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Meet our members: Robbie Egan, Australian Booksellers Association

Love Your Bookshop Day, a celebration of independent bookshops and all things bookish, is coming up on Saturday the 9th of October. We interviewed Robbie Egan, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association. He tells us how bookselling is its own unique form of retail, why he thinks bookshops should be considered part of the arts sector, how COVID-19 has made some booksellers feel "soulless", and more.

This is part of a series where we interview the industry association leaders who make up our membership. Meet more of COSBOA's members here.

How did you get involved with the bookselling industry?

I’ve always loved reading. I started working in bookshops in my mid-20s while I brought up my kids and studied my undergraduate and Masters degrees, eventually getting to the role of operations manager at Readings in Melbourne. A few years ago, I went to a careers specialist to try to dissect and understand my skill set – funnily enough, her conclusion was that I should consider industry association work. I was already on the board of the Australian Booksellers Association, and when the position of CEO came up in 2018, some of my colleagues convinced me to apply.

What does the Australian Booksellers Association do for small businesses?

We’re an advocacy body for Australian bookshops, but more than that I like to think of us as providing a reason for people to look outside of the walls of their own business. We’re a link between competing small businesses who have a common outlook and common goals. Bookselling is quite collegiate - there’s a lot of sharing of information and even sharing of stock sometimes between bookshops that compete with each other.

Beyond advocacy, we’ve tried to become important in providing commercial assistance to our members, for instance by providing marketing materials and running initiatives like Love Your Bookshop Day and the Australian Book Vouchers Scheme.

The Australian Booksellers Association is also part of the industry’s marketing space. We promote books in numerous ways - we’ve been publishing an annual Kids Reading Guide for many years, and we now also publish 3 general reading guides per year. As a not-for-profit we can produce our guides at good rates to publishers, and subsidise printing for members. This year we’ve had record orders and record numbers of bookshops taking our guides.

Why did you join COSBOA?

COSBOA does some of the small business policy and advocacy work that we don’t even have time to think about, and it has a lot of collective wisdom on small business issues. We often distill information and advice from COSBOA to our members. The ABA was a member when I came on board, and I see great value on the work COSBOA does.

What is a small business advocacy topic you are passionate about and why is it important for the bookselling industry?

I’m advocating that we aren’t just a small business industry – we’re also part of the arts. I’m trying to get independent bookshops some of the funding that other creative industries get. It’s an interesting space.

Bookshops can be very profitable in a good year, but it’s still fraught with the uncertainty of being in the arts sector. Sales are very title driven and sometimes we rely on authors writing ‘blockbusters.’ If you don’t have that bestseller, you don’t have it.

Another argument I’m using is that Australian independent bookshops are where Australian authors generate their careers. We’re where they sell the first copies of their first book before they establish themselves.

The other obvious advocacy topic is COVID-19, particularly the issue of paying rent during lockdown. Some people have good landlords who have reduced rent along with the tenant’s reduction in sales, and others have landlords and real estate agents who are awful, blunt, and inflexible. It’s been frustrating.

Is competition with big online marketplaces like Amazon an issue?

Amazon is an absolute threat but it’s a long-term threat. They don’t care about anything but market dominance - they want a piece of every sale, not just book sales. Bookshops now need to have an online presence to generate interest in buying books and avoid sales leaking to Amazon.

This also goes back to what I was saying earlier about the ABA being a link between bookshops. ABA members have an opportunity to demonstrate that we’re the “biggest bookshop in Australia” and that we have more books than Amazon. We’re better if we understand that we’re together.

Also, ordering something online and waiting a week or two for it to arrive is nowhere near as joyous or as satisfying as going to a bookshop and having a conversation with someone who actually gives a shit about what they’re selling.

Ultimately, I’ve lived through 25+ years of rhetoric that ‘bookshops are dead’ and ‘bookshops won’t survive’, but it just hasn’t happened. We’re still here.

How has the bookselling industry been impacted by COVID-19?

It’s been brutal. Most bookshops have been able to pivot quickly and get up-to-speed with the digital economy.

