‘You Are Not Your Customer’: On How Australians Buy Books

Amazon opened a local online store last week - but Australians have been buying there for years already. How many of us buy ebooks, and where do we buy them from? What are local booksellers doing to keep up with their customers - and what do customers really want? We take a look.

‘Booksellers don’t want to ask customers what their buying habits are. They assume that because they still see them in their shop, they’re still their loyal customers – but that’s not the case.’ Gary Pengelly is general manager of Thorpe Bowker, a company that collects and publishes information about the Australian book industry. He says that customers, understandably, don’t want to tell their friendly neighbourhood bookseller about the buying they do online. And booksellers don’t ask.

Ebooks are nearly 20% of Australian book market

Ebooks now represent a little under 20% of the Australian book market. And while many bookshops now provide ebook options to their customers, booksellers admit that for most book-buyers, digital books mean Amazon. The company has nearly 60% of the Australian ebook market; over 75% of ereaders owned in Australia are Kindles.

The Australian Booksellers Association has recently partnered with ebook company Kobo. Collins Booksellers and online-only bookseller Bookworld are among the stores selling Kobo ereaders.

Do ethical explanations fall on deaf ears?

Sydney’s Pages and Pages Booksellers have just partnered with Kobo and are relaunching their Kindle Amnesty – where customers can exchange their Kindle for a $50 book voucher when they buy an ereader in-store. Originally once a month, the amnesty will now run every day. General manager Jon Page is committed to convincing customers to change from Amazon. His strategy includes educating people as to what local bookshops do that Amazon doesn’t: for instance, they pay local taxes, employ local people and support local schools.

But Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, says that ethical explanations ‘fall on deaf ears – no one wants to be harangued for 15 minutes on why they should be there’.

Kobo’s Malcolm Neil agrees. ‘Amazon isn’t bad,’ he says. ‘Amazon is good because the customer likes them. We’re not going to win the argument by telling people they’re wrong.’

Fast delivery

Thorpe Bowker launched a service this year that allows bookshops to deliver directly to customers from the publisher, if they don’t have a title on their shelves. Metropolitan area customers can get the book delivered to their home within 48 hours. The downside is that the bookseller gets only half their normal discount. The upside is they might keep customers who would otherwise go home and order through Amazon or Book Depository. The service has not been as popular as expected. Gary Pengelly says many booksellers have told him that they are reluctant to use the service because it means customers don’t have to come into the shop.

‘When a customer comes into the shop to pick up their special order, that’s an opportunity to sell them, say, the new Richard Flanagan,’ says Jon Page, who has seen ‘a big drop-off’ in the last couple of years in customers coming into his store, with the growth of online shopping.

Free freight

‘It’s also perpetuating the idea that freight should be free.’ He says that free freight is the biggest issue facing retailers. Before Book Depository normalised free freight, Australian customers were dissuaded from buying their books from overseas online booksellers, because the cost of freight made any savings on discount ‘null and void’.

Thanks to a loophole in international law, Book Depository sends parcels to Australia for the cost of a local stamp (60 cents) and Australia Post has to cover the remainder of the cost of delivery. This has contributed to the doubling of Australia Post rates in the past couple of years. ‘I’m subsidising Book Depository,’ says Jon Page.

But Malcolm Neil says: ‘The minute we as an industry start complaining about books being cheap to the consumer, we’ve lost the argument. The first rule of retail is: you are not your customer.’