Alumni Feature August 2011

E-publishing: is the revolution upon us?

by Diana Jenkins

Notwithstanding a lifelong inability to see past my next mealtime, here’s a few humble predictions from the News Desk:

  1. Cheap, mass produced paperbacks are headed for extinction.
  2. They will be replaced by e-readers, but hardcover books will survive.
  3. Hardcover books will remain expensive, and may start embracing very high production values, moving past simply being the means of packaging stories. They will become beautiful in their own right – works of art – and more will become available in ‘collector’s item’ limited editions.
  4. People like you and me, people who need books, will continue lusting after, purchasing, and treasuring these volumes, though I suspect we’ll buy fewer, because we’ll be forced onto e-readers whether we like it or not, and we won’t be able to afford every hardback we desire. Nonetheless, the book as we know and love it shall not die; long live the book.

Bobby Graham iPad I don’t currently own an e-reader, but I’m sure one day I – and most of you – will. Personally I have no philosophical or practical objection to them; on the contrary, I think they represent tremendous opportunity for writers and readers both. In fact, I’m just waiting until they get even better/cheaper/lighter/cooler and I’ll be all over them. Any new technology that encourages reading and makes it cheaper and (theoretically) available to more people, I am all for. And when I ask Bobby Graham, Director, Publishing, Australian Parliamentary Library (formerly Director, Web Publishing, at the National Library of Australia), for her opinion, she’s unequivocal in her enthusiasm.

Let me start by nailing my colours to the mast - or should that be pinning my iPad to my blog post, by acknowledging that I’m an e-book evangelist. Like 14.8 million other people, last year I bought an iPad, and have subsequently bought, synced, archived or read about 50 Kindle titles.

While Amazon does not release sales figures for their Kindle reader, it is rumoured that they shipped out 4 million readers last year. Amazon has reported that sales of Kindle titles have now outstripped sales of print titles. These e-books are robust, marketable digital counterparts – and sometimes front runners – of their print cousins.”

American site Skatter Tech – one of countless free publications now available online, this one covering all things tech – recently published an opinion piece by US student Chris Tung, The Argument for E-Readers. It’s part of the tidal wave of persuasion that speaks to the future, which as ever belongs to the young. Kids and young adults must find our dusty debate over the merits of so-called REAL books over e-readers beyond bizarre, in a horse-and-cart VS motor vehicle kind of way. Because it’s a done deal, people: the horse, as it were, has bolted, and only the most wilful blindness can deny it. It’s happening, because technology rules. Reality bites – as do horses – but that’s probably something only a Gen X-er would say.

horse cart The good news is that people still ride horses: those who love it sufficiently have kept the equestrian world alive, though it is an expensive and therefore elitist pastime. It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, seeing the way technology inverts the wealth paradigm? Landlines used to be the cheap option; now mobile phones are. Books used to be affordable; now e-readers are. Competitive pricing is just one part of the discussion, but when added to all its other efficiencies, the case for the e-reader is compelling indeed.

vending machine If the contents of Japanese vending machines offer a price point on the Zeitgeist, then e-readers are currently spreading like Coke cans. Asked to explain their exploding popularity, Bobby Graham muses, “So why have ebooks suddenly become so successful? I think there are a few reasons: we can buy the bestsellers as soon as they are available (I’ve just bought a selection of the Man Booker prize long-list from Kindle Amazon); the prices are good - the average e-book sells for about $10.00; the readers and tablets have matured - I could write another article on the pleasures of using an iPad; e-books are very convenient to read; and e-books are easy to produce from the existing files required for print products.”

