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The Death of Redgroup

The big news yesterday was that Redgroup, the owners of the Australian arm of Borders and Angus and Robertson, went into voluntary administration.

The internet has been blamed, mostly. In a mix of ebook and the Australian dollar pointing, most reports have blamed the rise of electronic books in popularity as well as the rise in Australia of consumers going overseas to purchase their books. I'm not actually going to disagree with that, though to be honest, I think it is more the latter than the former, but what has shocked me has been the way that everyone has simply accepted both statements, allowing for an air of blame towards the consumer to be laid. It is almost, by taking their money overseas, the Australian book buyer is being told they are a traitor, and that the death of these stores is their responsibility.

The truth is, however, that for the majority of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores, they have gotten what they deserve. In the last decade, the price of books in Australia has climbed, to such a point that it is not uncommon for you to pay thirty dollars for a paperback. Certainly, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to purchase a new release adult paperback for under twenty dollars. Even young adult titles are reaching that point, and I don't even want to discuss the cost of picture books and graphic novels, much less hardcovers. The truth is that book sellers, and to a degree mainstream publishers within the country, are gouging their reading audience. Is it any surprise then that with an Australia dollar that is on parity, or even better with the US dollar, that the consumer base of Australia has turned around and gone overseas? At the moment, it is in fact cheaper to buy a book from Amazon and pay the shipping, than it is to buy from the book depository and get it shipped to you for free. I mean, I have been considering buying The Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. It'll cost me nineteen dollars from amazon, not including shipping. It's a hardcover book. How much do you expect to pay here?

The simple economics of our times that were not addressed by the the stores was aided also by simply not serving their customers what they wanted. For the last few years, when I entered the local Borders around me, I was greeted by rows of bargain bins full of books I had no interest in, and then a very poor selection of back catalogue. Sure, I could buy a classic, but what if I was looking for the work of a particular author? At the time of JG Ballard's death, I could buy three or four of his books in Borders, hardly an indication of his body of work. It never did grow above that. Non-fiction was also pretty lousy, with a lot of what you'd call cash in the moment titles being tossed out that made me cringe, but anything that had a reputation or body of work to it, nowhere to be found. And independent press? Well, in Australia there has long been an issue with getting a distributor, but even those with were hard to find. If you queried about a book, the staff often did say that they could order it in for you, but it would be a six to eight week wait. In this day of internet bookstores and direct purchase from publishers, I can order the same book and have it myself within two from overseas, within days from within the country.

That doesn't even begin to discuss how my local Borders and Angus and Robertson did not support local authors and local presses or even the local community, thus establishing a rapport with the people who lived there. That's not true of all stores, I might add--a lot of people have mentioned that some of the franchise stores do this, and are actually doing quite well, but as a statement that applies to the majority of stores around, I am sure you can begin to see how it is not actually logical, but the right consumer choice, for the book buying public to go and look elsewhere for their books.

And that doesn't even begin to address ebooks, a consumer outlet that was served poorly to its customer base, if served at all.

There will be, I am sure, a lot of discussion about the fall of Redgroup, and how it is an indication of the industry itself, and how Death approaches upon his white horse, much in the way the music industry talked about Death a decade ago, but it is important to remember that Redgroup were providing a service, and that they were doing it poorly. I am an author and I want there to be bookstores and I want to support them, but I am also a consumer, and those stores were unable or unwilling to adapt to the changes in their customer base--and that fact only served to drive people further and further away.


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Feb. 18th, 2011 04:12 am (UTC)
Hear hear!

I usually find Borders and A&R extremely dispiriting. Nothing I want and so much of it!

One of the issues behind their collapse is treating books as commodities in order to maximise profit by lowering overheards. Therefore they overbought bestsellers and gift books (for the discounts) but had little back catalogue for those of us who weren't after stuff that's in the top 10.

I'm not sad that they're gone - I'm sad for the suburbs and towns of Australia that will no longer have a bookstore, even one as crappy as A&R.
Feb. 18th, 2011 04:35 am (UTC)
Even with my half-hearted defence of Borders (below), I certainly agree A&R went to hell in the last couple of years.
Feb. 18th, 2011 08:59 am (UTC)
yeah, it's a shame about the people losing jobs, too.
Feb. 18th, 2011 04:31 am (UTC)
I'm not convinced that they were gouging their customers, if the prices they were charging couldn't even keep them in business.

Which is not to say they were competent (although Borders always struck me as the chain store with the widest range of interesting fringe stuff -- US-centric, admittedly). But given the various constraints of a small, thinly spread population (and a small, weird writing community to support), I'm not sure that charging a price we would consider reasonable is even possible.

I had heard that their main problem was that they over-extended themselves just before the economy went to hell, which might make arguments about their pricing policies redundant. But I can't remember if that's the US or Aus version.

