About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Books Down Under

Lots and lots and lots of bookstores visited during my trip to Australia in September. Finally getting around to sharing some thoughts about the book market Down Under...

For better or worse and probably both, the retail scene in Australia is a few decades behind ours. For one, and for what I'm used to not a plus, it's one of those places that still believes shopping should only be done during the day. Stores open from 9-5, 10-6, Thursday is the one day when places open late, at least they're as generous with their shopping hours on Sunday as they are the other days of the week. This also effects restaurants, most of which close by 10PM. And in Sydney, enforced; one of those Bald Guy chocolate places I walked by on a fancy boutique street full of shops shuttering 6ish had a sign in window that the local council was forcing them to close early because they weren't in a part of town suitable for a later closing.

But as far as the book business goes, there are some pluses to having a country that's stuck three or four decades behind. For one, they still have mall stores. The big mall in Cheltenham had two Angus & Robertson outlets besides the Dymocks where Peter V. Brett was was signing my first full day in country. Downtown Sydney had Dymocks outlets of kind of like the way NYC used to be dotted with little Barnes & Noble stores and little Waldenbooks and a Dalton or two. The shopping strip at Glenelg, the beach suburb of Adelaide, has one of each. Even more surprising than the presence of all of these mall stores is the fact that the two major department stores, Myer and David Jones, all have book departments, the Myer a bit bigger than the David Jones. So there are more books closer to more people.

There are some retail names like Woolworth, Target and KMart that are familiar to people from the US, but not owned by the US companies. So in the US, Target has a solid book department, in Australia the Target book departments were rather small. K-Mart had a big book department, as did Big W, which is owned by the Australian Woolworths. And then there are smaller news agents throughout the country that have smatterings of books.

Borders started to open superstores in the late 1990s, on my last trip to Melbourne in 1999 their store at the Jam Factory in Melbourne was new and fresh and very exciting to them. A couple of years ago the outlets in the Southern Hemisphere were sold off to the company that also owns Angus & Robertson. Like the Borders here at home in Westwood, the Jam Factory Borders seemed old and faded, a dowager. Too big for today, designed at a time when people purchased music and videos. The newer stores seemed a little peppier. In the UK, one mistake of Borders ownership was to make their Books Etc. mall stores too much like the superstores, here there's still some distinction in merchandising between an Angus & Robertson and a Borders.

And as to be expected in a behind-the-times place, there are still some specialty bookshops. Melbourne has a big place called Minotaur that's like the larger Titan-owned Forbidden Planets in the UK and a smaller but decently stocked Of Science & Swords up the streets. There was a romance specialty store on a quiet block in Melbourne. And Sydney has the wonderful Galaxy Books, which has pretty much any sf/f book you might possibly want to find.

What did all this mean for JABberwocky? Well, a small mall store in Australia might have the "selection" that a small Waldenbooks had for JABberwocky books ten years ago, which is to say hardly anything at all. I mean, there was lots of Charlaine Harris everywhere. She's one of the top-selling authors in Australia, the little news agents might have a book or two in their little sections. Target had the most recent book in their small sections. The stores that sold lots of books would have dozens of copies, even hundreds of copies, of Charlaine's books. But after that, there would be some Peter V. Brett at most of even the smaller stores, some Brandon Sanderson, some Elizabeth Moon, maybe not all three of those, and maybe not a full set. The Desert Spear but not The Warded Man, a Deed of Paksenarrion omnibus or an Oath of Fealty but not both, one or two Mistborn books but not all three. The best selection in an Australian Borders was maybe 40-50 of our non-Charlaine titles, while here in the US the worst B&N or Borders has a few more than that and the better-stocked stores may carry 80-100 titles. Here or there, in part depending on the size of the paranormal section or the size of the store, maybe some UK editions of Kat Richardson, Tanya Huff or Simon Green.

Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings had just gone on sale in Australia, and that was carried pretty much everywhere and in decent quantity. Front table at KMart, Fathers Day promos (in Australia, it's in early September) at the chains. That being said, the positioning of Brent Weeks vs. Brandon Sanderson is the opposite there of what it is here, and as happy as I was to see lots of Brandon, I was very jealous of Brent Weeks, not a client, for his Black Prism was out there in quantities twice that or more of Brandon's Way of Kings.