Where e-readers suffer from an image problem is in their blood-ties to computers and the Web. Many readers loyally and sincerely recoil from the notion that a machine will ever come close to replicating the reading experience afforded by holding paper in hand. My in-laws, for example, utterly scorn the internet as a research tool and/or news provider. They have major issues with its credibility, trusting nothing and no one to be found there, even though all traditionally ‘credible’ news sources now have an established online presence. They indiscriminately sneer at blogs, even though many eminently qualified people – including vast numbers of professional writers, not to mention experts in many other fields – maintain them as a way of reaching their audience. Skatter Tech itself makes for an interesting case study. Beginning life in 2005 as the personal blog of a guy named Sahas Katter, its content has since appeared all over the ‘credible’ newsroom space: Business Insider, CNET, CNN Fortune, the Huffington Post and many other sites have all seen fit to pick up and run its content, and the site notes its ‘reporters’ have appeared on ABC and NBC News in America.

Drop by a pub near any print media publisher like Fairfax, News Ltd and PacPubs, and you’re bound to find journos and editors wailing into their pints, bawling, “Who are these people?” Well may they ask, because it’s a disconcerting fact of the online world that now absolutely anyone can ‘publish’ and ‘reach a global audience.’ Are they professional writers? In many instances, the answer is HELL NO. Everyone’s a critic? Well yes, so it seems, and a comedian and a reporter and a photographer and a musician and a filmmaker – haven’t you heard? Content is King, and every man (and his dog) stands in line to the throne.

Which brings us to the world’s great stoic: the aspiring author. Let’s say this author is currently keeping herself pure, saving her prose for a traditional publishing deal the way other gals hang on to their hymen: with the sometimes misguided belief that one day her prince will come. A printed novel published by a reputable house: that’s the dream, and it’ll be sooo worth the wait, and nothing less will do (swoon). Except that dream is about to bite the dust, because it won’t be long before publishers start testing debut authors on e-readers. It makes perfect sense for them to do this, and I’ll be gobsmacked if it doesn’t start happening soon. All of which means unpublished authors especially are at something of an ideological crossroads, because they can already self-publish digitally for very little money on Amazon, ending the horrible, insurmountable-seeming slog of trying to land a publisher, and test the market for their book themselves, thanks very much. And of course, author-driven e-publishing means the writer pockets a far greater proportion of whatever profit is generated than had this process filtered through the traditional channels first. Plus they could theoretically place themselves ahead of the curve by joining the pioneering wave of e-authors.

Self-publishing has long been denounced as ‘vanity press,’ and not without reason, so it’s very hard to divorce the stigma of self-publishing from the phenomenon of e-publishing. But it’s too easy to simply conflate the two, and to do so risks dismissing e-publishing’s genuine potential as a market in which a writer may forge a largely independent revenue stream. As Joseph Konrath, an author who has electronically self-published a fistful of novels, insists, do the numbers. Instead of receiving a 15% commission on sales (after your book makes back its advance on sales – if you get an advance in the first place, and if your book sells sufficiently well to recover the publisher’s initial investment), the author’s return on electronically self-published texts is something closer to 70% of the cover price (which is admittedly fractional compared to a paperback: Konrath’s titles e-retail – or should we say e-tail – at $US2.99). In a post entitled, You Should Self-Publish, he writes:

You can upload your ebooks for free, set your own price, and they'll upload them to Amazon, B&N, Sony, Apple, etc. I recommend keeping your price under $3. I also recommend using pros to do the art and formatting. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for cover art, a few hundred for ebook formatting, and a few hundred for print formatting.
My cover artist is Carl Graves at Extended Imagery.
My ebook formatter is Rob Siders at 52 Novels.
My print book formatter is Cheryl Perez at You're Published.
To upload your ebooks to Smashwords, visit
To upload your ebooks to Amazon, visit
To upload your print books to Createspace, visit

I’m yet to read a single self-published book, e-published or otherwise, so I can’t tell you anything about his books, but what I can confirm is that Konrath’s blog is phenomenally generous in spirit – the archive is vast; in it, he shares absolutely everything he knows about e-publishing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He makes a sound case for electronic self-publishing – reading some of his posts, I found myself getting a little carried away, exclaiming things like, “Fuck it!” and “Why not?!” and “Hell, I should just throw it out there and see what happens!” Because if my fiction MS is, as I suspect, terminally ill, then it almost becomes a quality of life question… might its best chance be a modest existence online, or should I just say my final farewells and switch off the Mac support?

