Last month, one of the three remaining indie booksellers in Wellington, New Zealand, closed down. Roy Parsons has been an icon for 60 years – combining books with music and a coffee shop. A winning combination. Until now.
One reason for Parsons’ demise, reportedly, was the downturn in the CD market. But it’s indicative, too, of where books are going. In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.
Small wonder the international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves.
The New Zealand experience isn’t unique. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’ worldwide, a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t coincidental – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for titles.
For New Zealand the issue was complicated by the implosion, a few years back, of the old Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has since been reconstructed under new ownership, but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book outlets. That provoked some risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices. The change was palpable.
On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – a requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.
One of the casualties has been the old publishing model with its sales-by-rep to bookstores. As a distribution and sales mechanism, that was marginal here at the best of times – the New Zealand market was always miniscule, pushing up the cover price on books.
Growth is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print, and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.
As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year and my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand sold better than any of my other books have in years. Dramatically so.
At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next ten months. Only one of them is history. The other two are on popular science. Which, I guess, won’t be too surprising to long-time readers of this blog. And there’s a biography.
As far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. We must not just re-invent; we must re-conceptualise. I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014