Lessons from Australia

Booksellers Association m.d. Meryl Halls shares her thoughts on collaboration between the UK and Australian bookselling sectors after delivering the keynote address to the Australian BA Conference in Melbourne last week.

The Australian bookselling sector is startlingly familiar-looking to anyone from the UK, while simultaneously being totally foreign. There are no wholesalers, there’s a generic buying group, Leading Edge, which has historically competed with the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) as the booksellers’ representative body, there are books by the million coming in from the US and the UK, and a healthy Australian publishing market, albeit that growth is flat. There is an inconceivably enormous land mass to navigate. Most striking of all, 25% of Australian bookselling is made up of independent bookshops. That compares to 9-11% in both the UK and US. This high proportion means that there are independent bookshops in city centres and suburbs of high calibre and significance and a vibrant, mutually supportive indie bookselling scene, sitting alongside the giant bookseller Dymocks and a slew of non traditional book retailers.

With an indigenous online bookseller in Booktopia in a strong and growing position, Amazon has only a toehold in the Australian bookselling market and has not (yet) come near the devastation of the high street bookshop that has occurred here, and in the US—albeit that we are now in recovery from the firestorm, and albeit that I hope with my entire heart they never have to endure it. Australia, while possibly not relishing their ‘flat is the new up’ narrative of growth, nonetheless has the great advantage of having avoided the recession, boom and bust of the mid noughties which dealt a killer blow to many UK and US bookshops—notwithstanding that the collapse of the Red Group, and with it Borders and Angus & Robertson, compromised the visibility of books in many communities.

The theme of the Conference was Bookselling with Passion and Purpose, and it ranged, in a tightly choreographed programme, through many issues familiar to UK booksellers—the challenge of returns, availability of stock, author events, creating relationships with schools, building a bookshop team, trade campaigns, community bookselling, visual merchandising. Publishers were frequent speakers and positive collaborators. The building of bookshop communities, the importance of new audiences and the intelligent curation of brilliant books are topics which resonate across the world.

My own talk focussed on the BA’s commitment to diversity, place-making by booksellers, environmentalism, to creating a professionalised bookselling community, a sector proud to be booksellers, to collaborating across the industry, and to recalibrating our bookselling to the new consumer—one demanding ethically high standards and a demonstrable sense of purpose in the businesses they shop from. All of this fell on fertile ground, and the potential for collaboration between the UK and Australian bookselling sectors opened wide.

Quick wins already include the launch of the ABA Bookshop Financial Survey, modelled on the BA’s Fitness Programme benchmarking project, and a commitment to creating an Australian version of our Shopfloor Publishers Project, where publishers work in a bookshop for a day at a time, and publishers then reciprocate. Longer term, the BA and ABA are discussing a shared commitment to Greening the Book Industry, with a joint Green Manifesto in preparation; to brainstorming the creation and provision of supply chain efficiencies, and to creating professional development tools to help booksellers in both countries gain skills and expertise.

New c.e.o. Robbie Egan has taken over the ABA at a crucial time. A long-time bookseller with an MBA (he ran operations for 15 years at Readings in Melbourne before taking the job at the ABA), he combines a forensic awareness of trade infrastructure, finances and politics with a deep commitment to making the world better for Australian booksellers. He’s unafraid to shake the tree, already challenging some of the long-held shibboleths of the trade there, and is undoubtedly going to strengthen the ABA, where he runs a small, tight team, already producing impressive campaigning, lobbying and marketing work.  In a year where the American BA, in a quirky coincidence, is also going to welcome a new c.e.o., we are looking forward enormously to working with the Australian BA team, and our US colleagues, to make English-language bookselling stronger, better equipped to succeed and feistier than ever.