The recent financial demise of Australian book retailers, Angus & Robertson and Borders Books, is a timely reminder to have another look at the effects of the Internet and digitalisation upon the book industry. Coupling this local retail failure with the bankruptcy of the Borders Group in the US, shines a light on how books are now being sold in these developed markets. Time now to see, just what is the long term impact of Amazon and other online suppliers of books on the bookstore concept and retail book chains.
Of course A & R had stopped being an example of a good bookshop years before. Even before it was purchased by the private equity group, Red Group, it was a chain of substandard stores offering a very average range of titles. Indeed that is why it was snapped very cheaply and the new managers accentuated all that was mediocre about A & R, and then had to operate with enormous debt levels . Many will say that bad management is always the true cause of business failure in the marketplace and an inability to respond to technological challenges within your industry is merely an example of this. Borders introduced the super store concept to Australia and in the process contributed to the demise of many small bookshops around the nation.
So we can now purchase a huge range of titles online, relatively quickly and affordably. In Australia we do not pay any GST on books purchased through Amazon or some other overseas online supplier, unless we are spending over a A$1000. Many retailers are now voicing their complaints about this unfair playing field and I would posit that books are one area that the Internet is taking a sizeable chunk of sales, somewhere in the vicinity of 15 to 20%. Retailers do pay proportionately high rents in Australia and then they have to pay staff and all the other infrastructure costs associated with retailing. So how are they going to be able to compete on price with a GST free online supplier? The consumer gets cheaper books if they are Internet savvy and or have access to online suppliers but they lose a sizeable retail presence in their local shopping precincts.
As a community we lose jobs in the book sector, which is a shame, because having personally come from a family retail book background I can tell you it is a great area to work in – very stimulating and people are passionate about their books. It is in my opinion a bit like the wine industry on many levels, the level of knowledgeable service that customers require is intense and like the wine business you cannot hope to survive as a small retailer without providing this. Fosters has been discovering this in its disastrous foray into the wine business, with massive write-downs on the Penfolds and Rosemount businesses. A & R were treating books and more importantly their customers like they were selling stationary – and they have paid the price. The amount of time in a bookshop spent researching titles for customers on a quest for a specific book, which may indeed be out of print, is enormous and you have to have people who love books working in bookshops. Of course much of this research can now be done online if the customer has access and is trained to do so.
The digital supply of books on tablets like Amazon’s Kindle will be an interesting phenomenon to watch and see whether the take-up will move beyond the initial very small percentage of the reading market. Again however this is something which moves book buying into the home and out of the shoppingcentre, removing jobs and the physical social interaction of the book buyer with the book seller. Passion will have to stay at home and sit in front of that flickering screen and book lovers will have to be satisfied with joining online forums. It is sad to see the demise of a wonderful profession, the book seller, and likewise the continuing eradication of book publishing here in Australia. The life of the mind is moving online.
I read with interest a recent report into suicide, published in The Australian newspaper, where it was declared that the rate of annual suicide in Australia is now well over that of road deaths. It was, I think, a feature written with the intent to ring a few alarm bells in this country, amongst leaders and the general population. It seems to me, that despite the wonders of a hundred and one different kinds of mobile phones and the fabulous Internet, the lives of Australians, and in particular our youth, are not all they are cracked up to be. Not as they are portrayed in the countless advertisements for all these apparently necessary, technological accoutrements, which are inferred to guarantee a fulfilling life. The ability to communicate in a nanosecond, eighteen different ways does not come with an automatic application to develop content worth communicating it seems.
Gizmo’s and gadgets are not going to provide meaning to anyone’s life. Waiting for the new IPhone or tablet reader is no anteroom experience on the way to transformation. As a society it seems that we are always helpless to effect any real change in the face of the markets relentless desire to satisfy the inconsequential. The article in The Australian did not address why people and in particular young people are killing themselves, it was all about what could have been done in the period immediately prior to the suicide to prevent such a tragedy. I always ask myself why are people killing themselves, obviously there are unique situations in each case but I also feel that there are shared cultural reasons why suicide rates are so high. Where is the deep meaning in these people’s lives and where is it rooted in your own life? Ask yourself honestly what you are living for?
- to live a good life
- for friends and family
- to amass a fortune
- so I can have sex with ______
- to help others
- for the love of some god
- because I love ________
- I don’t know I have never thought about it
These are some of the answers I have received in answer to this question. We emerge from our mother’s womb and make our way through childhood, having reasons to ‘be’ indoctrinated into us, by everything from the messages inherent within our children’s stories to the modern version of fireside chats with our parents. Early life comes with a moral behind every lesson, in the hope that it will train us to becomes good little boys or girls. But what are we training or being trained for? What is the real core meaning in our lives? What is the bottom line, when everything is stripped away and you are bare of all the palaver? Is it merely a choiceless choice! This is it, you have been born and there is no meaning to it, beyond the obvious experience itself, so just get on and make the best of it.
It seems we in the wealthy West, where we are not generally scrabbling for our very survival, are caught in this intensely materialistic society. A society which celebrates the invention and endless modification of communication devices and holds the purchase of your own home, as the most sacrosanct of all things that can be achieved in a lifetime. So our kids grow up as consumers not creators, coveting sleek, technological gadgets. Believing that liberty and freedom are achieved in the possession of these talismans of ‘cool‘, just like in the ads. Perhaps when things don’t quite pan out the way the advertising has been assuring them they will and they are subject to a concerted digital hate campaign via Facebook by their ‘so called’ friends, then these individuals are missing a reason to live for.
The cultural changes and evolution, which are endlessly unfolding, finds us at a time when the meaning of life, seemingly apparent in our parents and grandparents lives, have become a flicker on a screen – an entry in Wikipedia on a Google page ranking list. Belief in god has been subject to the erosion of a full twentieth century’s worth of scientific derision. So many sub-splinters of meaning came from this one awesome god delusion. Millions of people down the ages have been slaughtered in this belief and it emanates in our DNA like a blood disease. So we are left now at the altar of our lives looking around for the next suitor to give our lives something worth living for. Belief in ourselves perhaps?
Well we have become so functional in everything we do and say. Language has become so functional, losing all it’s flowery intrigues of earlier times. Education is so god damned functional, all about jobs and continuous assessments. Love has become pretty functional too, try before you buy living together and fast food divorce. Can functionality alone give deep and true meaning to life? My function in life is to ______________________ insert your own function in the space provided. Will that function give you the meaning you need to cope with tragedy and grief in your life?
If we really want to reduce the number of people killing themselves within our communities, I think we need to ask ourselves about the meaning of our lives. Digging bloody great big holes in the ground and selling ore to the Chinese is not going to provide us all with a meaningful reason to celebrate being alive. Having a new mobile phone is not going to change your life where it matters. How we educate our children and ourselves is going to get a bit closer in that search for meaning. We need to really have a look at our whole education system and see what it provides, beyond the ability to get a job. We need to move the ancient education set-up we have out of the nineteenth century, remove the god botherers from their positions of influence, and ask ourselves some real honest to _____? questions about ourselves and the meaning of life. We can do this we just need to care enough to do something.