Apparently, internet killed the retail bookshop. Yeah, there’s probably a song in that somewhere, but for those of us not that way inclined, it means something else entirely.
First off, it means the end – probably, unless the administrators are miracle makers (and sometimes they are, though mostly they’re accountants) – of one of Australia’s oldest bookstores, Angus & Robertson. One of New Zealand’s too. And Borders, the big, previously US behemoth, though these days the Australian chain was completely separated from its US former parent. Not that that stopped all this happening less than twenty four hours after the US Borders announced it, too, was going down faster than the Titanic at an Iceberg convention.
From memory – though don’t forget my memory is a fickle beast which runs its own agenda – A&R’s parent, REDgroup, bought Borders in Australia a few years back. When the US chain was first stumbling and trying to drag itself up from its financial knees, so looking to rid itself of overseas interests. Angus itself had stumbled already when REDgroup bought and saved them too. There’s been a lot of stumbling in retail bookselling of the bricks-and-mortar kind these last few years. Collins went kaput some time back also and had to do some fancy financial footwork with franchisees for the brand to survive.
So of course, what with all these retail booksellers struggling and falling and recreating something like that scene from War of the Worlds by collapsing all over the place into metaphorical rubble, everybody points the finger at Teh Interwebs as the culprit.
And fair enough, the shift to online shopping, particularly with books, probably is the bookshop retailer’s version of this seasons Big Bad.
It just ain’t that simple.
And I say that as one who has been buying books online for years.
(Yes, Borders, A&R – it was me! I did it! Well, me and a zillion others, anyway.)
No, not that simple. See, it’s not like the internet just popped up yesterday and we all went, oh, wow, cool, let’s all buy our books online. It’s not like older industries from music production to white goods retailing to old school media haven’t all been complaining about those bloody interwebs and their newfangled ways destroying everything once held dear, like their massive profit margins.
Change isn’t coming. It’s here. It turned up on the doorstep bags in hand, put its toothbrush in the cup by the bathroom sink and stuck its boots under the bed years ago.
I’ve been buying books online since Amazon first learned to sit up by itself and giggle, way back in the 90s. I still remember the incident that turned me onto online book shopping. The banning in Australia of the brilliant Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell Jack The Ripper graphic novel, From Hell. It wasn’t banned long, a handful of months, after some customs joker took offence at the graphic manner (it was a comic book, so, you know, the graphics were kind of necessary) in which the Ripper treated one of his victims. Yes, dreadful historical detail that. We should censor history as well.
Fortunately the banning was quickly overturned, but not before I had done what any free-thinking, independently-minded, modern adult faced with a ridiculous ban against a book she wanted to read would do: I bought it online from the UK, where it wasn’t banned.
Ah, the memories. The nostalgia. The satisfaction of screwing over the self-appointed censorship-obsessed morals-police.
Anyway. Being the long term online book shopper I am, I could have told A&R and Borders that they’re online bookstores were pretty crappy and that saying a book is in stock and can ship straight away means you really ought to have it in stock and be able to ship it straight away – like to get it to me overnight. Australia Post can get me any other bit of mail overnight, for the most part. I think I could have given you book guys two or three days.
Only you never could. You always had to order it in from overseas. Which was rather silly, because I could do that myself, from overseas based online stores like the Book Depository, and get it much cheaper while I was at it.
Once upon a time, Borders had *it*. I mean, really had it. When they first opened down there in South Yarra, they were open to midnight and they had a huge range of just about any title you could think of. Aisle after aisle, row after row. You could walk in there and it didn’t matter that maybe they were a little more expensive, they were just about guaranteed to have what you were looking for, no matter how obscure. And if you weren’t looking for anything in particular? The browsing was guaranteed to turn up something you had never thought of before.
It was grand.
It’s been years since they were like that. They became just another bookshop and as we’ve all seen of late, just another bookshop ain’t gonna cut it in today’s new world order.
Except, of late, just these last few months, I discovered what I thought might be their new way. eBooks.
See, being an eBook lover in Australia is a wonderful, frustrating experience: It provides all the fun of buying, downloading and being able to read the book in an instant (much like what walking into a bookstore was once able to provide me, except with eBooks I can do it in my pajamas, I can do it before I’ve even got out of bed, or at 3 in the morning, or on the train with my fancy mobile device.) It also provides all the fury of finding the book I want in the eBook store, only to discover that because of that bloody anachronistic territorial copyright thing it is not available to Australian readers.
I mean, really, publishers and booksellers of Australia. If you want me to go download pirated books, then you’re certainly going about it the right way. But if instead you want me to buy your books legally – you know, pay for them, full price and all – then all you have to do is MAKE THEM FREAKIN’ AVAILABLE FOR ME TO DO SO.
So how about we strike a deal – you make them available for purchase, and I will purchase them. Because otherwise I’m donning the tri-cornered hat, eye-patch and finding a parrot to sit on my shoulder.
Right, where we were before I tangoed down tangent lane?
Ebooks. In Australia. And the lack thereof. Once again it comes down to range. Back catalogue. Stock. And that’s where it actually does get simple. It’s not about whether or not you can compete with online sellers in a physical world on price. It’s about whether you can provide the product that people want to buy – if you can’t, you lose.
I thought, when it came to eBooks, that maybe Borders could.
Let me give you an example. Last year’s Miles Franklin winner. Truth by Peter Temple. I’m reading it now, in eBook format, purchased from Borders and read using the Borders app on my iPad. It’s great. But I can’t get it from Amazon. Not in eBook format. Not for the Kindle. I don’t know if that’s because Amazon don’t give a damn about increasing their meagre Australian content, or if they just give publishers such a bad deal it doesn’t make sense for Australian publishers to sell their eBook products through them. Probably both.
Either way, as an online bookseller, Amazon are shite at servicing the Australian eBook market. They either can’t or don’t or won’t.
Borders in Australia did. Or could have. But now they won’t. And that’s a loss.
I will miss Borders, because I had grown to hope their eBook store might become what their physical bookstores once, long ago, had been. A shop with range. With decent back catalogue. Somewhere I could go to buy the books I wanted.
Because in the end, it really is that simple. As a consumer, I want to buy your products. I really do. But for me to do so, you have to make them available to me first.
‘Till next, folks…