Thursday, May 28, 2009

More gloom for NZ booklovers

If you a) love books and want to visit a shop which stocks a big range and has knowledgeable staff, or b) are interested in local NZ published books - where do you go in New Zealand? The short answer is that, with the exception of a handful of the Paper+ stores, you don't go to any of the major chains. In some of the larger cities (and a few of the smaller towns) there are good independents that fit this description, but in most places there's depressingly nowhere to go.

Whitcoulls has now announced that one person in Melbourne is going to make all buying decisions for all books stocked in all Whitcoulls, Angus & Robertson (the equivalent chain in Australia) and Borders stores in both countries - yes, you you heard right.

Is this the beginning of the end for these stores? No, just another, albeit major, step on the slippery slope to oblivion they stepped on back in the mid-1990s. Whitcoulls was for a long time a big name in the NZ book industry, not only the retail side but in printing and publishing. It is now just a chain of some 60 variety stores owned by an Australian private investment group, intent on positioning itself one notch above the $2 Shop and The Warehouse, with a smaller range of products.

At the beginning of the year in an article published in The Christchurch Press, Wellington historian and writer Gavin McLean stated his opinion that Whitcoulls is the world's second-worst bookselling chain, the worst being British chain W.H. Smith, a short-lived former owner of Whitcoulls. "If you walk into one of the flagship branches, like Lambton Quay in Wellington, what you encounter is container loads of remaindered rubbish imported by Whitcoulls, sitting in piles in prime retail space," Gavin said. "If you go into most intelligently-run independent bookstores, you find the new books greet you when you come in the door – normally new New Zealand books. But in Lambton Quay, you have to search to find New Zealand books." The New Zealand section was slightly easier to find at the Cashel Street store in central Christchurch, but close to impossible to locate in their four-level mega-store in Queen Street, Auckland, which adopts the same retail principle as Lambton Quay: tempt consumers with groaning tables of discounted garbage and hide the good stuff away. In fact to get a NZ book in the door at all it had to be very populist, said another publishing insider.

So just that situation continues, only worse than before - don't expect to see many NZ published books in these shops from now on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Transport infrastructure priorities

The problem with politicians is that the extent of their long term vision is usually limited to the next election. Anything which involves spending now for paybacks in 10 years or more is rarely given any favourable consideration.
We have seen another example this month in the announcement of yet another billion-dollar-plus extension to Auckland's motorway network through Mt Albert. In the short term this will please many thousands of motorists (probably not those whose houses will be bulldozed but, hey, it's in a safe Opposition constituency so no matter), but in a year or so when the price of petrol shoots back up to levels that we saw in mid-2008 and probably higher, which is inevitable as the world economy improves, some of these motorists may well wish that a rapid railway system existed in Auckland, as was in fact planned in the early 1970s before the Muldoon government in 1976 decided it was 'too expensive' and cancelled it.
Auckland is already the world's seventh largest city on a geographical spread basis but has a pathetic public railway transport system. "Why can't we have a decent system like London, Copenhagen or even Sydney?" is what increasing numbers of Aucklanders are asking, and a lot more will start asking when they discover that the billions of dollars spent on their motorways haven't produced any real improvement to the ability to get from A to B compared to what the same money spent on their railways would have achieved. "We can't afford to spend money on both and the road transport option is worth a lot more votes," will be the government's honest reply. Yeah, right.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dymocks Head Office has shot itself in the foot

Unbelievably Dymocks Sydney Head Office was responsible for the wind up of both the Takapuna and Wellington stores this last two weeks. The stores were behind in their franchise fees (6% of turnover) so they get wound up up, never mind what New Zealand suppliers will lose from it. Dymocks Group chief executive Don Grover was reported in the NBR as saying Dymocks planned to open another smaller shop in Wellington, under their ownership. He also said the chain was also looking for another franchisee in Auckland for the small Smales Farm store in Takapuna which it put in liquidation earlier this month. "The store was on a non-traditional site -- an office area rather than a shopping centre -- and the owners had struggled to attract customers since opening in September last year," Mr Grover said. Are you dreaming, Mr Grover? Do you seriously think any local publisher is going to support any further company owned store unless you make good on their bad debts? And do you seriously think any new franchisee is: a) going to have to pay you franchisee fees in return for no support from Sydney, only the threat of being wound up by you; b) have to pay cash up front for every order to a NZ supplier because of the track record you have now created?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dymocks Wellington closure a blow for local publishers

It was announced today that Dymocks' Wellington store had been put into liquidation. Owned by Bruce and Janis Caddy since 2000, this store made a point of supporting local publishers by stocking their books, in marked contrast to Whitcoulls, Borders and Paper Plus. Not only that, it was run by people who took a keen interest in books, again in contrast to the dimwits of the other chains. What is probably even more disturbing - if one of the best bookstores in the country can't survive in these times, what hope is there for bookshops generally? Neither Whitcoulls or Paper Plus come into this category, they are respectively a variety store chain and a domestic stationery chain which happen to sell a limited range of down-market books, that's all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Author Peter Plowman interview on Radio New Zealand

Longtime maritime author Peter Plowman here talks to Jim Mora of the National Programme about the trans-Tasman 'ferry' ship Wanganella, the subject of a new transpress NZ book (22 minutes audio file, available for 4 weeks)

"Everyone else is doing it so why don't we?"

Well now we are. And with this first blog post we thought we would answer some Frequently Asked Questions
1.Why are you in publishing?
Contrary to what some people think, we do not spend our time flitting from one cocktail party to another discussing the merits of the latest literary masterpieces, while contemplating in which part of the world we are going to spend the proceeds. Books which sell well have to cover ones which don't and we are forever battling apathy and ignorance on the part of booktrade outlets. The short answer is that we love books.
2. What does it take to get into publishing?
You need to love books to the point that for you the desire to create them is a kind of noble calling. An excellent command of English is a must and a knowledge of other world languages comes in handy at times too. And of course if you want to make money then some standard business nous is essential too.
3. Do authors come to you or do you commission authors to write books?
Both. On average it has probably been about half and half over the last 20 + years, but the proportion of commissioned works is reducing.
4. What do you see for the future of traditional printed books?
This is the big question which we often think about. Worldwide there is no question that people prefer and will continue to prefer tactile literary products to computer files, but the amount of distraction for people's leisure time that today's digital-visual age represents, particularly to anyone under 45, means that the market for NZ books is shrinking, as it has for the last 30 years - but nowadays at an even faster rate. Opportunities for publishing commercially viable well-researched thorough scholarship in book form are getting ever fewer. Unlike some of our competitors we have not addressed these lack of opportunities by going down-market with cheap picture books for the lowest common denominator, and don't intend to.