Truth be told, I can’t help regarding e-publishing with a mix of interest and suspicion. As confronting and exhausting as I find this relentless education, I remain (somewhat doggedly at times) open to all new communication technologies. As a writer, I know it’s in my best interests to embrace them. None of us can afford to be ignorant about worldwide changes to what we do for a living. I distinctly recall the arrival of email; I was a very early adapter. I’ve been blogging for 5 years and was still abominably late to that particular party (plus my blog still suffers from being without a clear directive; all the successful ones know exactly what they’re about). The reasons why I’ve never considered a vanity press for my fiction MS remain valid, and yet the e-publishing proposition is not quite the same thing. Indeed, what starts seeming ‘vain’ is refusing to countenance any other but the old way of doing things, and dismissing all writers who e-self-publish as wannabes, try-hards, imposters and sell-outs. That’s kind of arrogant, don’t you think?

So what are we waiting for? Um… editing and proofreading, for a start. Editors (and often agents) do critical work finessing manuscripts to give them their best chance of success (and not necessarily commercial success, either – artistic success is surely an end in itself). It’s why vanity presses are so reviled, because a writer’s preparedness to forgo editorial intervention, publishing whether the manuscript is any good or not, is a little…well, desperate. If professional vetting channels like agents and publishers universally pass on your manuscript, there’s probably a good reason (in my own case, it’s comprehensive mechanical failure: this smoking shitbox just doesn’t work).

car Sometimes the problem is as simple and absolute as bad writing, but that’s not the kind of issue any writer wants to believe is his or her own. Then again, some writers prefer to self-publish because they’ve written something solely intended for family and friends, still others because they’d rather give away ten copies in the street than never see their opus in print… so there’s no question self-published authors in the electronic world will confront many of the same prejudices self-published authors have encountered in the past.

A published author whose works are or will be available digitally probably has far less to fear of e-readers than an unpublished author, because a published author will enter this strange new world protected by the name and resources of his or her publishers; both the cache and the professional safeguard this affords remain as valuable as ever. Published authors also have name recognition, critical presence and many other qualities that enhance their capacity to shift the merch online, and their agents and publishers are highly motivated to help them navigate this new form and forum. But unpublished authors… well, if the old world wasn’t working in their favour, exactly what have they got to lose by boldly marching into this new one? Their future credibility? Is it really on the line when soon enough everything will be online?

Konrath’s blog came to the attention of the News Desk thanks to Varuna Alumna Catherine, who, like Madonna, rolls by first name alone. She says of Konrath, “He uses Twitter, his website and his blog to promote [his self-published e-books]. He believes that if you spend the time cultivating real friendships online, these people become your promoters. The guy is most definitely all about the marketing, and perhaps less about the quality of writing (though I’ve not read any of his fiction so that is speculation), but he says some things that are at least worth thinking about.”

Catherine’a own research into e-publishing has included downloading and reading John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months. Her conclusion?

The supporters of self-publishing your book, particularly in e-book format, raise some interesting points. The fall of bricks and mortar bookstores is a concern for traditional publishing – there are now no bookstores left in Wollongong, for example.

Sorry, what?

Did she really just say there are NO bookstores left in a place that has its own university? Wow.

She continues (while valiantly trying to revive me with smelling salts),

Does less bookstores mean less books published? Sure, the big names will always have their books in the department stores and airports, but what about the mid-range and new authors? Are the big publishers going to go the way of the big bookstore chains?

Then there’s the straight-up comparison of traditional versus self-publishing – time to market, royalties, control of content – not to mention how hard it is to get a publisher to even read your submission, let alone decide to publish. No such worry if you self-publish.

