Angus and Robertson update

It’s been a couple of weeks has passed since the infamous Angus and Robertson letters were published. Saturday’s Herald reported that the warring parties have come to the table, and are talking through their differences, but the saga still simmers away.
The past few weeks saw the debate gain traction. Alex Mitchell in New Matilda summarises the letter war here. And in an Undercover Blog posting entitled Books aren’t Bricks, The Sydney Morning Herald details the international reaction including a mention on Boing Boing . At the Undercover blog, the general reader reaction was horror at the A&R approach. The consensus seemed to be that books are special, and can’t be ‘treated like bricks.’

But the Angus and Robertson saga merely demonstrates how difficult it is to make money from selling books. Ultimately, the decision to stock items is up to the retailer in question. As Australian Newsagency blogger, Mark Fletcher suggests, “ It is not up to A&R to prop up under performing titles.” Ultimately, retailers will decide what they stock, and they have the absolute right to refuse unprofitable items.

Of course, Tower MD, Michael Rukusin (the people’s hero in the saga) questions why A&R can’t turn a profit on his books, when his other customers can. I’m in no position to directly answer that question, but most people wouldn’t expect a subtitled arthouse movie to do as well in Pagewood as it does in Paddington. Maybe A&R sells to a different demographic than some of Tower’s other customers.

I’m not an A&R apologist. I think that their approach was arrogant and wrong. But it does acknowledge the wider reality that being a bookseller in 2007 is not necessarily the most comfortable place to be. Whilst not quite as uncomfortable as being a CD shop in an increasingly iTunes dominated musical world, the writing (as it were) is on the wall. This saga, as I’ve blogged before, is just the latest nail in the coffin.

And the publishers are far from blameless. As well as selling direct and privileging KMart style discounters, some big publishers today operate under a market-driven regime just as insensitive as big booksellers. As one Australian publisher said in an article in the Australian last year: “We are a business. We can’t be any more sentimental than a business that is selling ice cream or clothes.”

The trouble with books is that we would like them to be special (given their cultural value). But at the level of mass production, they’re not special at all. Making and shipping objects called books is no different from making and shipping barbie dolls. Well, actually there is a difference; there may be a hundred or so different types of barbies and accessories, but there are hundreds of thousands of different books that are vying for shelf space and sales. So making and selling books is harder.

And there is another difference. Books aren’t barbies (or bricks). Barbies and bricks need to be made and physically shipped around the planet. Books, on the other hand could be constructed of (in the Negroponte phrase) bits not atoms. It’s what’s inside the book that ultimately matters, and discarding the object and refocussing on texts would entirely shift the economics of bookselling. Of course, a parallel shift is dramatically changing everything in the audio and video realms – CD and DVD objects are giving way to digital downloads.

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