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.