Monday, 30 November 2009

The future of bookselling?

Incredibly sad news this week that Borders UK has gone into administration. The chain's fortunes had really taken a nosedive over the last few years with a resulting drop-off in quality, and the end has really been a long time coming but it is a horrible situation for the staff and it is always sad to see bookshops close their doors.

It will also inevitably add fuel to the fire for the naysayers who say that the book trade is dying; after all, if a huge chain, with discounting, brand recognition and big marketing budget can't keep the customers from amazon, how can a little independent?

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian has offered a welcome and most laudable positive reaction to the news in this article: Beyond Borders . She makes the sorts of arguments that all passionate booksellers and readers always make: that a good bookshop not only provides you with the books you came in for but also ones you didn't realise you needed; quirky stock selection that reflects the personalities of the owners rather than a faceless head office etc. And it surely doesn't need said that I back this argument all the way. However, her argument that perhaps the closure of a chain like Borders paves the way for a 'new chapter' of bookselling where people will start to frequent their local indie and learn to value all the above traits over saving a few pounds on amazon is overly naive and glosses over the main problems faced by said indies.

Firstly, Cooke suggests that "book buyers are feeling alienated by big stores like Borders (and Waterstone's), with their bored-looking staff and their piled high three-for-two offers". Is there anything to substantiate this claim at all? Since the oft-lamented disbanding of the net book agreement, 3 for 2s and massive discounts have become the norm; the point was made brilliantly in the Observer (I've lost the link) when one of their cultural commentators confessed that he now sees the RRP as a fake price, immediately translating it in his head to the amazon equivalent. We cannot reverse the damage that was done in the 90s - I think it would be very difficult to the majority of the book-buying public to reassess what they are prepared to pay for, say, a new hardback.

I also take issue with the reference to 'bored-looking staff' in chains; having worked for chains and indies, my experience is that the majority of booksellers, wherever they are, are ridiculously overqualified and passionate about reading. Has Rachel Cooke ever asked one of said staff for an opinion on a book, or has she just assumed they are probably stupid because they didn't have the good fortune to land a job in a beautiful store in a posh north London suburb? Most booksellers in the UK are almost certainly working for a chain because that is where all the jobs are! Independents usually have very few staff, and a much lower turnover. And next time you see a 'bored-looking' assistant, remind yourself that they are working for the minimum wage and probably facing an ever-decreasing amount of responsibility and input into their work, as all operations are gradually centralised.

I suppose I just think her arguments are overly naive, and assume that everyone is a Guardian-reader-type who has the cash to spend on several £18.99 hardbacks every weekend, and browse for hours on a Thursday afternoon or whatever. And indeed, that most book-buyers are in some way aware that they are missing out on an experience by shopping on amazon. I obviously say all this as a fully paid up Guardian reader type myself; I just don't think that the average person in Waterstone's is thinking, gosh, I do get tired of all these half-price new releases, if only there was somewhere where I could get them for double. Most people my age have been using amazon since they were old enough to borrow their parents' credit cards and see it as the normal shopping experience, rather than a watered-down version. And how many of us know people who buy online (or indeed do it ourselves)because it's cheaper even though they in theory support the idea of buying local? It's been 4 years since I last had to do without a staff discount - can I honestly say that I would have bought the same number of books if they'd all been full price? I don't know. I do know that Australian books are so extortionately priced (a post for another day) that it is cheaper for me to buy them from a UK website and have them shipped over than it is for me to buy them including staff discount here, which is staggering.

To try and end on a positive note, I do think that if more people are exposed to the benefits of their local independent then there is the possibility for conversion and so in that sense, a reduced presence of chains on the High Street presents opportunities for indies. How clever indies go about capturing the hearts of these customers is the challenge.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Chain reactions vs independent types

Since my last post, which was shamefully long ago in blogosphere terms, I have acquired a second bookselling job in order to swell the coffers, which took a serious knock in the transition period! This has been good news.

I'm now working for both a large chain, and a smaller, quirkier independent. Those who know me can probably guess what my feelings are towards each but I don't want to get into that for the time being until I know a little more about my longterm employment prospects... I can say that the two different experiences are furnishing me with insights by the barrel-load about retail, the Australian book scene, Melburnians and local life in general here and I will try and share them in due course. However, as a result of these jobs and some freelance work, I am currently working 7 days a week which is responsible for the lack of content here!

Things I have been enjoying this week have included two blissful nights of low temperatures after weeks of blistering heat; the discovery of Chinese broccoli; a brilliant novel by David Malouf (Ransom); a weekly second hand book market in the centre of Melbourne; catching up with a dear friend, the lady who put me up last time I was here, and a bar that is carpeted with Astroturf and made to look like a garden.

I do promise to make this blog more readable, just bear with me while I get through the next few weeks!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A Room of One’s Own

I had meant to start blogging from the moment the plane touched down in Melbourne. However the last three weeks have disappeared in a blur of meetings, interviews, job searches, house hunts and jetlag recovery. I haven’t really been able to focus on anything else other than the day-today; perhaps Virginia Woolf was right in saying that ‘a woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write...’

I now have that elusive room, defying Melbourne’s current housing crisis. It’s a beautiful space, bright and sunny, with eaves and space for an enormous bed (I got carried away in Ikea) on which I am sitting right now, luxuriating in the sheer roominess after 3 weeks of dorm living. I could describe it as a garret to make me feel pleasingly poetic but that would not do it justice. I’m sharing the house with a fellow bookseller and English teacher; it’s all I can do to stop myself from rootling through their shelves, particularly as I feel very bereft of my own library! I have seven books to my name in this city, and one is a Rough Guide to Australia...

Anyway, now I have indeed found gainful employment – primarily bookselling with casual work as a MS reader and have also been in touch with some book festivals about potential contract work in the new year. As in the UK, there are hundreds of smaller regional festivals springing up around the country alongside the big hitters and it will be interesting to observe any organisational idiosyncrasies, particularly in light of Amanda Craig and other authors’ recent comments on the perils of visiting a badly-run festival. (A L Kennedy spoke – at length, and with great warmth and wit – on a similar topic at the EIBF a few years ago; the transcript is here and it’s just very, very funny.)

As I hope to be blogging about cultural differences between Oz and the UK, both in the book world and the real world, I shall leave you with just two today.

1. The Aussie love of abbreviating any word in the language (and ideally adding an ‘o’) also applies to bookselling, as in; ‘merching’ some tables and making sure you ‘alpha’ the books correctly.

2. I am currently eating some Tasty (TM) cheese; this is a type of cheese here, not just a brand, but an actual type. As in there are many different manufacturers of Tasty cheese. I love this country.