Someone I spoke to thought the local Borders were owned by 'that weird religious cult', but that turned out to be because they had Gloria Jean's cafes in store, who are owned by Hillsong (more or less). So it's probably all some religious conspiracy!
Feb. 18th, 2011 04:37 am (UTC)
Borders generally have very large stores, and that many square metres of CBD or inner city would have cost them an enormous amount of money. Add to that an ever-decreasing range over the past decade and their annoying habit of charging $2-5 more per book than their competitors, not to mention their weird branching out into novelty items and plastic junk, and I think it's entirely their own fault they're going under.
Feb. 18th, 2011 04:43 am (UTC)
Someone I spoke to thought the local Borders were owned by 'that weird religious cult', but that turned out to be because they had Gloria Jean's cafes in store, who are owned by Hillsong (more or less). So it's probably all some religious conspiracy!

This actually became an issue when Gloria Jeans staff were fundraising for Mercy Ministries within the bounds of the Borders shops.

Edited at 2011-02-18 04:44 am (UTC)
Feb. 18th, 2011 09:02 am (UTC)
i think the variety of good and interesting books in borders really depended on the franchise. for the most part, though, the last few years have seen a drop in the quality, i believe, and as grant points out, they do have a habit of charging even more than the other stores.
Feb. 19th, 2011 05:27 am (UTC)
Yeah. Not like I've really been it many in the last few years, now I think about it.

I am rather sadder about our local bookshop closing down, a few weeks ago.
Feb. 18th, 2011 07:07 am (UTC)
I know the answer to this question probably has something to do with the size of the publisher, scale, cheaper publishing costs, etc etc, but...

...if Penguin can put out really good books for $9.95, why should I have to pay up to $30 for other paperbacks?
Feb. 18th, 2011 08:58 am (UTC)
some of it has to do with the titles themselves and the copyright, i believe. the lisence is a lot cheaper, or so i am lead to believe.

but other than that there are costs, as to if they add up to such a difference?
Feb. 18th, 2011 11:33 am (UTC)
yeah, as well as the copyright issue, lots of those $9.95 books are reprints or mulitple printings which means the costs are for repackaging but not reediting and so on. So the books have already earned out their initial costings. Gives more room to move on price.
Feb. 18th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's interesting. I knew that Borders US was having lots of closures, but figured that since they'd already sold the Aus stores to what's now Redgroup.

I did notice our Borders was giving away lots of $10 off voucers last week...

I haven't bought anything in A&R for years, I deliberately stopped after they said stupid things about selling books by Aus pulblishers, but even before that I couldn't remember the last time I'd bought anything there.

I do like there to be bookshops, and I like them to be staffed by people who care about books, and who know about books.

I also like independent bookshops who promote local authors and put on readings, author readings, and other events, and I will buy from them, and order from them when I can. (I ordered 26 lies/one truth from Smiths in Canberra, because it was going to cost as much doing that as ordering through Amazon. Although, now that Book Depository is around with British editions and no shipping, I do buy more books online than I do locally).
Feb. 19th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
yeah, my local purchasing has dropped through the floor. mostly, it is just about the diversity, but when i know i want something they will have, i try to buy there--or at least i did, until the prices just kinda drove me out of it.
Feb. 18th, 2011 12:30 pm (UTC)
While I agree with much you've said, Ben, I should point out that booksellers in general - not just A&R and Borders - are not *usually* responsible (directly) for the exorbitant prices on books in Australia. For all that A&R and Borders have been marking their books above the (admittedly still high) rrp over the past year, it's worth mentioning that this rrp is actually set by the publisher, not the bookseller. There was a time I'd hoped that the entire bookselling industry might look at a restructuring of the various costs involved (ie - everyone along the line, authors included, taking a smaller cut), but this is unlikely to hapopen now that 2/3 of the industry has just had the proverbial carpet yanked (assuming it was ever 'likely' in the first place). I'd say more, but I'm exhausted after a day of explaining to virtually every desperate customer who came into my store today that Dymocks has no connection REDGroup, etc, etc, etc... :)
Feb. 18th, 2011 02:50 pm (UTC)
yeah, i'm aware of that, and i make the point in the post (perhaps not as strongly as i should).
Feb. 18th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC)
Ah, so you did. Apologies, should have read that a bit more carefully. In my meagre defence, I've just spent an entire day explaining to customers that, no, Dymocks is not associated with REDGroup, no, we don't mark above rrp, and thanks for your abuse but no, we are NOT in fact telling people they have to pay double what their giftcards are worth - that would be either Borders or A&R. :/
Feb. 18th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
lol. yeah, i'm not surprised, man. the giftcards thing is kind of raw, i thought.
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