For all the turmoil and bad news in the book business in Australia in the past year, the Australian Booksellers Association annual conference and the Australian Publishers Association Book Fair, held the last week of June in Sydney, had a surprisingly positive tone.
The emphasis was, as the ABA's conference theme put it, building the industry. And surely the book trade there was receptive.
Booksellers and publishers together suffered from the introduction of GST, a national goods and services tax, last July 1, which raised book prices an average of 10% (and caused sticker shock for consumers and administrative headaches for stores and publishers), and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, which for the duration of the games seemed to bring book buying to a standstill in Australia's largest city.
Beyond that, the state of the Australian dollar, which has hit an all-time low and made imported books even more expensive, and the government's moves to create an open market, added further pressures. The move toward an open market appears halted for the moment—the opposition parties in the Australian Senate apparently are opposed to it—but not before the matter caused some bitterness between publishers and booksellers when the ABA changed its longtime position and officially came out in support of an open market. In March, the APA went so far as to pass a resolution at its annual general meeting to suspend cooperative relations with the ABA.
(Many booksellers and publishers continue to support Australia's unusual 30-day rule, which essentially provides protection for Aussie copyright holders who offer titles in Australia within 30 days of their publication in other countries. As one major publisher commented, "In effect, we have a controlled open market.")
Already many booksellers and publishers were indicating that while it had been a tough year for some of them, particularly booksellers in and around Sydney, sales are stabilizing and they are somewhat optimistic about the coming year. A few publishers and booksellers, albeit outside Sydney, reported double-digit gains in the last 12 months. One independent said she had had her best year in 16 years in business and was going to begin paying herself a salary.
Still, some industry participants believe the business could be down as much as 10%. Many booksellers reported erratic sales, with a new week-to-week or even day-to-day focus on figures.
Saying that there is "too much doom and gloom in the industry," conference keynote speaker Michael Webster, head of Webster AAP and former head of D.W. Thorpe (Oz's equivalent of Bowker), recounted some of the positive aspects of the book business. Among these: studies showing that reading among young people is popular; young people "still crave careers in bookselling" despite low wages and "iffy training"; Australia continues to have an international reputation as "a center of publishing excellence"; investments in publishers' warehouses may create a "de facto" national wholesaler, something this country does not have. Australia has "great bookshops," although it continues to lack a "market leader"; the book business continues to influence political debate to a degree unusual in other developed countries and the weak Australian dollar has "no doubt curbed Amazon's reach into the Australian market." The Internet is drawing new customers to books and offering new merchandising and direct-marketing possibilities to the Australian book industry, and with the Australian introduction of Book Track (in which Webster has an interest), the business will have access to sales information that was unavailable before.
However, he berated the industry for whingeing (Aussie for whining), which works against the industry in political debates over the open market and a hoped-for rollback of the GST on books. While the Democrats have indicated their support for a rollback, the Labor Party needs "facts and figures" and is "exhausted by opinions" about the effect of GST, Webster warned. If there is a rollback, he continued, the industry should also be prepared to forgo the compensation package enacted for it when the GST was put into effect.
Part of that compensation package included A$8 million (a little over US$4 million) over four years to create a national book advertising and marketing campaign. The result, Books Alive, has been organized by the Australia Council, the federal government's arts funding and advisory body, and is a bitter disappointment for the business, which has felt excluded from key decisions. An image of a man and woman butting heads with the tagline, "Lose your head in a book," appears on bookmarks, posters and TV ads and has garnered extremely mixed responses among booksellers.
The program is currently under review and may yet be changed in a way that would achieve what booksellers want: a kind of branding, like Book Sense in the U.S., or the Dutch campaign Collective Propaganda for the Dutch Book, which was presented at last year's ABA conference by the Collective's director and was enthusiastically received by Australian booksellers.
Webster called the split between the ABA and APA "silly," adding, "If we work together, the future of the industry is pretty bright."
Other panels focused on nuts-and-bolts issues of bookselling as well as putting the challenges and opportunities of the Australian book trade in context. One panel featured members of the music and film businesses whose experiences show parallels to the book world. For example, the open market for music has led music labels to be more creative in marketing and advertising and to work with retailers in improving cross-merchandising possibilities with films and books.
A group of publishing house marketers focused on the attraction of the book to readers. Maggie Hamilton of Random House Australia noted that massive social and economic changes have led people to feel "shell shocked" and "out of control." Understanding that customers need to have things made easier for them, from finding book recommendations to enjoying escapism in reading and the reading experience, will help the business. People are "beginning to dream the big dreams again," she said, and booksellers and publishers should try to tap into "the desire for fun and adventure and expansiveness."
Mary Drum of Hodder Headline recommended "short articulated messages" about what a reader will feel if he or she buys a book, since the emotional power of the reading experience is key. "Price is about the cost of entry to get the emotion a reader wants," she emphasized.
Jim Demetriou of HarperCollins offered specific suggestions for the business, including an accurate national bestseller list; a change in tradition so that bookstores keep long-running bestsellers in the front of the store and not relegate them to backlist areas; and for publishers to publish fewer books and publish them better.
For one evening at least, Australian publishers and booksellers seemed to bury the hatchet—and not in each others' backs.
In fact, the tone at the industry banquet Thursday night, attended by more than 500 book people, was highly promising, with several top publishers and booksellers expressing the need to work together despite some differences. In an amusing address listing the many things he "hates"—including speculators who are ravaging the Australian dollar and the professor whose long-running campaign against supposedly high book prices has been used against the industry by unsympathetic politicians and others—outgoing Australian Publishers Association president Sandy Grant lauded the Australian Booksellers Association and said that this is "an exciting era for bookselling and publishing. There is a vibrant and expansive retail segment." He praised the investments in Australian retailing of such retailers as Borders and W.H. Smith (which just purchased chain Angus & Robertson/Bookworld) as well as investments by publishers in better warehouses. Noting the contretemps between publishers and booksellers over discounts and the open market, he said, "There is much to fight about and much to cooperate about."