Dymocks are franchised locations with considerably more buying discretion than most other chain stores, so those selections could be much more variable even adjusting for store space. The Cheltenham store isn't teeny-tiny but not particularly big either but had lots more JABberwocky books because the owner and staff wish it to. The Dymocks in downtown Adelaide is much smaller than the flagship Dymocks in downtown Sydney, but much more aggressive about looking for appropriate US imports. So the smaller store in Adelaide had the largest chain store selection of JABberwocky titles, while the flagship outlet might have 38 copies of a big book from an Australian publisher but didn't put much effort or energy into stocking imports and overall had a disappointing selection.

And then there was Galaxy Books. They took British editions where they could get British editions, American editions where they could get those, Australian where they could get them. They had everything. In the neighborhood of 120 JABberwocky titles, three times the selection of the best of any of the other stores I could have visited.

I should also mention the Sydney outlet of Kinokinuya. I'd never heard of them before, but they were recommended to me by my hosts in Adelaide. These stores stock books in Japanese, Chinese, English, and of course generous assortments of manga. Their selection of English language books was excellent, about equal to what I'd found at the Dymocks in Adelaide, but then they also had all of those other books. I somehow managed to find Taiwanese editions of some Brandon Sanderson in that section of the store and if I knew what I was looking for could no doubt have found more exotic foreign editions. I will have to remember to visit some of their US locations to see now they compare with Sydney.

Buying books in Australia is an expensive habit. A lot of the books sold in Australia are printed in and imported from the UK or the US, and the freight can add to what a book has to cost. And then books are subject to the Australian GST, and that is embedded in the price as well. Add all of that together, and a US mass market can easily sell for $20+ Australian, trade paperbacks for $30AU, and then don't ask about hardcovers. Which is why for a lot of the books I've sold in the UK, there's an Australian trade paperback done simultaneous with the British hardcover, because there's just no way to put out a book that has to carry a $50 cover price and expect anyone to buy it. No joking, check out Booktopia and see the official list price for some of the books on the home page. The cheapest price I could find on books in Australia were at Dirt Cheap Books. Their warehouse location in Collingwood was depressing and cheery. Upstairs you'll find cartons and cartons and cartons of remainder books for "only" $5AU, I purchased a Richard Morgan in case I needed more reading for the trip home, but when it's your client and you're seeing scores and scores of copies of Blood Lines by Tanya Huff, you kind of wish you were someplace else.

And the price of the import editions establishes the market price for books. There's no particular reason for a copy of Peter Brett's Desert Spear that is printed in Australia at the Griffin Press to cost the same as a similarly sized book by Simon Green that is printed in and imported from the UK, except that there's no reason to charge $22 because you can, when you know that people will happily pay $28 for the same book. So even though the market does include little used book shops on many neighborhood main streets just like once upon a time was the case here in the United States (John Berlyne and I stumbled across a wonderful one in Carlton one night) I couldn't bring myself to support these quaint little neighborhood shops by actually buying even the used books because they were so godawful expensive considering that in a week or two I'd be back in the US where you can easily find a $3 book at Barnes & Noble or a $1 book at the Strand.

Some lessons learned:

My store visits reinforced the importance of having a British or Australian publisher in order to actually have books widely available for sale in the Australian market. Even Borders was inconsistent in carrying even the more popular JABberwocky books, the Lost Fleet series let's say, that weren't available from UK publishers. I can talk about this topic at much more length since it ties into the entire question of whether you have a US (or UK) publisher with World English rights to your book instead of just their own market, but for now I'll just leave at saying if you want to maximize US visibility you need a US publisher, UK or Australia you need publishers active in those markets. [Side note, under Australian copyright law the British publisher can't claim Australia as an exclusive market from the POV of the Australian government if it doesn't release its edition in Australia within a month or two of US release.]

British publishers do not play nice when it comes to paying bestselling authors for copies sold in Australia. If you're a run of the mill author with a British publisher, they will do one print run and ship cartons to Australia. This gives them some wiggle room for royalty purposes on how much money the British arm charges the Australian arm for the books, which allows them to move money from one subsidiary to another and to reduce author royalty by charging a smaller price. On balance, it looks like these copies are sold at a nicer discount than a US publisher will charge for its sales to Canada. But the real gamesmanship comes on the major authors, for me a Peter Brett or Charlaine Harris or Brandon Sanderson, whose books are being printed in Australia. Those are "sold" to the Australian publisher by the British publisher on similar terms to the books that are being printed in the UK and shipped Down Under. Hence, the author's royalty rate, which is based on that "sale" price to the Australian publisher, is much less than it would be if the book were treated as being the Australian book sold by an Australian publisher that it actually is. For our bestselling authors, can we find a way to get those Australian books printed in Australia reported at full royalty rates based on the extremely high Australian cover price instead of as British export sales based on the easily manipulated price for selling a physical book from the British subsidiary of the publishing conglomerate to the Australian subsidiary?

