Books and Broadcasting

It’s been so long since my last post, I feel quite guilty for not updating.  With my ebook reading device, I’ve been indulging in fanfiction far more often than novels, and I’ve had a few things in life that have reduced my contact time with wonderful hardcopies.  As it is, one of my friends linked me today to a short light report on libraries and booksellers in Canberra.

It was hardly surprising to me.  I’ve read that right now, out of all the full-time permanent positions in our small town, about half are with the public service.  We are a land of university students and graduated administrators, and we’ve always had high rates of literacy and reading compared to national averages.  What I found interesting was that the ABC played up, a little, the imaginary fantasy of competition between libraries and booksellers, before getting to the point that more exposure to books increases both library loans and book sales.  In some radio programs in the past, they have overplayed old questions over the conflict between hardcopy novels and ebooks while missing the real technological differences between the two mediums and DRM issues.

We have hardly any issues as a city because we read books, but what issues we do have aren’t related to the ratio between booksales and bookloans.  We have a lot of sprawl for a small city, with bad public transport and ridiculously high property values.  This means that smaller independent booksellers and secondhand sellers have been shifting towards larger retail hubs and chains are bigger than individual stores.  It means that youth and those without cars have trouble finding, reaching, and accessing both bookstores and libraries with ease.

I suppose it is just the 7.30 report, but damn it all I’d like to see a local news story about book industry or literary fiction that dealt with things properly.  In the defense of journalists, I imagine that it would be harder to cover a story on bibliophiles in Canberra, because when we’re all reading at home it would be very hard to find and interview us.

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.

Archaeology in a DVD store

Today I post off-topic and discuss no books at all (except for films based on books).  Yes, in the Special Interest section of JB-Hifi Belconnen is an ‘Archaeology’ section.  Inside this section was:

Ong Bak 3 – third in a series of martial arts films in which a spiritual artefact of great value is stolen.  I’ve only seen Ong Bak 1, so I have no idea about the archaeological content of the film, but it seemed odd for ‘special interest.’

Egypt – a box set of a pretty, well-filmed documentary series, on Egyptology, which IS NOT ARCHAEOLOGY, even if you interview archaeologists as part of the whole thing.  This was actually the closest to archaeology in the section.

Several unofficial films describing the secrets behind The DaVinci Code film and book – I recall a classics faculty seminar on historical innacuracy in The DaVinci Code from my undergraduate degree.  I don’t remember there ever being any archaeology, since The DaVinci Code’s main (falsified at times) resources were documents, which makes this historical.

Explaining The Secret – it’s psychology, mentalism, bullshittery… maybe even sociology, but it’s not archaeology.

Dinosaurs – that’s palaeontology, folks!

I’m a bit baffled.  If they established an ‘archaeology’ section, why not include box sets of Time Team, or put the historical DVDs into a historical section?  Did the employees at JB HiFi Belconnen classify these, or is there some idiot distributing cataloguer out there, tagging everything eagerly with ‘archaeology’?  I’m a little chuffed to see fiction being included, less happy about how none of the popular films about archaeologists seem to be shelved there (Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Tomb Raider, Stargate), and very unhappy about what was on the shelf.

Still, in the same way that the procedural crime shows I watch aren’t really made for forensic scientists, I bet the section of shelving and the shows held within weren’t really made with Archaeologists – or historians, Egyptologists, palaeontologists and martial artists – in mind.  Good for a laugh, though.

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!

‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ by Pierre Bayard

As with the game ‘Just Cause’, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read seems like a review columnist’s dream.  The joke is obvious; write a review that has nothing to do with the book itself, or at least a review that starts with that joke.  A pretty popular book when released, HtTABYHR discusses in short silly chapters the meta-entity of books.  Each chapter focuses on a book (except for the one that cites the execrable film Groundhog Day) and looks at an aspect of the ways socially we deal with books.

When you view a book as a social entity or currency, and consider the need to discuss books as separate from any need or desire to actually read books, a lot of academic and literary conversations make much more sense.  What are books, after all, but hyper-romanticised wood-pulp containers that transmit ideas; if the ideas are transmitted and understood, what need is there for actual reading?

Some reviewers like (Barbara Nackman) feel shock that people pretend to read books they haven’t (perhaps they’ve never sat in a café at a university and heard students and lecturers alike bluffing.)  Others like Maggie Reads joke a little, and have some fun discussing what constitutes ‘reading’ (skimming, half-reading, scanning, completing the reading after writing the review or article?)

As the title and early chapters suggest, reading a book renders one singularly incapable of understanding what that book is about, and in many ways prevents one from being able to say anything of any matter about it.  In this spirit I drafted my review before I had finished skimming the table of contents, and am finishing this review’s final draft ten pages before I actually do finish the book.  I may intend to read the whole thing, but I want to review this book in the spirit it was written.

The Canberra Booktrack

There’s been several versions of the Canberra Booktrack pamphlet released, detailing the independent, local booksellers in the area.  There’s some good ones that are just a tiny bit out of the way, and they’re really worth a visit.

Now, there’s a website, which is exciting for information’s sake, but I imagine for anyone with web-capable phones this makes the list a lot more accessible.The one thing the website seems to lack when compared to the pamphlet, is a map of all the stores at once.  Since they’re listed alphabetically rather than geographically, it may take a bit of clicking around to find the store closest to you.

I haven’t visited every store on the list yet, but I hope to.  I blame some of the stores closer to my home, for occupying my time (and wallet) more often than not.  We can’t compete with bigger places like Melbourne for choice and price, but we don’t do too bad here either.  It’s important to keep in mind, however, that local independent bookstores aren’t included by default – they must join the Booktrack to be included – and there’s still a lot of other awesome book and comic stores in Canberra to hunt down that aren’t mentioned in the guide.  I’ll try to visit and cover some of them here in the next year.