellers and China.

Growth of the bookselling community

Bookshops have continued to slowly grow in numbers, with established booksellers continuing to fill the void left by Borders and A & R chain shops. Over recent years, it is particularly notable that established businesses like Berkelouw have expanded with their Harry Hartog and BOOKFACE branding – and most recently getting ready to open a campus shop at ANU; Readings has added several stores; Robinsons has expanded from a single shop into twelve shops across three States and Territories. Other businesses have added second or third shops to their business. It is always very assuring to see experienced booksellers making business decisions to expand. In several instances retiring booksellers have found succession strategies from within, or to have external buyers. This all builds confidence for the future.

Eternal diligence

But we can’t sit back and smile in languorous self-satisfaction. We cannot afford to revisit the trauma of the early ‘teens’. We must be vigilant. If we do this, bookshops will continue to survive – and many will thrive. Facing challenges is nothing new, but hopefully we’ll understand that to get through these challenges we’ll need to communicate openly and honestly – with our books community partners, with government and with our reading community. If we do this, we’ll surmount those challenges– and we’ll create opportunities; and achieve them.

We now have an industry that is largely behaving as a community. To say in 2010 that we would regularly get the associations and individuals representing booksellers, publishers, authors and librarians into a room to discuss challenges, opportunities, solutions in a collaborative, proactive, trusting manner would have caused gales of bitter laughter.  Eight years on, to see it happening is not only good but is crucial to the ongoing survival and strengthening of the sector. If I’ve played some small part in that, I am pleased. It is an absolute requirement of our ongoing viability that these communications stay open and transparent.

The key to all this is to identify our communities and provide a genuine face of authenticity – something a faceless algorithm, or artificial intelligence can never do.

Joel Becker