For her part, Margie Arnold, president of the ABA, told the crowd: "We will continue to talk. As with any relationship, we can have hard times. But it's also an opportunity to move forward. I believe by this time next year we'll be well on the way to having a positive industry."
Among the many awards given at the banquet was the Book Data Asia Pacific/ABA Book of the Year, which went to The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive (Random), a nonfiction inspirational bestseller. The APA Independent Bookseller of the Year was Readings, the Melbourne store owned by Mark Rubbo that won Bookseller of the Year in 1998 and has long been acknowledged as one of the best bookstores in Australia. The APA Chain Bookseller of the Year was Angus & Robertson/Bookworld, the new Oz branch of W.H. Smith. The Thorpe/APA Publisher of the Year was Allen & Unwin, one of the few large independent Australian publishers, which was praised by some booksellers in attendance for its list—and for not tightening up terms in the way some other publishers have.
One of the hosts of the awards ceremony was a politician beloved by the book business: Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. Two years ago, she voted against the introduction of GST and has since become leader of the Senate Democrats and supports a rollback of GST on books.
One of the casualties of the difficult sales year and tensions between publishers and booksellers in Australia was the APA Book Fair itself, which was, as Random House Australia head Juliet Rogers said, "in its death throes in its existing form."
The trade show floor was significantly smaller than last year's, and, like some ABA-BEA shows in the U.S. in the mid-'90s, lacks some of the major national publishers. This year, for example, Penguin Australia, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Lothian did not take booths on the floor—although they were represented in the invitation-only trade publishers lounge. Fair managers Expertise Events sought to add participation by related industries, such as newsstand operators and stationers, which helped boost attendance somewhat. But plans for a rights center fizzled. Altogether there were officially 100 exhibitors.
Expertise Events managing director Gary Fitz-Roy told PW that he was "quietly confident about where the show is going" but acknowledged that the difficult year for the Australian book business affected the trade show. Still, he said feedback from many exhibitors—and even some non-exhibitors interested in showing next year—was good.
Like other industry people, he said the business ought to aim for a more positive approach. "This should be a celebration. No industry can lose a chance to bring together buyers and sellers and provide education."
In yet another difficult area familiar to the American industry, there is debate over when and where to hold the fair in the future. Publishers, whose organization began putting on the fair a decade ago after the booksellers had run it as an adjunct to their annual conferences, have wanted to hold the fair only in Sydney. But booksellers from Sydney, those most likely to attend, already have strong ties to and good representation from publishers. Booksellers from other Australian cities and the countryside have more reason to go the fair, but many find it difficult to afford.
The APA Book Fair will take place again in Sydney June 19—21, 2002. Booksellers, who several years ago voted for the conference to rotate between Sydney and Melbourne, may well return to Melbourne—or go to another site. The ABA, APA and Expertise Events presumably will negotiate these issues.
Talk about what to do about the fair and the tension between publishers and booksellers was an important topic at several events.
Jeff Higgins of Dymocks, one of the three national bookselling chains, said publishers and booksellers need to work together and continue talking. But if there is no fair, he wondered, "When will the industry get together and talk about issues?"
Random House's Rogers noted that the Australian book industry sometimes has "the bad habit of throwing out the baby with the dish water. It's a sad day because we're very, very close to it."
Both Higgins and Rogers, who is from New Zealand, speculated that Australia might benefit from the type of industry organization in place in New Zealand, which shares many characteristics with Australia, although it is much smaller (with a population of three million compared to Australia's 18 million). Booksellers New Zealand, which is comprised of booksellers and publishers, is "a healthy model but doesn't institutionalize antagonism," Rogers said. "Not that there aren't tensions," but the structure allows members to debate and discuss issues and to have special interest groups, she continued. "The majority of members are booksellers. Publishers are smaller but loud."
Booksellers New Zealand was enacted by "a small group of like-minded booksellers and publishers" who saw a need for a change a decade ago when the book business in New Zealand was suffering from problems similar to those plaguing the Australian book business today. The process of change wasn't "democratic," Rogers said. "But there's no question anyone would want to revert to the old system."
Happy Americans Down Under
Two of the happiest exhibitors were American wholesalers Ingram International and Baker & Taylor International, who despite a weak Australian dollar that makes importing very expensive, reported many new contacts with booksellers and librarians. Australian readers are keenly aware of American titles and many will pay more to get those books. In an example of global media's immediate power and the far reaches of America's best bookseller, at one ABA conference panel Mary Drum of Hodder Headline noted that the day after Oprah picked Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog as a book club selection, 15,000 copies of the book were sold in Australia.
Borders Edges Bigger
After a slow beginning, starting with its first store in Melbourne in 1998, Borders announced plans for more openings, including its second store in Melbourne, a second in Sydney and one in Adelaide. The second Sydney store, however, recently hit a snag: it was scheduled to open in the Skygarden shopping center in the Pitt Street Mall in Sydney's central business district, where the center's owner sought to evict businesses to make room for the book retailer. But several tenants fought back, and a court ruled against the developer. The decision may be appealed.
New ABA Board
At the end of its conference, the Australian Booksellers Association voted in several new board members, including Jeff Higgins of Dymocks as first vice-president; Chris Harrington of Books in Print, Melbourne, as second vice-president; and Derek Dryden of Better Read Than Dead, Sydney, as treasurer. David Gaunt of Gleebooks, who among many other efforts has long been head of the ABA's standing committee on copyright (a sometimes thankless task), was made a lifetime member of the ABA.