At the time of writing bookstores in Houston, Texas seemed to have largely escaped intact following the unprecedented flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Some had to cancel events, or close for a day or move books to higher shelves as a precaution, but – so far – it has been better than expected. Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette and Scholastic have all offered help, ranging from donations to the Red Cross, to promising any bookstore that has been damaged free copies of bestselling titles.
Many booksellers have spoken of how people had pulled together. Richard Dupree of Katy Budget Books said: “A crisis like this brings out the best in people. Utility linemen working to restore power in blistering winds and driving rain, risking their lives so others will be more comfortable. People from Louisiana (they call themselves the Cajun Navy) working their way to Houston as we speak, with small boats in tow to help with search and rescue. Neighbours helping neighbours…”
Bricks and mortar booksellers in Australia are feeling united too as they look forward to a more level playing field following the government’s decision to treat offshore, online booksellers in the same way it treats their onshore physical counterparts ie by imposing GST (Goods and Services Tax) on low value items such as books that are imported from online overseas retailers.
Physical booksellers in Australia and New Zealand have long been required to add 10% and 15% GST respectively to prices, but offshore online sellers are exempt from adding the charge on goods below AU$1000. Now, after much lobbying by the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA), the Australian Government has decided to abolish the AU$1000 threshold from 1 July 2018. Industry body Retail NZ is urging the NZ government to do that same. ABA CEO Joel Becker told the Booksellers NZ Conference in Auckland that the current situation gave off-shore sellers a “10% head start” and that “billions of dollars have been lost to the economy as people buy cameras and books and bicycles and cosmetics…online and offshore. Those billions of dollars [didn’t go] to paying for schools, hospitals, roads, social services, police and essential infrastructure”.
Some interesting observations from HarperCollins Worldwide CEO Brian Murray, following the publisher’s results for the year ending 30 June, which showed improved EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) of $199m, despite a $10m decline in sales. He noted that several of the biggest sellers for HarperCollins US were titles whose target audience was middle America, and he suggested that having editorial hubs away from New York City – Zondervan in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Nelson in Nashville; and HarperCollinsOne in San Francisco – gave the publisher a greater ability to connect with a different, non-New York audience.
Back in New York, the plans for a new indie in the borough of Queens, can perhaps be seen as symptomatic of the revival of independents and the travails of the chains. The new shop, Kew & Willow Books, has been set up by three former Barnes & Noble staffers who saw the opportunity when Barnes & Noble closed their stores in the borough. The received help from Kickstarter, and the store is scheduled to open in September.
The Beijing International Book Fair wrapped up with a note of flattery for Europe. We are familiar with the desire of British companies to access the Chinese market, so it was refreshing to read that China’s enormous China Publishing Group had put in a bid for an unnamed UK publisher because of its “extensive distribution network in Europe”.
Finally, there were many tributes to the legendary British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss who died on 19 August at the age of 92. He was a true ‘man of letters’, a throwback to a previous age in many ways. He wrote around 100 books, including novels, poetry, essays and memoirs, as well as some 300 short stories. In 1970 Dee Brown called his classic, Indian history of the American West Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (after the last line of US poet Stephen Vincent Benét’s ‘American Names’). Twenty years later Aldiss adapted the title for his memoirs, which he called Bury My Heart at WH Smiths.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.