9 comments:

stacer said...

There's a Kinokinuya in NYC right across the park from the main library. I think. Either that or it's in Union Square. I found it when visiting NYC before moving here, and haven't had the time (or the money--they're pricy) to go back, so I haven't looked them up.

Rob said...

Did you spot http://www.ofscienceandswords.com.au/ in Melbourne? Blink and you'll miss them.

Also - you missed booko.com.au. Especially with the $AU high at the moment, it's cheaper paying the international shipping from amazon.com then buying in-store. Booko does the price comparisons and shows how much you can save.

Danny said...

I'll second Rob's recommendation of booko.com.au

Most savvy Australian book-buyers are now resorting to online ordering, purely because it's cheaper in the long run.

I tend to order most of my books from bookdepository.com or bookdepository.co.uk as they offer world-wide free shipping and their prices are usually cheaper than what I'd find in a local bookstore.

The stores, however, are good to browse for a bargain or to see if you find something you might like (rather than searching for something specific).

Borders in Australia also recently re-vamped their VIP club, giving everyone who signed up a $20 voucher (i.e. about 1 paperback). They're doing their best to get customers back into the stores which is a good thing.

Maria said...

Wow. I'm going to have to read the entire thing again just to take it all in.

I follow an Aussie blog--and she is thrilled with ebooks because (at last) she can get book at reasonable prices.

obsidiantears83 said...

I mostly shop at Galaxy because it is cheaper for general paperbacks than the big chains (normally by about $AU5 or so). I also keep an eye out for bargains at Kmart as I can sometimes save $AU10 from the price the chains are selling their titles for. Our book industry over here is a con. It is fine if you only buy five books a year, but for people who read that amount in less than a week, you are in trouble. You can buy internationally at the book depository and save money, but then you are sending money overseas and not supporting the Australian economy. I only do it if I really can't afford a book in Australia. I recently bought an ereader so I could download ebooks - just so I could get new releases without paying $AU40-50 dollars for a new release hardcover. Even that is fraught with difficulty with regional restrictions, etc. We really are screwed. However, I prefer to support indie bookstores rather than shopping at chains, even if I end up spending a little extra. Places like Galaxy can order in books and have a larger range than the chains too. It is also worth checking out the small independent second hand bookstores like Elizabeth's for bargins.

I've always been envious of the Americans and English for the cheapness of their books. The people who are serious book buyers over here get burnt by the industry they support :(

Year of Meteors said...

Australian prices for both paperbacks and hardcovers are shocking.

This is why I do all of my book-purchasing from http://www.bookdepository.com.

They do free shipping on all purchases, and paperback novels start at $9 Australian.

When you are on a low income, it's impossible to justify buying a book from Borders that costs 3 times or 4 times or 5 times the Book Depository price.

Cafuego said...

I suspect store opening times may have something to do with the wages paid to employees. The Australian minimum wage isn't as offensively low as that in the US, so it makes no commercial sense to keep a store open if you can't offset the wage costs against sales.

I'm happy to live in the past if that means better wages and working conditions for others ;-)

As for pricing - the higher book prices are a direct result of lobbying for protectionism by the Australia Publishers Association. Parallel imports are banned, so local distributors can charge what they please. See http://bit.ly/fdIWbs

Lynxswift said...

The Kinokuniya across from Bryant Park is very nice. It used to be located in Rockefeller Center but moved moved.

Sakura said...

From an American publisher's point of view, all those Australian books on the shelves and "failure" to stock American imports is seen as a problem.

As far as we're concerned, if we want to read about our culture, our characters, our settings - in other words, if we want to keep our own publishing industry alive and well - this is simply the price we have to pay. Australians read diversely and will enjoy a Brent Weeks or a Charlaine Harris, but if they also want a Tansy Rayner Roberts and a Trent Jamieson, whose recent novels have not sold to US publishers, or if they want to read their children picture books with kangaroos and galahs instead of mooses and raccoons, they need to keep supporting Australian booksellers despite the groaning, weighty cost of keeping it all alive.