The fear of poor quality manuscripts saturating the digital marketplace is pervasive. It’s a revealing anxiety, one that imagines only a torrent of trash bearing down upon and smothering more sophisticated, ‘authentic’ works, ignoring something that is demonstrably true: many worthy manuscripts currently go begging in conventional publishing. There are trends, there are lean budgets, there are bottom lines and there are plain old errors of judgement, because a junior staff member wading through the slush-pile might just miss the occasional nugget of gold. In other words, there are other considerations besides whether or not a MS is any good. E-publishing doesn’t ‘level the playing field’ – personally I still believe in getting professionals to do a professional job in order to achieve a professional result, including editors, designers and marketers, so I expect an e-book from a traditional publisher will still be the superior product – but does it at least improve the terrain?

Catherine thinks yes, adding,

There’s the concern that if anyone can publish a book, won’t the market be flooded with rubbish? Maybe so, but readers know what they want, and they know how to find it. Word of mouth works nowhere better than on the internet. If you write a good story, people will find it. It looks like the stigma is falling away and writers are becoming aware that they do have alternatives. At least one thing is clear to me – e-readers and e-publishing are expanding the market and creating more readers, which can only be a good thing for writers.

Bobby Graham adds,

What will be the differences, advantages and pitfalls for authors? Using my personal shopping experience, I think authors can expect wider exposure, more sales, different royalty structures and perhaps some teething problems. I think publishers will continue to do what they’ve done best: edit, distribute and market titles; they may just do it differently. Clever publishers will use social media to market their authors and titles. In a recent Guardian article, it was reported that Facebook now has 750 million users. I predict that most publishers will have a Facebook presence very soon, if they don’t have one already, to take advantage of that enormous reach.

And for authors who for whatever reason are contemplating going it alone?

Could authors self publish or self promote? I think they could produce their own e-books if they’re comfortable working in the social media spaces. The tools are available, the market is out there, and judging by the number of dedicated e-booksellers that have opened their virtual doors, I think the public interest is definitely there. Now I have to go and sync my iPad as my next e-book is delivered . . .

Well, competition is a beautiful thing. Sales figures make it plain that paper books are officially competing with e-readers, but it’s also conceivable that e-readers may ultimately help promote book sales. One might easily imagine a world in which a reader loves a book they’ve read digitally enough to want to invest in a beautiful hardcover version. It’s something I can see myself doing – how about you?

[DISCLAIMER: the following opinion is this author's, not Varuna’s, so any climate change sceptics out there can direct the howls of derision and hate mail to me – that’s D-i-a-n-a for…oh, how about ‘a’ for Abbott?]

clearcut There’s a final reason I am e-reader friendly: they’re kind to trees. From an environmental standpoint, trees are crucial to the healthy future of this planet. Even as a writer and reader, someone who loves books, I find it hard justifying the continued destruction of the Earth’s forests to produce millions of unlovely paperbacks, especially when a gizmo already exists that brings whole libraries to a reader’s fingertips in seconds. It’s difficult to argue the case for paperbacks when the actual need for them has passed – cutting down trees that might otherwise be left standing starts seeming decadent, foolish and stubborn in the worst way. I’m sure some boffin somewhere has already done the sum in terms of carbon footprint: e-readers must surely leave one, but what might they ultimately save in terms of tree retention and reduced paper production? That’s a calculation I’d quite like to know.

But let’s not be too hasty. Logging, pulping, wood-chipping and paper production are all big industries, and traditional publishing has been built on the back of traditional printing methods, and every one of these industries means jobs, so there’s livelihoods on the line. The planet needs to survive, but so too does its inhabitants. Still, I (and many others) can’t help feeling that paper and publishing folk have their work even more seriously cut out for themselves than ever before. Paperbacks look set to become a nigh on impossible sell; I’d say ‘mark my words,’ but the irony is too great even for me.

For more on Bobby Graham’s work in this area, see How we wiki, presentation at Gov2.0 conference, Canberra; Open access to Open Publish: National Library of Australia, *First Monday; Bobby on Slideshare.

"And Another Thing…": Alumni Opinion Piece

Irritated by commentary accompanying the collapse of various bookselling chains, Alumna Lisa Southgate argues the problems began long before e-purchasing came along…

It's not about bargains.

