Comparing apples and oranges

It’s been a few years since I moved from archaeology to information systems and libraries, but my head was so full of all the new things, I didn’t have much time to reflect.

Now, I have.

Here’s a few things I’ve noticed, about the difference between the two professions.

1. Professions have genders.

At parties, when I say “I’m an archaeologist,” people say “Wow, like Indiana Jones!”

CC BY 2.0 Capture The Uncapturable, 2011

And when I say “I’m a librarian,” people say “Ooh, sexy librarian!”

Seriously. Librarians don’t even get a character name. When a woman moves from being an archaeologist to being a librarian, she moves from being identifiable with exciting male action heroes, to being a sexual object. There’s all kinds of cool discussions on gender in librarianship, but I was most interested to discover that I hadn’t realised how my field of study was giving me the kind of social capital usually reserved for men.

2. Everything costs more, and there is way more of it.

I don’t know if this is because a lot of mining companies employ archaeologists, or because there are just fewer archaeologists than librarians, or if it’s just a cultural expectation in the different fields of work. But I had some serious shock and horror when I saw the cost of entry to library professional associations, conferences and events.

Are there secret millionaire librarians out there? Do we just book nicer hotels for speakers at library events? I have a lot of difficulty understanding how a profession that generally earns LESS has all these events that cost MORE.

But, I’m going to a conference in July, so I’ll be comparing things in person, from the quality of the morning tea biscuits, to the venue and attendance numbers.

I am guessing it’s a matter of basic maths. More people, more conferences, more packets of biscuits to buy, the sponsorship money gets spread more thinly. It’s also possible that likely library event sponsors (library systems vendors, publishers, library suppliers) have less money to throw around compared to archaeology event sponsors.

3. Para-troopers.

I… don’t get it. This person can do exactly the same thing I can. But they… don’t? Because I got a degree.

Nope, still don’t get it. My degree means I’ll have a better chance at getting hired, promoted, and published academically.

In archaeology, everyone and their dog can do pretty much everything, with experience and informal training. In the field, you use the hands you have.

So coming from that experience, to librarianship, it is very surreal. I don’t understand why everyone can’t just do the work. It’s not like somebody without a degree is going to white-out my name on my academic transcript, and waltz off with my qualifications and my social capital and my professional networks just because they did a job that needed doing.

It’s not even based on what we’re paid. I’m earning the same as some of these people, so in theory we’re all equals at the same level. I still can’t get my head around the professional/para-professional divide. Maybe it’s just one of those traditions that linger in different industries, like judges wearing wigs and barbers advertising with those twisty striped poles.

4. Long and the short of it.

The joke in archaeology is that honours students pad out their theses, so that their very long and very specific titles can fit on the spines.

That’s not true! We just don’t like wasting space.

The joke in librarianship is that FRBR was supposed to supplant AACR2, and RDA is okay but when we’re still using MARC21 and LoCSHM and DDC23…

Yeah. I have moved from possibly the MOST verbose profession next door to philosophy (okay, fine, they were upstairs from us because we liked basement labs and they needed to see SOME sunlight, right?)

… and into one with more contractions than possibly even IT, because we add library-specific acronyms and standards on top of the everyday IT ones. When we can’t make an acronym, we truncate the words.

5. Biscuits.

I obsess over this. Every field trip, every training session, every group event: Arnott’s family assortment. Archaeology is really just a series of intervals between the race for the nice biscuits.

CC BY-ND 2.0 Craig Sunter, 2013

 In libraries, somehow, there are always Monte Carlos, and the orange creams. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But I eat them, and oh it is good. Once, there were even Tim Tams and Fantales. And a coffee machine, instead of an urn and a big tin pot of Nescafe.

Morning tea is serious business in libraries, in my experience. Yum.

Bookmark, Beautiful and Impractical!

I rarely use bookmarks, partly because I keep them in special places that are hard to reach from bus stops and friends’ houses, and partly because I’m getting a small collection of handmade and beautiful but impractical bookmarks from friends and family.  They’re beautiful, but embroidered and beady bookmarks (or anything thicker than thin card) might damage pages or fall out, since I cannot wedge them in tight against the jostling of public transport.

This is my newest, brought back by my father from Pretoria.  It’s got all the feminist bibliophile ticks of approval; pretty, packaged with statement of provenance, made by women, bookmark.  I’m delighted to have it, and while I’d probably break the beads if I carried it around, I’m sure one day I’ll have a use for it.  When I opened the packet, I gave a good sniff.  Things from Japan always somehow smell a little damp and dark, like the cigarette stub-ridden soil of flower beds outside a Tokyo train station.  This thing from South Africa smelt smoky like burning wood and dry and sour sharp.  I think I’m most delighted with how this bookmark has a distinct look, feel, and scent.

