In Praise of Libraries and Bookshops

Who are the unsung of the book-publishing world? The librarians and booksellers, the people who give advice and make recommendations to their members and customers. The people who are in their jobs because they love books.

Once you’re an author, you realise how much more you still have to learn. Reading a book becomes not only a glorious escape but also a straightforward way of absorbing the technical skills that will help you create your own masterpiece. My advice to writers is to read eclectically. Don’t restrict your reading only to the bestseller list or to prize winners. Take a look at other books in the bookshop and library, and see if they might be of interest to you.

Do you know the owner or librarian? If the bookshop or library is small, this will be easy. If they are large, choose a regular employee who’s been particularly helpful to you. Once this person knows you and your tastes, they’ll have reliable recommendations for you in the future.

Sometimes they’ll even have statistics. The ANU’s chief librarian gave me some interesting figures. One that particularly appealed was that in Australia there are more libraries than McDonalds outlets. We have 1,417 libraries (fixed locations) and 74 mobile libraries, as compared with 851 McDonalds outlets. Library loans total 182,757,656 per annum and 45 percent of Australians are library members. Now that’s a lot of loans and books, isn’t it? The happy conclusion is that we’re still well served in Australia by libraries.

What about bookstores though? Their numbers unfortunately continue to shrink. It’s important to support them as well as our libraries. This is not only because we want to ensure that they survive but also because access to a bookshop allows you to flick through the pages of new books – or books by new authors – before you buy. There’s nothing like this quick skim to help you choose.

Yet it won’t help the bookshops much if you use their stock only for skimming their titles before ordering online from someone else. The environment for the bookstores is changing rapidly. The biggest online retailers have been adopting several approaches to technological change. On the one hand, it’s often asserted that Amazon are engaging in predatory pricing, a practice much-studied in industrial economics. This involves selling books at an artificially low price. The goal is to drive out existing competitors and discourage the entry into the market of new ones, and thereby to become monopolists who can subsequently increase the price. On the other hand, in the US an antitrust case against Apple and the big publishers alleged a conspiracy to fix e-book prices. Settlements reached in the US against the big publishers may be viewed as a win for Amazon and a further strengthening of their position.

At the same time, other factors are affecting book sales. For example, it’s well known that newspaper books pages are shrinking fast. It used to be the case that, when shopping for books, you might search or click on an author’s name because you’d read a review in a newspaper. With the contraction of newspaper book pages, you may find that the surviving reviewers’ tastes are not necessarily yours. Yet you want as much information as possible before you make a purchase. Nothing beats a thorough browse in the bookshop or in the library before making your selection – or a good chat to the staff if you know them.

How will bookshops cope with print book and e-book publishing in the future? This remains to be seen in the highly uncertain book-publishing world, a world in which the relative demands for paper and electronic books are still unknown, a world in which spats between Amazon and the big publishers are likely to continue as royalties for digital books are negotiated.

Some booksellers are reacting to this uncertainty in creative ways; for example, by expanding their bookshops to encompass book discussion sessions, or exhibitions, or children’s readings, or literary evenings or lunches. Others are experimenting with digital sales and linkups. But others have been forced to close.

If we want to retain our favourite bookshops in a fast-changing industry, they need our support. Like the librarians, they’re the unsung heroes and heroines of the publishing world.

This is a significantly revised version of my 2013 post at http://writingnovelsinaustralia.com/2013/05/06/on-the-value-of-librarians-and-booksellers-by-alison-booth/

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