Talk about not facing up to your own mistakes. We talked about this. We saw this coming a decade ago.

It was discussed in the Nora Ephron movie You've Got Mail: big business horns in on the small bookstore, replacing experience and service with big business ideals like discounting and coffee and staff that might as well have been selling hammers.

It was rehearsed when Toys R Us came to Australia and Coles panicked and started World 4 Kids; and also in 2001 when Starbucks entered our coffee drinking market and everyone was sure this was the end of the locally owned coffee house.

World 4 Kids failed, Toys R Us considered retreating but held on to thirty-odd stores – not that you'd notice them – Starbucks retreated and now somewhere in fiction-land Nora Ephron's heroine Kathleen Kelly, the one who was forced out of business by a big chain bookstore, is doing a little dance.

The big bookshop chains failed.

They deserved to. They were bad at it.

Am I the only person who has walked up and down the Borders shelves with an unspent voucher in my wallet, and left, bookless?

Gimmicky recipe books, chick lit with lolly-coloured covers, lots of sci fi and fantasy that all seemed to start at book two or three, never at the beginning of a saga. And vampires, of course. I would pick up a book and try to get excited and just feel unattracted. Exposed, even. Unsafe. Like I was going to be gouged. I'd put the book back down and immediately feel better (and this, remember, is with a voucher in my wallet).

You could argue that it doesn't matter to Borders because the money was already handed to them, but that would be missing the point. Things are bad if someone doesn't want to buy anything with free money.

Last voucher, I finally did force myself to get a book, and although I liked the title and the blurb on the back, I just did not enjoy that book. I read half, laboriously, like you do your homework, and skimmed the rest. It's a dud. I have had it lying on my bookshelf for six months and I'd say it's gathering dust but it doesn't have even that much character. There is no dust. Dust refuses to settle on it. The pages are still white white white. And it is yet to develop a smell.

In an article I read recently, someone pronounced that once you start talking about the smell of books you've left rational argument behind. Well, yes of course. It's marketing. It's nearly all about the irrational: if it [weren’t], none of us would ever buy our own home.

We buy when we smell baking bread. We buy a magazine with Scarlett Johansson on the cover because in some tiny, magical way we're buying her beauty. These things are prods to the unconscious. Lighting matters. Overhead music matters. How else would they keep middle-aged women out of teenage street-wear boutiques?

Booksellers should look at the smell-of-books thing. Anyone who reads knows that something odourless should arouse suspicion. It's sinister or loveless. It's an unnatural creature, or a love that doesn't love you back. At best, it's not nourishing. You don't even need a storybook sensibility, you just need to choose fruit at a supermarket. You know that if you take an odourless peach home and it tastes undead you only have yourself to blame. New books from the big stores, same. Odourless, loveless, fake books.

I find myself these days spending a lot of time and money at a secondhand bookstore I adopted. They wipe their books down in eucalyptus oil. But that's not all. It doesn't feel like I should have to hang onto my wallet in there. I feel safe. Have you never noticed the difference between walking along the bookshelves of a library and walking along the shelf of a big bookstore? There's a distinct difference, a change in psychic pressure. In a library I'm excited and unrestrained. In a library, I suddenly want to read everything ever printed ever. The library wants me to read. But bookstores, they want me to buy.

It sounds like whimsy. Beyond rational argument. But if anyone thinks it's a negligible consideration they do not know their market.

Readers do tend to be in their head, of course. They follow words on a page and thoughts in their head, and nuance, and doubts, and follow them to a conclusion. They listen. So they can follow a whispery little doubt that says: ...meh.

And they know when they're being patronised.

This leads me something rational that I think has been overlooked in all this.