Internet Killed the Retail Bookstore?!

Today the ABC has this article, talking about how internet sales over the last couple of years has been killing the retail bookstore, both franchised and independent.  It talks to a bookseller in Bondi, Sydney, who is pretty sure that it’s the sudden and inexplicable coming of internet bookselling (which has been around for several years) that’s responsible for the downturn in her sales – rather than a general retail downturn, or the effect of having more than one indie bookstore in the area and a nearby mall with the usual franchises, or just being in a big city and potentially competing with Books Kinokuniya and Galaxy Books.

Internet bookselling allows many small indie bookstores and secondhand stores to sell more stock.  It can be a blessing to some bookstores, a curse to others.  The rate at which bookstores are closing – about six this week ignoring the A&R problems – wouldn’t have surprised me in the year 2000, when most Australians would not consider buying anything online.  Books can be expensive to store and find a buyer for.  You can end up like Collins booksellers, where in the franchised physical stores, they had trouble moving stock on borrowed money, got bad reputations with distributors and publishers, and had the increasing problem of no stock or money coming in while rent and staff and bad debts were taking money out.  There are now only thirty or so outlets, and Collins is surviving.  Presumably the well performing stores amongst the franchise stuck it out.  Nobody blamed the internet when Collins closed a lot of franchised stores.  Few people noticed, actually.  Few people today recall Collins in my city, although many of us frequented the stores and their ABC Store corners (for there lurked Red Dwarf merchandise) in our adolescence.  It was bad retail business management on local levels that led to the demise of Collins, but I bet that if they’d lasted a few more years and gone down this week instead of back in 2007, it would be THE INTERNET at fault again.  The same with the two secondhand stores within twenty minutes’ bus ride of my house – they went under about four and three years ago respectively, because of rising rents and the owners feeling too old to want to continue lugging around heavy stock.  One of the booksellers still sells rare prints online, and it was never the internet that was the problem within their business model.  The internet can be used to price books competitively, to source stock for customers on the spot, and I’ve seen it used as a great tool to drive sales and customer loyalty.

You can end up like Borders in America, which wasn’t so much hit by the pure unadulterated existence of the internet, but by – according to the ABC at least, and this I linked yesterday – having four CEOs in five years who had no previous industry experience.  Books aren’t CDs, or wallets or watches; you’d need to know the book publishing and selling industry to have a hope in hell of running something as big as the US Borders franchise passably.  It’s not surprising that they’re planning to close the stupidly placed stores that run at a loss, or that they’re using bankruptcy as a way to regroup without losing everything.

I’m not upset that online sales are being considered as part of the reason booksellers are suffering.  It would be stupid to say that Australian retail prices aren’t higher than the same Australian books online from overseas sellers.  But there’s more to it than that.  There’s problems in the costs and taxes involved in Australian publishing (that’s us at fault folks, not computers), and some of these online sales are cheaper still because the books are being sold secondhand.  The internet is affecting the way we purchase books, yes.  But there’s so many other things at play here, and I think it is irresponsible reporting not only to ignore the wider context of pressures on booksellers, creating some type of online retail doomsday scenario, but to refer to the US Borders bankruptcy in every one of these articles in ways that imply there is a shared enemy in the internet and ignore the openly reported awareness of upper management issues, as well as the statement that the state of Borders in the US – a separate franchise business to the one in Australia and NZ – has no effect on Borders over here.  It’s misleading, bad, irresponsible and sensationalist media and it’s something I wish I wasn’t finding at a government funded news site.

Okay, I shall now go and sit on my hands for at least a day before I rant any further about the media coverage of bookstores.  As with yesterday, any comments or personal perspectives would be welcomed with open arms.

Angus and Robertson

Apparently unrelated to the Borders bankruptcy in the US, the REDgroup who own Borders and Angus and Robertson booksellers in Australia and the region are going into administration.  Explanations given are the strength of the Aussie dollar, the popularity of tax-free and cheaper books bought online, and retail downturn are contributing factors, but from what I’ve seen of A&R in particular over there last few years there’s other things at play as well.

Recently within the book-buying community a lot of negative branding has occurred associated with large bookselling chains.  One I was mentioning to a friend not a few days ago was the 2007 open letter from Tower Books in response to Angus and Robertson’s proposition to small Australian publishers, which you can read about all over the place, including the SMH.

Looking back to 2008 around Christmastime, you can read here about booksellers – Borders and A&R are named – selling books over the RRP to turn a slightly better profit.

In 2008-9 Many have come to the conclusion(including me to some extent) that the push to relax parallel import laws as supported by bookstores and department stores (but not by many independent stores and most booksellers) sidesteps actual issues about taxation of Australian-produced books and issues within the publishing industry, and will cause harm to Australian literature and non-fiction.