On the one hand, it’s forced the hands of people who weren’t engaging in the digital space before. On the other hand, the relationship marketing has gone out the window, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. Selling books online is about 5 times less efficient than someone walking around a bookshop, picking up a book, asking a question, and then buying 5. We’ve lost the joy of interaction around the product. Normally we’re the intersection of art and commerce, but most members find selling online to be soulless. We feel like we’re a sausage factory. That’s why a lot of our members have resorted to delivering packages to customers themselves, and some businesses have even bought cars for that purpose.

Then there’s the fact that bookshops are paying full wages for about 20-50% of their normal revenue. Since JobKeeper ended, my members who are in lockdown have been losing money every week. But I don’t think we’re going to see mass destruction unless Dan Andrews doesn’t allow bookshops to open before Christmas. Members are pretty nervous about that. If that happens, I think people will really struggle.

Despite that worry, I believe bookselling will be stronger than ever in 2022. In the last 18 months, only 2 ABA member bookshops have closed - far more people have joined the ABA because they are planning to open a new bookshop. If you love it, you can make money selling books. There are enough people out there who will share that love with you. We’re a social species and there will always be people who like talking about books.

One good thing about the pandemic is that it has brought us closer to the bookselling communities in other English-speaking countries. There have been international support groups on Zoom.

What is something most people don’t realise about the book selling industry?

There’s a cheesy perception that “it must be nice to work in a bookshop and read all the time.” It’s actually some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. Books are really heavy. I worked in a two-story bookshop and we had to carry thousands of boxes of books up the stairs when the service lift was broken.

I say that mostly in jest. The really hard part is dealing with thousands of people, many of whom are very intelligent and often have very specific requests. Either that or they have no idea what they want and we need to divine it. We need staff who are educated, well-read, and who will bring that passion and knowledge to the shop floor. There’s an unwritten expectation, whether fair or not, that people do extra work in their own time and read a lot of books to understand the product they’re selling. After all, customers will notice if you try to talk about a book you haven’t read. At the same time, being retail, it’s low paid. It’s up to our members to value add to the job for their staff.

There’s the environmental impact of the industry too. A lot of books are printed in China and Italy and then shipped around the world, burning C02. There are environmental issues around paper and ink. I would like to see more domestic printing, or at least printing closer to Australia so that we decouple a bit from the global supply chain. We’ve all got to acknowledge that it’s damaging.

What do you love most about the book selling industry?

I believe in books. They’re the superior way to absorb complex narratives, stories, and information. There is no other totally immersive art form.

The people are key to me. It’s a pleasure meeting and working with really smart, passionate people.

Research I did as part of my Masters degree showed that interactions in bookshops are supra-transactional. Customers and staff in bookshops don’t consider that they’re behaving in a transactional way or that they’re being ‘sold to.’ They see it as an exchange of information. About 50% of consumers of books go into a bookshop without any purchase in mind – they just go in there because they love books. Bookshops sell subtly with display and atmosphere and customers are only approached if they want to be. It’s its own unique type of retail.

What is Love Your Bookshop Day?

Love Your Bookshop Day began 10 years ago as National Bookshop Day, and was rebranded in 2017. It is a national campaign to celebrate bookshops and was originally inspired by record store day. My understanding is the day was conceived partly in response to Senator Nick Sherry’s statement in 2011 that bookshops would cease to exist within 5 years. This year it takes place on the 9th of October and the theme is ‘moving around Australia’, bringing everyone together when we’re apart. Love Your Bookshop Day is happening at the same time in New Zealand and the UK.

Of course I hope that consumers go into bookshops and love them with their wallets, but Love Your Bookshop Day is more than that. It’s about appreciating all things bookish.

This year we’ll be releasing a Love Your Bookshop Day podcast with Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, as well as a special video made by the children’s entertainer and comedian, Jimmy Reeves.

It’s difficult when shops are closed to get them excited about such a thing because their energy is sapped. Rather than in-store parties (though if you’re open, do have free cake and bring in a llama – whatever makes people happy), we’re encouraging people to buy a book online or order click and collect from your favourite bookshop.

Finally, do you have any book recommendations?

I don’t want to privilege any book or author here! Ask your bookseller for recommendations. I have just started the new Jonathan Franzen book, Crossroads, and it is really good so far.


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