Globalising the second hand book trade

Bookstores are largely dead – killed by Amazon and the ereader.

Especially when you consider the logistics – in a country such as Australia, at the arse end of the world, electronic delivery is always going to trump shipping containers full of dead tree media around the world.

Yes, there are still some independents, who still have shelves well enough stocked to give you that frisson when you come across something new and unexpected, but each year they get fewer and fewer.

Which is a problem, as it’s one of the ways that small Australian publishers have managed to compete in the local market against the global behemoths of the publishing world.

If people can’t see your product, it might as well not exist. And even if they buy the electronic version, being able to see a printed version in a store can be the clincher that makes them buy it.

If people just search on websites they lose the happenstance thing – they might find what they’re looking for but they sure as hell won’t find the things they didn’t know they were looking for.

And of course there’s the second hand bookshop – they used to be small cramped shops with mismatched bookshelves smelling of must, cats, and gauloises with a classical music station for background sound.

No more. While some shops hang on their stock is poorer, less interesting, and no one smokes now anyway. Globalisation and the internet have done for them too. Sites like Abebooks and Thriftbooks, which started as a way of putting you in contact with individual second hand stores have inadvertantly led to the creation of these massive bookbarns, large tin sheds somewhere were rents are jawdroppingly cheap and employment is hard to come by.

And these bookbarns need stock – they’re about shifting product – so they tend to hoover up all the remaindered stock, liquidated stock from failed stores, house clearances, library stock disposals and the rest. And they’re good at it – order a book from them and thanks to that Victorian miracle, the postal service, it will reliably arrive in a week or three.

This is why we have a second hand guide to central Australia that came via a US bookbarn from the Edmonton public library system in Canada – something which, if you think about it, makes no sense at all.

And because operating costs for the overseas vendors tend to be lower than in Australia – cheaper rent, cheaper wages and taxes, and a postal service that does not require you to sell your children into slavery every time you wish to send a book by mail, not surprisingly any local operation finds itself outcompeted by the bookbarn vendors in the UK, Ireland, and the US.

For example, as it’s Christmas, I’ve just posted a book as a present (yes I am cutting it fine, but that’s life) It cost me $10.70 to post. I’ve also just ordered a book of about the same size and weight from one of these massive retailers in Ireland via AbeBooks – all up, that book, including postage, cost me eight dollars. No Australian vendor popped up when I searched, but I could have got it from a second hand store in Auckland for about twenty five bucks all in – three times the price.

So, not surprisingly, the local second hand trade is also dying.

In one sense, it’s good, it gives the buyer lower prices and more choice, but it also means that locally published short print run books (and most local books have short print runs) become more and more difficult to find, either new or second hand.

I don’t have an answer to this – public libraries are also being squeezed and increasingly fail to provide local authors and publishers with a platform to advertise their work, or inspire someone to track down a second hand copy of a book they’ve enjoyed.

It’s difficult, but it’s a problem ..

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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