Monday, July 23, 2012

Not to rely on the strength of mighty structures


I've been sad for many years because the main Christian bookshop chains in Australia don't support their compatriots the way we would like them to. The saddest thing is, they honestly believe that they are. They think that poking a few copies of our books on their shelves is really going all out for us. They declare, 'We support fellow Australians' but they never give our books the huge exposure they give to American ones. When asked why, they reply, 'Australian books don't sell! But we're still supporting you. We have them on our shelves. Anybody who is looking for you will find you. Or if they can't, they only need to ask us.' If that doesn't give the impression that even fellow-Aussies (the bookshops) think we're producing second rate material, I don't know what does. The fact is, Australian authors write wonderful, thought-provoking, entertaining and compelling books. I know I'm very biased here, but please take my word for it anyway.

Over the years, I've had many moments of deep depression over this, thinking, 'If our bookshops aren't giving us the support we need, what's the point of going on?' Now that we're in the middle of 2012, I'm beginning to realise that I've been shortsighted. For over a decade, I've been regarding the bookstores as monoliths I need to scale, and getting featured in Koorong's catalogue is making it closer to the top. Well, I'm figuring out that you don't need to be Sir Edmund Hilary in this business. Huge structures can crumble suddenly while you're trying to scale them so it's wise not to pin all your hopes on them.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall, an apparently permanent and impregnable bastion if ever there was one, was dismantled seemingly overnight. After hundreds of years of supremacy, the Roman Empire ended in quite an unobtrusive way. The strength of its citizens was undermined by the lead pipes of their water system, of all things. Poor Henry V died of dysentery soon after winning the Battle of Agincourt, when he was on the pinnacle of having both England and France under his feet. Napoleon's topple from his pedastal has become a proverb, as he faced Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and 'met his Waterloo.'  And King Belshazzar of Babylon was feasting and carousing when he and his company suddenly read 'the writing on the wall.' In the morning, his reign was over. And just last week, my son, Blake, and I learned during a history lesson that the mighty Attila the Hun died of a nosebleed! History reinforces the folly of relying on huge structures, but it's a hard lesson to believe when they appear so solid.

As for bookshops, I think I can sense their foundations beginning to tremble. Not long ago, I was browsing in Borders bookshop, near the iconic silver balls in Adelaide. After passing their cafe, where many people were eating and drinking, I took the escalator to the top storey and sat in a plush armchair to look at books. Nothing could have seemed more opulent and substantial. But before I had time to make another trip down from the Hills into Adelaide, it was gone! Angus & Robertson followed on its heels. And Word bookstore, which has been in the heart of Adelaide for as long as I can remember, has been forced to shuffle out to some obscure suburb I never visit.

I have some idea of what is shaking the ground for bookshops. In January, I was given a kindle. Now, my days of driving down to Adelaide especially to visit Koorong are over. Electronic books are cheap, swift to download and don't have a shelf life. I'm pretty sure that if I have a recommendation for some good old book written years ago, I'll have more chance finding them on Amazon than in Koorong, Dymocks or any other shop. It seems that e-books may be the iceberg to the Titanic of the bookshops. Just twenty or even ten years ago, whoever would have imagined it?

Although there is sadness in this situation, there are a few positive thoughts for writers like myself to take out of it. We no longer need to get downhearted because the big bookstores aren't interested in us. 'Big' seems to be shrinking daily. If you're like me, take courage. We need to keep our chins up, never stop writing or producing whatever we do best, and trust that more opportunities are opening up to spread our voices further than we might believe possible. As King Hezekiah was warned by God not to trust in the horses and chariots of Egypt, I believe He would say the same thing to authors regarding bookshops.

12 comments:

  1. I agree Paula. While it is sad to see bookstores closing down, it does make the way a bit easier for us authors. :)

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  2. My hope is that people will still visit and buy from small specialised bookshops. They are such a delight. I would hate to see them disappear. Do you remember the 'Shop around the corner' in 'You've got mail'? The big book store was more popular and so the little one had to close. At the time that movie was produced that did seem to be the way it was going... now I have hope for little stores... and who would have believed that online stores and kindles would have stolen the market from the big stores? Proves - you just never know.
    I think for Australian Christian writers it would help if we had some big publishers behind us like the ones in America. But of course I don't know that for sure. Asta x

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  3. Thanks ladies.
    Asta, that movie was on TV a few weeks ago and I loved watching it again. I remember thinking exactly the same as you've mentioned here. That movie is not much over ten years old. Who would have expected the big chain stores to be under threat by now?
    Yes, I hope the small specialised shops survive by virtue of their quaintness.

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  4. A well known author recently told me that a very large Australian publishing house is currently laying off a mass of workers. I agree that the industry is being forced to move with the times, and for we emerging authors, it gives us a chance to shine and 'show them what we've got.' :)

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  5. Interesting article Paula. I think there is a big shake up happening in the world of books and bookshops, publishing, magazines and media. I know that I have pondered and fretted over this, specifically praying & seeking God about the future of Footprints - being a print magazine and all (which is expensive to produce even with volunteer labour!). Don't panic though - He is clearly encouraging us to continue as a print magazine!

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  6. It's quite sad that Christian writers are not being supported but maybe times are changing for the better?

    Have you heard about the non-Christian author who has been shortlisted for Australian Christian Book of the Year (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/non-christian-is-a-christian-book-prize-contender)? What do you think?

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  7. Hi Janet,
    I'm pleased to hear that. We would certainly hope these signs of the times don't apply to the terrific mags we look forward to in our snail mail.

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  8. Hi Shirlaine,
    Oh dear. Yes, I think the Christian Book of Year majors mostly in non-fiction written by the country's intelligentsia and appealing to the academic market. I know there have been a few exceptions, but for the most part, you don't see straightforward, encouraging, Christian fiction written for the general market get a look in. I know this isn't stated explicitly in their guidelines but read between the lines.
    As for the situation you mentioned, I don't know what to think, but it begs the question, 'Can a book written by a non-Christian really be called a Christian book?'
    Cheers :)

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  9. Hi Rose,
    I know that if I worked for any traditional publishing companies or large chain book shops, I might be getting a bit nervous too :)

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  10. I think the ebook market has definitely done its damage to the book sellers, but I think the ebook trade has definitely made it easier for authors to market their books to a wide audience.

    It's a shame your local stores aren't more supportive of their local talent. It used to be that businesses took pride in community.
    That said, I have seen smaller, specialty bookshops in our area that remember where they live, and do their best to help their authors.

    As shiny and new as ebooks are right now, I don't think books will lose their appeal. It's just that in this economy, people prefer getting their reads as cheaply as possible. I say use the ebooks as a way to reach more people, and the ones who really enjoy your work will be willing to eventually own a physical copy. :o)

    Peace and Laughter!

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  11. And thank you, Paula, for your though provoking books!
    Blessings,
    Wendy Sargeant

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  12. I totally understand where you're coming from Paula. And I think you're right about eBooks which saddens me because they're just not the same. But last time I was in Koorong there was an adundance of fiction by Australian authors and every Aussie author had at least one of their books reviewed with those little staff recommendation cards AND there was a sign listing all the exciting new Australian fiction... So I wouldn't say they don't support you...

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Thanks for your comments.

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