the death of the publishing industry?

I feel there has never been so much written about this subject as this week, when independently, Borders in the US and Borders/Angus & Robertson in Australia went into receivership.

People are wailing. OMG, the publishing industry is dying! OMG, the evil internet! John Birmingham has much to say about it here.

Truth is, in Australia at least, the writing was on the wall for quite some time. In the 90’s I used to love visiting the famous basement flagship Angus & Roberston store in Pitt Street mall. They used to have lots of interesting stuff. I often write in a book where and when I bought it, and even now I come across some real gems I bought back then. It’s been a long time since any Angus & Roberston store carried anywhere near that kind of variation in stock.

When I published non-fiction, I tried to get my book into local A & R stores, only to be told to deal with some nebulous headquarters who didn’t deal with small publishers. As a result, their material was cookie-cutter, bland stuff. I did eventually sell some material to individual A & R stores, but only on order, and they were often stores in small towns which were probably the only bookshop in town.

My experience with Borders is similar. Once I got over the OMG-what-is-that-yank-place-doing-over-here sentiment, and Borders opened a huge shopfront in Chatswood, where there were some bookshops, but none I found outstanding, I discovered that they had an amazing range of SFF. The change came last Christmas, I think, when I received a Borders book voucher and wanted to buy a newly published fantasy book by an Australian author, published in Australia. They didn’t have it. I asked the assistant, who told me that none of their stores in Australia had ordered a copy. I was flabbergasted. What? A major bookshop chain orders no copies of an Australian author with decent sales, published by a major Australian publisher? Something has to be wrong there.

On the publishing front, Borders was also hard to deal with. All their orders go through a central point, take ages to be processed, and ages to be paid. I did sell books to Borders (and had the satisfaction of seeing my books there) but the number of hoops I had to jump were incredible.

One thing I think both Borders and A & R failed to realise was that readers value diversity and choice. It is not possible to run a successful bookshop with only the bestsellers. If readers come into the store and don’t find what they want, they will vote with their feet, or more accurately, their mouses. Books are a product that is exquisitely suited to internet selling, more so than any product on the planet. A book doesn’t need to be tried on. It’s not extremely heavy. When you know what the book is about, you don’t need to physically see it. Readers will gravitate towards those places that can offer the most choice, and have the best percentage of being able to deliver the book a reader wants.

The internet does that. There is no way a bookshop is going to be able to compete. The cat is out of the bag. It won’t go back in.

What does this all mean for publishing? Nothing, really. Books are still being published, and people still want them. They method of delivery will change. ‘That’s all’.

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8 comments on “the death of the publishing industry?

  1. All good points, Patty. And of course, by selling mostly mainstream bestsellers, they put themselves in direct competition with department store chains and supermarkets using books as loss leaders. Even I can see that’s crazy business strategy!

  2. Seems to be happening all over the place. In different forms, too. Over here (Ireland) the increasing trend seems to be obliteration of science fiction sections – the mastheads are still there, but you’ll find nothing but fantasy under them, maybe a half dozen science fiction works mixed in. A similar situation in other genres too.

    Even the non-fiction sections seem to have fallen apart. I used to go into Hughes and Hughes at least once a week and come out with something that had me excited–I haven’t even set foot in one in over a year, don’t think I’ve bought anything from one in twice that time.

    I still buy the occasional book in the only surviving “small” book retailer in town, but I’m rarely excited about what I come out with and usually just buying something to give them a bit of business (I bought my first ever books from them, it’s a nostalgia thing).

    It’s sad to see, but they have only themselves to blame, as you say. The average mass paperback here, that isn’t on sale or in a deal, can cost anything from €11 (about 15 AUD) to €15 (20ish AUD) and the selection _really_ is abysmal. There used to be a fantastic bookshop in town that, while not having a fantastic selection, would order ANYTHING in for you, and I was happy to pay for that kind of service — but a lot of the bigger retailers (the only ones left) usually wont’t bother, or worse again, will tell you that they’ve ordered something in for you, then keep telling you so for the three, four, eight weeks it takes to turn up.

    Or, my other option: log on to the book depository, order ANYTHING I want for half the price, or less, and have it delivered to my door in a few days.

    It’s not really a hard choice to make, is it.

  3. Interesting – in your post on growing food in space and in this post on book selling, you make the point that diversity is the key to survival.

    Diverse crops mean something might survive pests/diseases, and you get to eat something other than vacuum.

    Diverse products mean you might survive as a business, instead of having customers go elsewhere for the products they actually want.

  4. I live in a small town in Europe where there are SEVEN different bookstores within walking distance of my house. There is only one chain store, and I don’t feel so bad about that, because it’s 400 years old. Because there are so many bookstores, the publishing environment seems to be healthier, with more ‘little’ books, though there are all the usual suspects on the shelves as well. How does such diversity survive?

    There is a law against selling things for less than the business paid for them. Loss leaders and heavy discounting is not allowed. So the big stores can’t drive out the little ones with ‘3 for 2’ deals and 50% off new releases. That’s it. That’s what killed bookstores elsewhere – all those fab deals that the independents couldn’t match. So you get the monster chains with their central ordering. Now the biggies are being eaten in their turn by the supermarkets, who can discount even more heavily.

    As much as I love ordering books, I don’t want the internet to be my only way of getting books. I want the thrill of browsing and finding something I’d never knew existed. I don’t want Amazon to be able to dictate terms to publishers and authors. I want diversity. If it means I have to pay the true price of a book to get it, then it’s worth it.

    • Wow. I’ve lived in Europe, but have never lived in a place like that. In the towns I lived, there were few bookshops, and those that were there were APPALLINGLY expensive as well as having poor choice. I know that some countries legislate against discounting, but I think in the end that will hurt their bookshops more. I think there will need to be two streams in the market: the mass-produced, discount stream, and the specialist stream. An article I read somewhere yesterday said that the middle ground between the two, where Borders resided, is dangerous. You can be a successful mass-seller, or a successful specialist provider, but you can’t be in between or both.
      I have personally never bought anything from Amazon. The only money that goes between me and Amazon goes my way. I will buy specialist science books from ABE, which is a site with 7000+ individual booksellers all over the world.
      Some books are just not available in Australia. For example, I wanted an astronomy book I couldn’t get on interlibrary loan, was quoted $300 by a local online site, but bought it for $120 in the UK.
      I will also still go to SFF bookshops, but none are close to me, so that kind of buying is restricted to conventions.

      • Where in Europe did you live? I live in central Europe, which admittedly has about 100 million German speakers, so the population is there to support the diversity. And a population that wants it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the strong support for ecological diversity isn’t partly the driver behind a demand for cultural diversity as well. Plus, of course, the governments see literature as being very important – Austria has some fantastic initiatives to encourage adults to read. Books are significantly cheaper than Australia – not least because they’re not taxed! And that’s partly the problem in Australia. Books (and films) are seen as a private good that are a lifestyle choice, not something that is integral to the culture. The policies of taxation and so on reflect that.

  5. Books never used to be taxed in Australia. Taxing books would supposedly violate a section of the Geneva Conventions relating to the “free flow of information”.

    Along came the GST (Goods and Services Tax). Because this tax is charged on Australian-made books (if they exist) as well as imported books, it’s apparently okay to tax books.

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