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Return of the Paperback

Over the past decade, we have been bombarded with the same story: print books are dying and ebooks are the future. When Angus & Robertson closed their doors and went online, this seemed to confirm the idea that physical bookshops are becoming a thing of the past. Even Borders, the big, new chain that was supposed to wipe out independent booksellers, went bankrupt.  The introduction of Amazon Australia at the end of 2017 with its low prices and quick delivery times spelt out more trouble for the industry than ever before. 

Against the odds, Australia has actually seen growth within the industry, with increasing numbers of bookshops opening across the country in the past few years. So how is it that book shops are managing to fight these cheaper online options? And why is it that despite the predictions of bookshops dying out, customers are still choosing to support their local stores?

Courtney Bland has worked in one of Australia’s largest book retailers for eight years. She currently manages a cluster of stores for the chain and is here to answer our questions about what she has seen working in the industry through all these changes. 

Q:There’s a real perception from the public that physical bookshops are dying out. How true does that seem from the other side of the counter?

I can totally understand the perception that bookshops are dying out. When you lose an iconic Australian brand such as Angus and Robertson you do worry about the book industry. On the other hand, while Angus and Robertson closed, there are still so many bookshops opening up each day that go against the failings that we saw from Angus and Robertson. From the other side of the counter, we are seeing books thriving, with book lovers rushing in for the next book in the series. New generations of readers are coming through our doors, with their parents choosing their favourite stories from their childhood to share with them.

Q:Why do you think this is the case and people prefer shopping for books in person rather than online?

Choosing a book is such a personal experience. I am not going to say I don’t online shop because I do, but buying a pair of shoes online is so much easier than choosing a book. Books you want to flick through the pages, read staff reviews, and find out real opinions from real people standing in front of you. I have lost count of the number of people who walk through the doors into our store and pause in the doorway, stopping to smell the books and take in the atmosphere. Another issue with online shopping for books is when you finish a book at 11pm that ends on a cliff hanger like the one we were left with in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. You have two options, jump straight online and order the 7th book of Harry Potter from an online store and wait the required five to ten business days, or head straight to your local bookshop the next day at 9am. I know what I would choose. Local bookshop all the way, if the book is released, I am not waiting five to ten business days.

Q:There is a similar outlook in terms of physical books. People seem to feel they are gradually being phased out and replaced with ebooks and kindle. Do you get the impression this holds true?

Ebooks are very popular, I will give them that, even I own a kindle device and use it. But it does not take away from the feeling of a book. Ebooks are for convenience, but holding a printed book in your hands, nothing compares. From our side of the counter, we do not see people turning away from printed books for ebooks, but still running towards the stores for their next read. We even have quite a avid readers who come in to buy the special edition copy of a book, the next in the series they have been waiting months for. But they do not read this copy, but read the cheaper version, or purchase an ebook version so they can keep their special edition copy in pristine condition. We do not judge a fellow book lover, as chances are we have done the same thing ourselves!

Q:There were predictions that Amazon Australia’s launch would negatively impact the book industry due to speed and pricing. What initiatives have your company introduce to stop this impact? 

I didn’t really notice a big change in our customers since the launch of Amazon. There are always going to be customers that Amazon appeals to, same as online shopping and e-books. What Amazon lacks is the personal experience you gain from visiting a shop and talking to a real human about finding a new book. What we have done as a business is kept our friendly service and love of books, which we feel has greatly helped us stay competitive with Amazon.

Q:What benefits do you think customers have if they choose to buy their books locally?

Over the years working in bookshops, I love nothing more than recommending a good book to a reader and having them return to tell me what they thought of my recommendation. Buying from your local bookshop means a personal service from friendly booklovers, without having to wait for your online order to ship.

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