(Above: speaking of milk bars. Wiki for the Olympia here, and naughty voyeuristic YouTube footage here).
Poor old opossum Nick Sherry created a riot in the pond with his prediction that storefront book retailing would die out in the next five years, overwhelmed by online selling.
It began in the middle of last week, as reported in Bookshops say they won't disappear, but this time, instead of Minister Nick playing sweet indie book seller Meg Ryan up against the evil chain seller Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail, it's the wretched internet that brought Meg and Tom together that's now tearing things apart.
Sherry overstated the case, as politicians are wont to do - you can still find vinyl in the heart of Sydney if you drop by Central Station Records in search of drum and bass for your DJ night. And no doubt book lovers of the Farenheit 451 kind will be able to hunt out treasures without facing a book burning and turning back to the oral tradition ...
At the same time, the response within the book trade has been a peculiar mix of fear and loathing and incomprehension, much like that peddled by Gerry Harvey and the retailers in response to online competition, and typical of a country where the Liberal party line on the internet - keep it cheap, keep it slow, keep it useless - turns up in the most unlikely circles.
And as is the way in Australia, where business tends to be run by socialists with a keen eye on government, the solution is seen to be a matter of government responsibility.
How else to read Bruce Guthrie's plea for the booksellers in There's still plenty in store for the reader, senator, a curious mix of nostalgia and government bail out demands. Here's the nostalgia bit:
There was a time when I measured a good suburb in part by its milk bar, toy-shop and bookstore. Not any more. Milk bars gave way to soulless convenience stores years ago, and toy shops eventually gave up the fight against massive kiddie emporiums and, I suspect, computer games.
At least our local one hung in there until our children outgrew it. Thankfully, the local bookshop survives.
But not for much longer, if the Small Business Minister, Nick Sherry, is any judge.
Actually, it's not Nick Sherry that's the judge, it's the consumer.
Actually, it's not Nick Sherry that's the judge, it's the consumer.
It gives the pond the kind of preening righteousness of the chattering commentariat to remember an argument a decade ago with a bookseller who scoffed at the pond's prediction that the industry would go the same way as the music industry (and the movies) as content became digitized and easy to read on portable devices. At that time the musty mystique of the smell of leather-bound paper was trumpeted as the salvation of the trade, a unique aspect that neither vinyl nor dvd could match.
Sic transit gloria, as they say, and naturally Guthrie lathers up the sentimentality to somewhere eleven, even if he can't come at the 'book as a lovely perfume' routine of Dymocks' boss Don Grover:
For the record, I've never bought a book for its smell, but I agree with Grover about their physical appeal. I've tried reading a Kindle on the couch and it's just not the same. Besides, they look terrible on bookshelves and are useless as doorstops.
Bookshops have their own appeal too, even if you are not buying. If I ever have 15 minutes to kill at my local shopping strip or the city I'll usually head for a bookshop.
Inevitably this kind of defence should also involve a put down of other forms of entertainment, preferably with an ageist streak, and Guthrie delivers in spades:
Browse a video store and you are likely to be bombarded by appalling trailers for movies you will never see; browse a music store, if you can find one, and the 20-year-old shop assistant will be indulging his taste, not anticipating yours.
But bookshops? I love the silence and the dignity and the intelligence of them. And, of course, a good one can guide you to your next great read.
Dignity and intelligence? He really should take a trip to Gould's, cleaned up, but still a celebration of chaos and confusion.
Never mind, it's the perverse notion that books - unlike sordid music and movies - are somehow special, that produces the incoherent condescension current in the book publishing and selling game.
So when we get to possible solutions for current predicaments, naturally the government is wheeled out as the handy fix-all band aid:
Sherry's comments were particularly ill-timed, even pre-emptive, given the Book Industry Strategy Group is due to report to the federal government in September on ways to grow the business in the digital age for publishers, authors, distributors, printers and retailers. Made up of representatives from all those tiers of the book business, the committee is expected to be aggressive in what it seeks from government.
Note that the line isn't what the committee might expect the industry to do, by way of servicing, selling, pricing and appealing to consumers, specialist or generalist, it's all about what it seeks from government:
For instance, they are almost certain to ask for relief from GST on books. The book industry fought long and hard against it in the first place, only to fail. I suspect they will fall short again, which will prompt them to make an alternative case: impose it on books bought overseas. At the moment they are GST free, which makes buying through the US-based Amazon.com or the British-based Bookdepository.com especially attractive.
