Global View Down Under
John Mutter -- 6/5/00
Joint bookselling conferences in Australia reveal
international coping strategies
The challenges discussed during the first days of the Australian Booksellers Association and International Booksellers Federation joint conference in Melbourne, Australia, held the last full week of May, showed that despite some distinct local differences, for the most part, booksellers worldwide are coping with similar forces of change.
And even though "it seems the ground is shifting under us," as Mary Dalmau, outgoing president of the ABA, noted in her general remarks, "Change and constancy have been themes through the history of bookselling. In fact, what we think of as the traditional bookstore and traditional bookseller is a thing of evolution."
Among the common challenges faced by booksellers in many countries around the world, according to speakers at the conference: increasing competition from all sorts of nontraditional booksellers; customers who because of global media and the Internet are more informed, fickle and demanding than ever; changing laws and regulations affecting everything from taxes to copyright, which have a way of throwing particular countries' book industries into turmoil; competition from Internet booksellers, particularly Amazon.com, BOL.com and B&N.com; competition between independents and international chains; and exchange rates that wreak havoc with importing and exporting of books.
In Australia, for example, the ease of ordering books online means that consumers can buy books from anywhere in the world. "More than 100 kilos of books arrive at Melbourne Airport [from foreign Internet booksellers] every week," Dalmau noted.
Some of the signs of the whirlwind of change in Oz: Terms of trade between publishers and booksellers have changed in the past year so that most backlist titles are now sold nonreturnable. Borders has opened its second store. Many Australian booksellers have gone from selling books only to offering coffee, wine and music; they're also staging more events and readings. The government may yet make Australia an open market. Booksellers are preparing for the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax on July 1--which has to be included in the basic price, not added on at the cash register as a separate item, as with sales tax in the U.S.
New Zealand booksellers have had to cope with near anarchy in the trade, Tony Moores, chair of Booksellers New Zealand, which includes publishers and booksellers, told the conference. The reasons include the weak New Zealand dollar, the domination of bookselling by one company--Blue Star, a subsidiary of U.S. Office Products--and a history of heavy discounting that have made consumers into bargain hunters.
Oddly, the government move two years ago making the country an open market by allowing all non-pirated editions of any book to be sold in New Zealand, regardless of what company had bought New Zealand rights, has had less of an effect on New Zealand booksellers than anticipated. This is mainly because publishers abroad have "closed ranks" and tend to sell only to their rights-holders in New Zealand (while wholesalers are uneconomical for more than special orders). And in fact, Moores said, the new approach has made New Zealand publishers less likely to hold up the publication of New Zealand editions of books for major holidays or seasons than had previously been the case.
Independents have reacted to change by forming buying groups and creating alliances and cooperatives. "We listen to our customers, we adapt, we pinch ideas," Moores stated. "We have to remember that bookselling is a business not conducted in isolation."
Following the first free elections in South Africa in 1994, business and society has begun changing, although "you don't wipe out 40 years of apartheid overnight," Gert Naude, chair of the Pan African Booksellers Association, said. The book market in South Africa is unusually fragmented and complicated (there are, for example, 11 official languages). High unemployment (20%-40%) and illiteracy rates (20%-30%) dampen book sales. Only 10% of the country's 40 million people buy books.
Some 80% of book sales are schoolbooks, which are usually sold directly to the government by publishers, helping to make the book industry "dominated" by publishers. Many small booksellers have disappeared. The stores that have survived have changed their names and identities, adapting to the new society, and some are "going into deals" with publishers, resulting in more "vertical integration." International online booksellers are popular, as is a local site, Kalari.net, which is owned by a media conglomerate.
Reporting about China, Junguo Wang, deputy president of the Books and Periodicals Distribution Association of China, said that efforts to reform the publishing industry have progressed over the past decade and have reached a new phase, with the creation of independent publishers, booksellers and net stores. "Survival of the fittest has become the rule of law in the book market," he stated.
The industry is also undertaking a broad campaign to bring books to rural areas, where the majority of the country's population lives and who are underserved by bookstores. Readers' co-ops are also proving extremely popular.
In Europe, bookselling issues include the difficulties of varying VAT rates, which range from nothing in some countries to 25% in Sweden and Denmark. There is a similar disparity between countries concerning fixed prices and free prices; the European Union has abolished fixed prices only between countries. The major shift has occurred in the German-speaking lands, where exportation and importation of German-language titles can no longer be done on a fixed-price basis.
Doris Stockmann, president of the European Booksellers Federation, said she believes that "the traditional book will continue to exist and it will be possible for booksellers to continue to prosper. We need to stay a step ahead, not a step behind."
She added that some booksellers are preparing for the full introduction of the euro by pricing books in their soon-to-vanish local currencies so that when they are translated into euros they will have attractive price points, for example, 9.95 euros rather than 10.
Martin Grindley, president of the Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, painted a grim picture of bookselling in the U.K., where sales for the most part have stagnated, he said. Waterstone's, for example, has seen sales drop recently.
Most areas are "saturated" with bookstores. Online bookselling, the "brave" expansion of Borders and discounting following the end of fixed prices five years ago have helped put pressure on margins.
Some 50% of all books are sold on a discounted basis, and frontlist titles have come to dominate bookselling. Just 5,877 titles account for half of all books sold, while 284,000 titles comprise the slowest 5%.
Nonetheless, Grindley was positive about the prospects for independent booksellers who expand the store offerings, add coffee bars and Internet terminals, and try to make their stores fresher, more like fashion stores and implement "women-friendly" designs.
Carol Horne of the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the American Booksellers Association Advisory Council, talked about familiar trends in the U.S. Unlike other speakers, she discussed e-books, print-on-demand and other high-tech developments that are not as prevalent abroad. She was enthusiastic about the ABA's Book Sense program, too.
In next week's issue: The remaining two days of the program, including the discussion of specific programs in foreign countries to promote books and bookselling that may be adapted by other bookselling groups as well as Australian issues.
Back To Bookselling