‘That Mysterious Beast’: Martin Shaw on The Book Business

Martin Shaw, books division manager at Readings, was named Australian Bookseller of the Year in the Australian Booksellers' Association Awards last week. Given the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding the book business at the moment, and Martin’s decades of experience, we thought it was a good time to pick his brains about the health and future of the industry - and why he loves it.

Australian Bookseller of the Year Martin Shaw: 'It’s always been about the books.'

Australian Bookseller of the Year Martin Shaw: 'It’s always been about the books.'

How long have you been a bookseller?

Early next year it will be 20 years!

What drew you to it – and why have you stayed with it as a profession? What do you love about it?

I began simply because I thought I had to wean myself off hanging around universities and get a ‘real’ job. But the only thing that I felt I knew to some extent was books, because I had worked in academic libraries throughout my student days. Publishing was a complete mystery to me then, so I simply door-knocked Melbourne’s bookstores, and Readings, bless them, were the only ones who showed any interest and offered me some work.

And you could say that I’ve continued in the profession for so long because I still know nothing else! But really it’s because you learn so much more about that very mysterious beast which is the book trade the longer that you participate in it, and that learning never stops. And I still have that curiosity about each and every new book that crosses my desk, and I love the thrill I get when I come across something that seems to me like a real cultural event.

How has the industry changed during your time as a bookseller?

Well I guess I have seen a lot – the rise of the great Melbourne independents (including Readings), the rise and fall of the Borders phenomenon and big-box store model, and now perhaps a time of consolidation for the industry.

The challenges remain significant – particularly due to the predatory practices of offshore sellers and the legislative loopholes around tax and postage they exploit to give themselves a distinct competitive advantage.

But on the other hand, Australia is unique in having such a diverse mix of almost equally strong bookselling sectors (indies/chains/DDS’s), and that’s something you can only hope will continue.

We often talk about the threats posed to bookselling by the digital age. But are their opportunities too?

I’m very much of the belief that e-books are a wonderful vehicle for disseminating books, and consumers should ideally be able to access whatever format they desire of their chosen book from the retailer of their choice.

Australia is inching closer to enabling booksellers both large and small to meaningfully partake in e-retailing (which until now has largely been the preserve of Amazon and Apple), so I think that is an exciting complement to their offer.

I stress that it is a welcome addition, because I don’t think any of the large providers can quite match what the bookseller in the field can offer in terms of their relationship with their local community, their ability to personally select and recommend titles, and to champion local authors and publishing.

How is the digital age changing publishing itself – and is it changing the kinds of books and authors that are published?

I think we are in the early days on this front. Fast turnaround of usually quite short, topical books is now becoming more regular. Experiments with publishing into certain niche markets are already succeeding handsomely in some instances, but haven’t overturned more traditional paths to market by any means either.

A case in point might be book proofs – these advance reading copies for booksellers are now almost all available digitally, but the take-up seems only moderate: booksellers still prefer the print version (not least because an enticing proof, simply by its physical presence in your stack, is something difficult to ignore for very long, whereas a digital file is easily forgotten).

What has been your career high point? (Or high points?)

It’s always about the books, and quite often they have been debuts. There have been a few now that I have generally come across very, very early in their lives: in proof or manuscript form, and without any of the hype sometimes extended to certain books in this industry.

I picked them up because something simply looked interesting about them, or I had a lot of respect for the taste of the publisher and was willing to give the book a go, or I met the author by chance and they humbly said they had a book coming out that I might be interested in …

To then witness the subsequent fortunes of the likes of Wayne Macauley, Nam Le and Steven Amsterdam for instance, or the success of Tea Obreht, W.G. Sebald and Stieg Larsson amongst the internationals, really gave me a buzz, and I like to think I gave their careers and profile an early helping hand.

What’s the last great book you read?

I adored the Scot Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees, the recent overall winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize for a debut novel (which was an award I recently helped judge). It’s one of those books where, after a while, a little voice goes off in your head saying ‘oh my god, she’s absolutely nailing this!’, and you continue to read in utter delight.

It’s a cliché to say it’s pitch-perfect, but I feel compelled to, because this book is so adroit in its handling of each of the three main characters (each chapter is narrated by each character in turn with their version of events), and it’s also not afraid to wear it’s heart on its sleeve about something profoundly important (the sanctity of childhood) without becoming sentimental. (Well actually, the last page is a little guilty of that, but by that stage you’re so beholden to the book and its author that you’re more than happy to allow her a little bit of indulgence!).

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