The range. Bookshops have been selling us crap. That's why we walk around a bookstore with free money going meh. This is why we went to Borders in its dying days when everything was fifty and sixty percent off and still couldn't find anything to buy. There was a lot of stock left. 'That happened to us, too,' a Facebook friend of mine wrote. 'What's wrong with us?' Nothing. Everybody, I was weaving my way around those aisles [with] the same air as a disappointed vulture. It wasn't the carcass pickin' fun it had promised to be. Now, when you're not selling much, even at fifty or sixty percent off, you have problems that do not relate to price.

(Important fundamental in the Starbucks business model, too. The coffee was not good. It was weak. The milk was scorched. I mean, are you serving a market or are you just getting rid of stuff?)

I suspect publishers share responsibility for this feeling that among all those books there was nothing to read. But I don't know enough about that. I suspect that early on, some business models were made and worshipped that left out the deep veined market that is Generation X, or at least generalised us too much.

For a long time when we wanted a classic, we could not go to new bookshops. My neighbours searched everywhere they could think of, for a copy of Milton's Paradise Lost, before finally succumbing to the internet, and then they still had to wait weeks. No luck at Borders, Angus & Robertson or Mary Ryan's. Bookshops were too busy trying to sell us zombies with our Austen. Me, I was looking for Ulysses. Now, I am not rarified. I had a state school education; I went to an industry-oriented tertiary institution; I wrote for newspapers for many years – so, short words and cliché city. But I had just read Dubliners and loved it, and thought I might have been ready for Ulysses. And I wanted to see what the fuss was about, why everybody seemed so scared of Ulysses. I mean, why does that song go, 'And the head coach wants no sissies/ so he reads to us from something called Ulysses'?

Well, I found that book retailers were frightened of it, too.

I sampled it online, through Amazon, and thought, wow, this is mind-blowing prose, and went looking for it in paper. I suppose I could have ordered it from Amazon – I had certainly ordered enough ‘ungettable’ science fiction through Amazon, as well as some instructional texts – but I didn't want to wait, I wanted it soon in my hand. I thought for sure the huge Borders at the over-sized Westfield Chermside shopping centre would have it.

Nup. Angus and Robertson, nup. The Council Library could have ordered it from one of their municipal libraries across town, but it was out at the time.

Now, I know this is supposed to be the most unreadable book in history, but it also changed the way we [write]. And punctuate. It used to be on school syllabuses. James Joyce is quoted all over the place. 'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake' – we've all heard that and I'm sure I've even seen it scribbled on a public toilet door. Why couldn't I get my hands on this book that everybody quotes? There should be at least one sulky-looking copy in a forgotten corner of some bookshop, right?

So I remembered the secondhand bookshop a few suburbs away with a pretty hand-painted window. I went there and asked if they had Ulysses. I braced myself for a grimace from the owner but instead he said, 'Oh yeah, we should have a couple of copies here,' and he went straight to a shelf, pulled over a little wooden step stool and pulled out this loaf of a book.

Eighteen months later the Penguin orange classics series came out, including Ulysses, but by now I had the idea that I could think of a book and, no matter what it was, go to this place and get it. I could think of it first. Much like my seventy-five year old neighbour searches for her favourite books, many of which are now in the public domain, and downloads them onto her reader. Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster. For both of us it's search and find. It's range. Depth. It's not about the money.

Now, I couldn't finish Ulysses (I stalled at that bit when they're standing around in the printing room). But I went back to my secondhand bookstore a few months later, this time for a quiet hour among nice undemanding sound-absorbing books. When you get to these places, you try and find a quiet little bubble of space, but I could not do that. Two people were standing in the doorway chatting; a man dropped in there to say hello and tell a riddle before getting on the bus that stopped right outside the door; there was talkback radio coming out of a badly tuned trannie on a shelf near the front desk; and at the back of the shop some kind of stream-of-consciousness trilling was coming from the world's biggest canary. I stood in front of the modern classics shelf waiting for things to settle down and a white haired man with a warm smile brought me over a little wooden stool. So I sat on it, found myself in front of the H's, and pulled out this little paperback with a title that appealed to me: Men Without Women. Wow. I went away and soaked it up and couldn't believe short stories had ever been that good, and felt it was my duty to tell everyone about this guy called Hemingway. A week later I went back for The Snows of Kilimanjaro, couldn't believe how good that was, and went back to grab the copy of A Moveable Feast and thought I'd died and gone to Paris.