In 2010 and 2011 Australian retailers have been arguing for action to be taken to protect Australian retail against online sellers, and even the EFA thinks their demands and suggestions are a little beyond the pale.  If you followed the EFA link, you’ll have noticed a lot of the commenters attach this retail tax debate to Angus and Robertson and booksellers in general.

The forces driving A&R to administraion are not perhaps so much economic as they are negative branding.  Angus and Robertson and the REDgroup as a whole has seen a lot of negative press within the last three or four years.  I’ve been avoiding A&R partly because of some of the negativity I associate with the franchise’s behaviour, and partly because they just can’t compete with local indie stores in my city for stock quality and price.  I like Australian writers and literature, I like a wide range of global perspectives outside of best-selling fiction.  I suspect that many people feel the same way that I do, and that this as much as anything has affected A&R’s sales.  If anyone else can recall anything about A&R in the last few years, please comment or let me know somehow!

Dymocks and Book Prices on the ABC

Dymocks Collins Place
Image by Chealse V via Flickr

The ABC has a short video report (transcript link not working, sorry it’s just the video) on the Dymocks franchise considering basing their online book sales overseas to avoid taxes applied on sales in Australia.  If you’re an Australian you’ve probably read all the articles on the report that used what many thought was outdated information, showing that parallel import legislation (not the taxes or costs of publication) were keeping Australian books too expensive.

For those of you not Australian based or briefed on it all, the argument for allowing parallel imports was that Australian books cost far more than US and UK books, and that loosening restrictions would reduce the price of books for the Australian population.

The arguments against the parallel import proposal were many and varied, including discussions of distribution rights and authors’ incomes.  I will stick to the points I read most in opinion related blogs and news media, but please follow the links above to get more perspective on industry, publisher’s and writers opinions.

Firstly, a lot of the costs pushing up the retail price of Australian books include sales taxes that are generally not applied in other countries.  It seemed counter-intuitive to many, myself included, to first argue that books without this tax were cheap, and then that changing laws to allow untaxed foreign books to compete with taxed locally produced books would somehow resolve the problems with our publishing industry and pricing.  It seems to be a solution that sidesteps the actual problem.

Another argument against is that of production costs.  A mass-market pulpy paperback in the US isn’t made to last.  These are the books that are produced in great volume and often discarded and destroyed just as easily.  Australian books aren’t made that way, and it seems unrealistic to compare the price of a book built to last one train trip with a book built to last several read-throughs.  Parallel importing may bring cheaper books to the country, but we will effectively be importing oranges to try to increase market competition in bicycle sales.  There may be far less effect on book pricing than the numbers suggest.

The main supporters of the proposal were large department, franchise and chain stores, including Dymocks, K-mart, Big W; independent booksellers and smaller stores with local focus were not anywhere near as vocal in the media as I would have expected, from a group whose margins are far smaller and through parallel imports would gain access to a much wider range of potential suppliers.

The final and perhaps most relevant argument is that we have tried this in our usual test-pond, New Zealand, and it has had variable effect.  According to a report while comparative price differences between NZ, AUS and US books on bestseller lists were closer than before PIR were lifted, there have been other effects on the industry.  Locally produced Children’s books in particular suffered.  Changes affected larger publishers, who already had international ties, rather than having any impact on smaller booksellers.  Some libraries that were exempt from PIR anyway before the changes were more aware of foreign import books and purchases increased.  It’s a mixed basket with some ups and downs, some changes in book purchasing culture that seem to be more affected by media storms than actual changes in legislation.  While there are no extreme negatives, there are in my mind no extreme positives either, and I would like to know that PIR changes in Australia would be positive, not just alter the balance of smaller aspects of industry, before I felt them worth considering.  A good point to make about the report would be that the changes had more effects on the price of AUS books in NZ than on US; geography can make a difference in pricing, no matter how much we all want cheap books.

To come back to Dymocks’ actual news today, the bookstore seems to be viewing all sales on and The Book Depository as direct competition for sales.  They can’t import untaxed, cheaper books to sell in their stores and this is perhaps a way around it.  As is mentioned towards the end of the report, there is consideration as to whether AU$1000 is to high a tax-free threshold for international purchases.  But the whole issue seems to boil down, once more, to where the books are sourced and how much the tax is on the final retail price.  I would rather see a re-assessment of taxes on books, or perhaps a publishing industry dialogue about pulpier mass-market book production, or even just an attitude towards publishing that considers in some form Australian writers rather than the retailers in mainstream media reporting.

