The Big Issue : Edition 457
FOR 25 YEARS, Leanne Cramond has been loading up her car with books and catalogues, cranking up her radio, driving for hours and visiting bookshops in Albury, Yarrawonga, Cobram, Griffith, Young, Bowral, the South Coast and the ACT. These booksellers are “like my family”, Cramond says. As one of publishing giant Pan Macmillan’s longest-serving sales reps, Cramond is saddened when smaller shops get taken off her list (often because a large chain store has opened up in the next major town). Her job, much like a good book, is about people and their stories. “It’s hard to explain to the bean counters they’re not just a number. This might be a small account that only does $10,ooo a year, but if you take me away from them, they’re only going to do $3000.” Cramond and her peers play a crucial role in getting books out of shops and onto readers’ shelves. Her job is diverse. Some days she’s at the iconic National Library talking to booksellers about art books. Other days, she dons her jeans and joggers and sweats it out in the loading dock of Big W, scrambling through pallets and lugging boxes of popular fiction beneath fluorescent lights. When it comes to saving dollars, she says, an on-the- ground sales rep force is one of the first corners accountants consider cutting (petrol, accommodation, Canberra to Yarrawonga: do the maths). Some publishers have replaced their road-trippin’ face-to-face sales warriors with websites and telesales accounts. In reality, this means talking through the items in a sales catalogue over the phone, or directing booksellers to a whiz-bang new database where they can peruse and order titles in their own time. Ironically, this attempt to keep up with technology has the potential to hurt sales. Imagine how easy it is to say to someone on the other end of the phone that they’ve caught you at a bad time. Now imagine saying that to a broadly grinning Cramond, who has driven 100km and knows you and your market inside out. “They don’t need someone reading out what they can see for themselves in a catalogue,” explains Cramond. “They need someone who knows their business saying, ‘This is for you, this is not. I know you have a relationship with the local RSL – they might be interested in this great new book about military history.’ That is how you improve sales.” A survey by Books+Publishing magazine – distributed to more than 200 Australian bookshops at the end of last year – revealed that in 2013 as many as 69% of booksellers experienced an increase in sales. Compare this with the previous year, in which 59% reported a decline. Adding to this good news story was national book chain Dymocks, which had its best sales day ever on 23 December last year. But despite last year’s promising upswing, over the past decade the book business has faced a lot of uncertainty – fears of parallel imports destroying the local industry, online booksellers cannibalising bricks-and-mortar commerce, and ebooks challenging paper-based sales models. With such issues still in the mix – and others on the horizon – it’s clear bookshops aren’t out of the woods yet. In an industry so unpredictable, Cramond and her colleagues are under no illusions: jobs are potentially on the line come the next sales slump, new technology or market force. But they’ve come to understand that fluctuations in the market can be as much about confidence as anything else. At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this year, the founder of UK bookstore chain Waterstones, Tim Waterstone, made the bold prediction that ebooks were likely to decline, while hardcover book sales rallied. Waterstone claimed that the desire for the tangible product remains strong: “The traditional, physical book is hanging on,” Waterstone said. “I’m absolutely sure we will be here in 40 years’ time.” Sure, this may just be wishful thinking on Waterstone’s behalf. Or perhaps a ploy to raise consumer confidence. But last year did seem to show a reversal in fortunes for the hardcopy book. After years of ebook sales increases outstripping their paper counterparts, in 2013 bookstores turned it around – with book sales increases more than doubling that of ebooks. It’s certainly too early to say whether or not 2013 was an aberration. But new technologies and big market forces are not always going to win out in a business so dependent on people, relationships and stories – something Cramond experiences every day. So whatever the future of book sales looks like, one can only hope that the human touch endures. by Lucy Nelson 30 THEBIGISSUE2–8MAY2014 On the Ro ad IN 2013, AFTER YEARS OF DECLINING SALES, BOOKSHOPS RALLIED – BUT THEIR FUTURE MAY RELY LESS ON NEW TECHNOLOGY AND MORE ON OLD-FASHIONED PEOPLE SKILLS.