So it became my thing to go back to this shop and scrape out some more Hemingways. I was always lucky. A lot of people who owned Hemingways appeared to have died lately. Once I had just walked in and heard the words from the shop's manager: 'Can you start with that box over there, the one with the Hemingway on top?' It was a cardboard box with one side of the top flaps opened and couple of books lying on the top as if they'd just ripped it open and pulled out one or two to get a taste. 'Hi. What Hemingway?' I said. And it was just a little Hemingway reader, but that went home with me.

These are not particularly cheap purchases. Eight dollars, sometimes twelve, sometimes more – it depends on the quality of the book. But you spend the money. You don't notice you're spending the money. It's such a neat seduction you don't notice you're losing your shirt until you're nearly home. You feel a little dirty, a little ashamed, but not that much. You start planning your next trip the next morning.

I could not wait to take my mother-in-law there, when she drove up to visit us from country New South Wales. She's one of those well-read frugal pensioners who are constantly at their libraries to order new stock, and in between her exclaiming over the Graham Greenes and my discovering a pile of cool sheet music, we watched another couple of customers. They were nice-faced, in their mid-fifties perhaps, tall man, frowsy woman, and they'd split off and quietly pillage and then meet back with piles of books under their arms and report to each other: 'I've just spent $90 worth...' My mother-in-law and I exchanged a look and she said, 'You really have to get me out of here,' but, having just found some arrangements for easy play piano, I resisted, and about twenty minutes later, after my mother-in-law had accumulated her own pile of books, this couple came back and updated to each other: 'I've spent $154...'

This was just a few months ago. Borders and Angus & Robertson had announced their bad news perhaps a week before. This was the kind of expenditure they would have loved to claim.

'I wouldn't want to be in the new bookshop business right now,' the owner of a secondhand bookshop in the Blue Mountains told me recently. 'But secondhand bookshops serve a social function, the unexpected.'

Yes, that's true. But they are now serving the expected much better than new bookshops. I go to mine for the expected. I go for certainty. I know that I will go to them before I even consider a new bookshop now. They have me. I know they will have what I want, and if they don't, they will write my name down on their clipboard and whether it's a Joyce or LM Montgomery or Julia Cameron I will usually get a call just a few days later, which is a lovely mystery given that this is a secondhand shop.

I know that secondhand bookshops are endangered, too. Four years ago there were five in my part of town. Now there's one. But I have a feeling my favourite bookshop will face down the Kindles and online booksellers. It's there for readers rather than buyers. It has range. It has depth. It has faultless customer service.

And its books smell of eucalyptus oil.

[Lisa Southgate is a Brisbane-based creative writer and a former business journalist. She still hasn't finished Ulysses.]

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Slinging Hash: how do writers really earn a crust?


Warmest congratulations to Kim Westwood, whose second novel The Courier’s New Bicycle has just launched.

2011 is a big year for Varuna Alumna Lizzie Wilcock, with the release of three novels. In March Scholastic released Extinction: The Day The World Ended. July brought the release of Give Me Four Reasons, published by Little Hare Books. Extinction 2: The Explosive Conclusion will be released in August, 2011.

Fresh from a week at Varuna, Alumna Kate Holden may currently be found in several places at once:
Her essay on memoir, 'After the Words', appears in the current Griffith Review, Edition 33: Such is Life.
Kate also had an essay, 'Sex work and feminism' in the March issue of Meanjin, which is available online here.
She’ll be appearing (along with Benjamin Law and Jane Clifton, who've both stayed at Varuna) on 'Jennifer Byrne Presents...' on memoir, to be screened on ABC this month.
Finally, the b-format of Kate’s second book The Romantic will be released in October.

Read all about these exciting new release Alumni titles at Varuna Books.

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