Gerry Harvey learned recently it's a hard sell, but that won't stop the strategy group pushing for it.
Uh huh. Perhaps that's because in the case of small purchases, the administration and enforcement costs would far exceed revenue, fail to achieve the intended purpose, and otherwise be completely bloody useless, with avoidance and irritation at government rampant. Which is why it's a hard sell ...
According to Guthrie, the group has one bright idea:
The group will also seek a reduced mail rate from Australia Post. As the group's chairman, a former Hawke government minister, Barry Jones, told this newspaper last month, he had recently received a package of books from England that cost $42.50 in airfreight, but he calculated it would cost $237 to send them back. The industry clearly wants a more competitive rate, and Australia Post is up for the discussion.
But that's about physical delivery, and for many consumers physical delivery isn't the future.
It's astonishing that the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG) only got started back in April 2010, tasked with the notion of exploring digital issues, and preserving the industry's substantial contribution to the Australian economy:
"To keep it this way we must seize the opportunities the digital revolution is offering and develop innovative solutions to the challenges the industry is now facing." (here)
And so far their reported strategies are to cut postage rates for physical copies, get a tax exemption on physical copies or alternatively apply a tax on imported physical copies that can't with any ease be applied. And these physical strategies will deal with the digital revolution? Please explain ...
In the end Guthrie wilts:
Profits are suffering. My hope and suspicion is that Senator Sherry will be proved wrong and bookshops won't go the way of toy shops or milk bars. Then again, maybe I'm just another reader hoping for a happy ending.
Uh huh. Guthrie should try reading a few social realist novels where happy endings aren't mandatory, instead of a clear taste for bodice rippers or fairy stories that end with everybody living happily ever after.
Remember the first round of this great debate, back in 2009, when the Productivity Commission recommended the end to territorial copyright for Australian books, and the chain sellers were cast as the baddies? Sic transit glorious baddies Borders ...
At the time the decision of the Rudd Government not to scrap Parallel Import Restrictions was viewed as a triumph and a victory (Federal Government to retain 30-day rule), and then small business minister Craig Emerson was savaged for being out of touch, for making bland, unexceptional statements like this:
"If books cannot be made available in a timely fashion and at a competitive price, customers will opt for online sales and e-books."
Indeed. There might come a time when, even if physical books are made available in a timely fashion at competitive prices, customers will still opt for online sales and e-books.
Book sellers are currently experiencing what CD stores and video rental/sell through and movie producers keen on territorial restrictions as a way of milking markets have already experienced, and somehow they think that, like the milk bars of yore, nostalgia will exempt them from the march of time.
This is a bit like the opposition notion that somehow, ostrich heads in sand, Australia can opt out of the march of national broadband plans around the world. The Singapore government, for example, is contemplating an aptly named Next Generation National Broadband Network (oh noes, an NBN) with speeds of up to 1 Gbps, and it seems that in the not too distant future 1GBps might well become the standard for domestic connectivity.
Even in the United States, where the private sector has muffed its chance to roll out decent broadband, there are trials going down suggesting a speedy future - 1 Gbps fiber for $70 - in America? Yup.
There's other heresies abroad in the United States:
"The natural model when you have a simple duopoly capturing the majority of the market is segmentation: maximize ARPU [average revenue per user] by artificially limiting service in order to drive additional monthly spending. But fundamentally this is the wrong model for a service provider like us, and we have looked to Europe for inspiration… I believe that removing the artificial limits on speed, and including home phone with the product are both very exciting."
Look to Europe for inspiration? Wash out your mouth with soap, Dane Jasper.
Meanwhile, the pond bows to no one in terms of a love of the smell of leather-clad, moth-eaten, mouldering, smelly books, and their inner charms, but the book trade and Bruce Guthrie better head on down to their local milk bar for a last milkshake, before the digital roundup and shakedown really begins to take hold ...
They haven't seen nothing yet, and they haven't even begun to think realistically about what they were told was coming a decade or more ago ...
(Below: got to love Gould's, home of lost books, where sometimes they can stay lost, and thankfully still open despite Bob Gould's passing).