First published by The Big Issue in February 2014
On December 23 2013, national book chain Dymocks had its best sales day ever. EVER. And we’re not just talking about ebooks; we’re talking about the kind of books that smell good.
According to a Books+Publishing survey distributed to over 200 Australian bookstores at the end of last year, 69% reported an increase in sales, as compared to the previous year, in which 59% reported a decline.
So who the hell does the book industry think it is? How has it navigated its tenacious way through the bumpy terrain of financial crisis and online shopping?
Ask anyone who writes, publishes, edits or sells books, and they will tell you that it hasn’t been easy. Over the last decade, the business has faced a lot of uncertainty: fears of local industry being destroyed by parallel imports, the inevitable closure of family run book shops in remote communities and, despite the glowing sales figures of 2013, it’s not out of the woods yet.
No one knows this better than Leanne Cramond, one of publishing giant Pan Macmillan’s longest standing sales reps. Her job is described by some as old fashioned, even quaint: Since 1989, Leanne has been loading up her car with books and catalogues, cranking up her radio, driving for hours and visiting bookshops in Albury, Yarrawonga, Cobram, Griffith, Young, Bowral, the South Coast, and the ACT.
‘They’re like my family,’ she says. She admits to being saddened when smaller shops get taken off her list (often because a large chain store such as Big W has opened up in the next major town). Her job, much like a good book, is about people and their stories. ‘It’s hard to explain to the bean counters; they’re not just a number. This might be a small account that only does ten thousand dollars a year but if you take me away from them, they’re only going to do three thousand.’
Old fashioned? Maybe. But Leanne and her peers play a crucial role in getting books on shelves, out the door and under the Christmas tree. Her job is diverse. Some days she’s at the iconic National Library talking to booksellers about art books. Other days, she dons her jeans and joggers and sweats it out in the loading dock of Big W, scrambling through palettes and lugging boxes of popular fiction beneath fluorescent lights.
When it comes to saving dollars, she says, an on-the-ground sales rep force is one of the first corners accountants think to cut (petrol, accommodation, Canberra to Yarrawonga – you do the maths). Some publishers have replaced their road-trippin’ face-to-face sales warriors with websites and telesales accounts. In reality this means talking through the items in a sales catalogue over the phone, or directing booksellers to a whiz bang new database where they can peruse and order titles in their own time.
But booksellers are busy bees. Imagine how easy it is to say to someone on other end of the phone that they’ve caught you at a bad time. Now imagine saying that to a broadly grinning Leanne, who, since reminding you she’d be popping in today, has driven 100 kilometres, found a car park and knows you and your market inside out.
‘They don’t need someone reading out what they can see for themselves in a catalogue. They need someone who knows their business saying: this is for you, this is not. I know you have a relationship with the local RSL – they might be interested in this great new book about military history.’ That, says Leanne with a flourish, is how you improve sales.
Of course the ups and downs of any industry are unpredictable. Leanne and her colleagues are under no illusions that their jobs are potentially on the line come the next sales slump, new technology or market force. And they’ve come to understand that fluctuations in a market are as much about confidence as anything else.
As I write this, The BBC are quoting the founder of UK bookstore chain Waterstone’s as heralding an increase in hard cover book sales and he says ‘the [physical] product is so strong, the interest in reading is so deeply rooted in the culture and human soul… that it is immovable.’
Cold hard fact? Or a brave bluff in a game of chicken – books versus profit? Either way, it stands to reason that, in a business so dependent on people and relationships, the so-called threat of an ebook takeover is proving to be a false alarm (the concept of an eBook is not a new one. In fact, the first known patent was filed 65 years ago so you could say its heyday has been a long time coming. By comparison, its decline appears to be going at warp speed).
Bookworms rejoice. This is not a tale of literary apocalypse – or of digital dystopia. The future of reading need not be reduced to uploading the new Margaret Atwood by blinking at a barcode on a screen. The book business is made of romantic stuff. It’s built on people, relationships and stories. And it would seem that these are cornerstones unlikely ever to be eroded.