With the references to, they seem to have forgotten that Amazon are known for deliberately underpricing books to maintain their customer base.  It is really okay to take Amazon’s models of punishing publishers and authors through pricing and the removal of buy buttons, and compare their profits to that of Australian retail booksellers?  I’m not against cheaper books, just cheaper books at the expense of writers and publishers, which is why I buy books that are too expensive, and haven’t got a Kindle.  For now, I’ll just go about my day wondering why for many people Fair Trade coffee is worth paying for, but not a Fair Book.

What makes a writer Australian?


Australian Coat of Arms (adopted 1912)
Image via Wikipedia


It’s a debate or argument or concern that’s been had in any country with a national or local prize for creative art.  What makes an Australian (or American or Japanese or British) writer (or artist or singer or actress or scientist)?  Within the Australian book publishing industry and general readership, things get more confused.  It’s pretty well known that internationally most – and I say most because there’s always an exception or two – crime and genre fiction set in Australia does not fare very well.  If we only included fiction set in the country, we’d be excluding some of our best writers and books, ones that really deserve recognition.

We can’t simply count any book published in Australia for two reasons:  firstly, there’s a good chunk of American and British and translated novels being published locally.  Secondly, many Australian authors who have set their books in fantastical settings or more global locations can find their agents and publishers outside of Australia, and often their true nationality escapes the notice of readers and publishers.

There isn’t an algorithm to define whether citizenship or residency or birth defines “Australian” for the purposes of publishers, readers or writers concerns.  The waters are muddied by expats and short-term visitors of other nationalities sometimes including Australiana in their writing and of the added veracity a claim on Australian cultural identity can bring to an ‘about the author’ section in these books.

But in my mind, the real measure of a book and its worth and cultural value is not the author’s background.  It is the book’s content.  If a book is set in Australia or about Australia, it counts as fiction about Australia.  And by quite reasonably clear definition if a book is published in Australia and written by an Australian resident or citizen, it is viable for a number of awards that internationally sourced books are not.  I’ve never thought it needed more debate than this; there are heaps of culturally biased and insensitive books out there in the world, after all.  It is just as likely that a native or resident writer will produce fiction offensive to or unrepresentative of Australian culture as it is that such content comes from overseas writers.

I suspect that many readers, especially of popular fiction and dust-jacket blurbs, have learnt somehow to confuse cultural context and a sense of veracity and quality with geography.  ‘Australian writer’ arguably does not mean anything more than that the writer is or has been in possession of an Australian passport, birth certificate or residency visa.  But there’s a lot more to the quality, accuracy and flavour of Australian-based literature that can lie outside those legal lines, and getting caught up in arguments over it all is more likely through waste of time to deprive individuals of good reading time than it is to ever result in a satisfying definition of ‘Australian’.  Unless you’re judging an annual and geographically specific award, little else should matter.

Banned Books Week

Against Banned Books (Please Spread This Pic &...
CC image from florian.b at flickr

We’re getting towards the end of the US-centric Banned Books Week (it ends on the second of October) and deals with the often abused US system in which often local communities ban or lobby for the banning of books that are not necessarily restricted content but simply books that confront or contradict personal ideologies.  Mostly this involves sex – particularly homosexuality or non-standard sexuality – supernatural themes and drug use.

In Australia there’s certainly more noise to be heard regarding content restriction in the form of proposed internet filters, video games and film classifications, but we do ourselves have a record of banning and restricting access to books for various reasons, some less noble than others.  You can theoretically search the attorney general’s classification database to check out a history of classification decisions on books (including those refused classification/restricted content), but there’s no distinction between periodicals and other publications, which means search results end up invariably glutted with pornographical magazine listings.  You’re best off looking to Wikipedia and scanning the complete list of banned books to pick out those banned in Australia (trust me, there’s less books banned globally than issues of porn magazines cautioned and banned by the AUS government).  But there is also a nice and readable history of literary classification in the country to be found here.

In any case, the amusing note I wanted to make today was something I found through Bookseller and Publisher news by proxy (a.k.a Boomerang Books Blog) that this week Random House publishing has recalled a book called Evil in the Suburbs that details some past rape cases in Sydney.  It’s not exactly a banning, since it seems to be a voluntary recall.  I haven’t had much luck at Random House’s site itself; the search form seems to be returning errors every time I try it and there’s not a word in their news updates page.  But it’s close enough that I’m quite amused by it all.

When I think of banned books, I think predominantly of Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster, though I know that in reality there’s a lot of restrictions regarding sexuality (and sex crimes) and euthanasia in global and Australian recent history that the populace as a whole should be informing themselves about more.  I do feel very lucky that I am free to read the books currently in my reading piles without any type of restriction, though.  I don’t think I often realise how fortunate I was to be born into a country with few banned books and a high accessibility of print media.