Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Read globally. Buy locally. It matters!

"Dearest, I can't wait to send you the book I have this minute finished. If only..."
Stephanie Dowrick surveys the world of contemporary book buying and its complex but unavoidable effects on what is being read - and written. 

One of the many glorious things about being a keen reader is that the entire world can inform and shape your library. You can extend your reading vision across geographical, cultural and temporal borders effortlessly: and so you should.  But the writing/reading outlook is not entirely rosy.  During the last few years - and it really is only in the last five years or so - smaller local book markets (like Australia and New Zealand) have been badly affected by two new facts of writing and publishing life. This has real consequences for readers as well as writers; for our public conversations as well as for our private reflections.


First: fewer people are reading. Or, should I say, fewer people are reading seriously. "Fast books" proliferate just as ubiquitously as "fast food" does. Those are the books that are instantly recognizable as effortless entertainment. That they are generally formulaic, sensational and instantly forgotten doesn't harm them. Booksellers who may not be passionate book-lovers (and that's sometimes the case) can market them easily and are grateful for quick sales. Publishers are also grateful for them; that's understandable, too. The "book" that sold most in Australia last year was by Jamie Oliver. A fine cook he is, but a writer...? Maybe not. Books that require more care and thought in their publishing, marketing, selling - as well as in their writing - are plainly struggling. If you, the writer, are not following a formula, and if your subject matter does not promise instant entertainment, cure or gratification, your book will likely struggle.

That's bad for readers and it's disastrous for writers. It's bad for readers because the books that they may come to love most, to learn most from, to be most reliably transported by...will become harder to find. It's bad for writers because the physical, emotional and financial costs of writing something worth two, three, five years of one's life are becoming dangerously excessive. Yes, writers write for love; they must also live and perhaps support others also. Small advances on royalty earnings have shrunk to new lows; writers who once made moderately fair sums from their writing are increasingly supporting their writing with other work - when they can find it. This shrinking of support for serious writers and writing affects our public culture: the places where we share ideas, explode the old and invite in the new. It also affects the way we think about ourselves, and life itself.

"Let's spend all our money on books this week...What could be more delightful?"
The second way in which writers, publishers and bookshops have been adversely affected is the proliferation of on-line booksellers focusing on price, regardless of what their bargains "cost" writers, publishers and high street bookshops. In Australia, on this very day, it is possible to buy from global on-line companies with which our local high street bookstores cannot and will not ever be able to compete. It is entirely possible that local bookshops will eventually disappear - unless we continue to value them as places of pleasure and discovery in ways that on-line buying never can be.

The situation becomes more complicated still for writers because, increasingly, local on-line bookstores are by-passing traditional copyright and territory protection and sourcing books from US wholesalers who, in turn, purchase them from the US publishers at a discount so high that virtually nothing is returned to the publisher and truly "next-to-nothing" is returned to the writer.

Those marvelously "cheap" imported editions earn the writer a pittance, if anything at all. Perhaps more worryingly still (although writers' poverty is pretty worrying), those cheap imports then make the local edition appear expensive - and what keen reader is going to stop and compare the size of the markets from which the books originated, or wonder whether one edition returns a fair 10% to the book's author...while the other might return less than 2%, if anything at all...and even that up to 15 months after the book was purchased? This normalization of sourcing from "elsewhere" subverts all our established expectations of copyright, territory and fairness: and despite extensive submissions from local publishers and writers' organizations, one government after another remains completely indifferent.

But perhaps you are readers who DO care. When I have spoken about this to local readers, they are often astonished. Few readers, however thoughtful, realize just how disastrously the apparently wonderfully cheap pricing of imported books is impacting on local writers. Your bargain; our cost. And even if a writer doesn't have his or her work published in (and them imported from) the US - where, let me assure you, most writers' advances wouldn't buy a banker's lunch - their books are also affected because small print runs make locally produced books seem expensive...less attractive, therefore...and the wheel turns. Or fails to.

Books bring balance as well as irresistible excitement (Dimitri Otis Images)
If you are reading this article somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, my only request to you is: cherish your high street or your local mall bookstore, while you have one. Cherish the discoveries you can make there. Be reckless when it comes to trying new writers as well as those you already love. Yes, of course you will sometimes buy from A****n, but let the day not come when that is, when they are, your only choice.


I am often asked whether e-readers are a problem. The short answer is no. It does NOT hurt local writers if their books are sold as e-books; on the contrary. The royalties paid on e-books are fair. But it does affect bookstores...and the delicate dance of interdependence between writers, publishers and  bookstores. A month or two ago I had to find a new on-line Australian bookstore with which I could establish an affiliate relationship, both or my own website and for this one. I need to be able to offer on-line buying; it's a fact of life and also a way to support this otherwise totally unsupported (financially speaking) Book Club. I chose QBD precisely because they do not heavily promote and stock imported editions of books by local writers. That loyalty to local writing and writers matters to me; I wanted it also to matter for you. They also post out free - despite exorbitant costs - and they maintain a significant number of high street bookstores also; it seemed and seems very promising.

In my suburb of Sydney we have two local bookstores; within fifteen minutes drive or bus I can reach several more, including a couple of Sydney's best. But I am exceptionally lucky. Many towns of a reasonable size now have no bookshops at all.

My rule of thumb is to buy local books locally and, where possible, imported books also. I do buy from QBD on-line, as well as my local and nearby bookstores. I don't buy imported editions of Australian or NZ writers' books; that is, for me, where a line is drawn. I do source older books, books by dead or very successful US or UK writers, from the global booksellers sometimes; but I don't feel great about even that. The first time I went into a genuinely magnificent bookstore was when I was about eleven years old, or maybe 12. It was Roy Parsons' Bookshop on Lambton Quay in Wellington, and I thought it was glorious, sophisticated, arty, stylish: all the adjectives I barely comprehended then but already craved.

"Real" bookshops, publishers willing still to publish "real" books, and writers willing still to write them, all depend on readers continuing their love-affair with the magic of the book. When it costs a dollar or two more to buy a book locally, or (from a reputable on-line seller) a slightly more expensive local edition rather than an imported one, think of it as an investment in pricelessness.  Think of it as an investment in wonder, awe, discovery, delight.

Buy more, not less: writing will depend on it, on you, on all of us. And it matters.
Dr Stephanie Dowrick is co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club and the author of more than 14 books. She is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and in the United States by Tarcher/Penguin. She was previously a publisher and has always been a reader. Do share your thoughts on how reading and writing can be better supported in these complex times. We always love to hear from you.

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