CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Good News for Book Lovers

Feb 18, 2011

It may not seem like a great time to be talking about good news in the book world. After all, news headlines report that 2,500 Australian jobs may go as the owner of Borders and Angus & Robertson has gone into voluntary receivership. But there is nonetheless some good news for book lovers, so keep reading.

As to the recent headlines, this situation does seem to be rather unfortunate. Several factors appear to be behind this financial collapse: cheaper books from overseas online booksellers, and Australian protectionist policies which mean books here are more expensive than what they need to be.

Such protectionism is said to be necessary to protect Australian authors and Australian booksellers. But I am unconvinced for two reasons: one, I find such protectionist policies to be problematic in themselves, and two, I speak selfishly, as a consumer: I prefer to buy my books more cheaply than more expensively.

Why should I be forced to buy books here much more expensively than they need to be? If I can get books much cheaper overseas, why shouldn’t I? And must governments always prop up every industry, especially if they seem to be uncompetitive, or unable or unwilling to compete with others?

Sure, allowing open competition may well cost some local jobs. That always happens when cheaper, newer or more efficient alternatives come along. When cars came on the scene, regrettably horse and carriage workers lost out. The slide rule industry went bust with the advent of the calculator. Plenty of other such examples come to mind.

This is sometimes part of the way life works. In order for consumers to get less expensive goods and services, the forces of competition will see some business and/or individuals thrive while others may struggle, if not go under altogether.

Now I realise that this is a risky article to write. Many topics I broach here result in hate mail and enmity. An article on books should not prove so divisive, but there will be some at least who will not like some of the tips and insights I share here.

Certainly local booksellers will not be too thrilled about all this. But again, in a market economy, the consumer should be king. Local book businesses may just have to adjust, and realise that government protection and coddling cannot always be counted on, and is not always a good thing anyway.

OK, that is a bit of the politics, economics and the big picture about this issue. Now let me get practical, and share some tips which all book lovers will love, but again some local book businesses may not appreciate. Those, like me, who love books and can’t get enough of them, but are on a strict budget, will enjoy what I have to share here.

All budget-conscious shoppers, whether of books or anything else, are of course used to shopping around, comparing prices. With the rise of the Internet and online suppliers of goods, this opens things up radically. And with the Australian dollar currently so high, buying from overseas online shops really does become attractive.

And when you discover that some overseas sellers offer free international shipping, then the options really do open up big time. This is true of book sellers. There are now many excellent online booksellers. Amazon was one of the first, and is still excellent in many respects.

But there are now other players vying for the book lovers’ dollars. So with all this competition, the book fan has lots of great choices available. But who has time to look up a half dozen sites to compare prices and service? A new Australian book service now does all the work for you.

Ever since I have been informed about this, I have used it quite frequently. And it shows, with my wife worried about my burgeoning book budget. But this is a wonderful site, and I must let all true book lovers onto this, aware again that some may not like these secrets revealed! I refer to <booko.com.au>

Now I am not associated with this site, and get no advantage in any way in promoting it. But as a hardcore book addict, I just love this site, and want to let other bibliophiles know about it. What it does is quite simple. Type in any book title you are interested in, and within seconds a list of up to 50 different booksellers appears, with the cheapest price available (including shipping) listed on top.

It will list dozens of bookstores, both Australian and international, showing what the book costs, the shipping costs, and the total costs, all in Australian dollars. So in seconds you know which one is the very best buy. Let me give you just one example of this.

A book I am just now writing a review of – and recently obtained via this process – is Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout by Patrick Moore. A click of the mouse informs me that the cheapest place I can get it through is the Book Depository in the UK. It sells for $32.10 (AUD) and has free international shipping.

A bit down the list I am told that amazon UK has it cheaper, at $30.38, but when you add their shipping costs ($14.04) it comes to a total of $44.42. But going down the list further is the real revelation. Consider the two bookstores which may go bust here.

Their prices tell us in part why they may be going bust! Who would want to buy this book at their prices, when it can be gotten so much cheaper overseas? Borders is selling it for $75.95! Angus & Robertson has it for $96.95! And if you want them to ship it to you, add another $6 on to the total.

What book lover in their right mind would get a copy of this book at these stores, if they can get it for a third of the price overseas? And I find that most overseas orders arrive within 2 to 3 weeks. But some may say they want to look over the book first before buying.

Fair enough, but most online book sellers, especially amazon, tell you heaps about the book, including page previews, table of contents, and other bits of info. Plus some of these sites feature book reviews where you can also learn a lot about the volume.

But if you know what book you want, and don’t need to page through it first, something like booko is heaven sent. While I have bought more books lately because of it, I keep telling my wife about how much money I am saving in the process. (For some reason she still remains sceptical.)

So unless you are a diehard supporter of protectionism and the local industry, you should check out these overseas sites. And check out booko with its easy to use comparison of prices. Sometimes of course a local Australian store will be comparable in price, maybe even cheaper.

But a service like this really does allow you to shop around very quickly and efficiently, finding the very best price for the book you are looking for. So enjoy these services, before governments start putting taxes on online goods and services.

Book lovers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bank balance!

[1223 words]

22 Responses to Good News for Book Lovers

  • Amazon UK has free postage until May if any order of certain categories, shipped direct from Amazon totals 25 pounds or more: http://tinyurl.com/6x5dbsp

    Just FYI

    Dale Flannery

  • Self interest does have a price Bill and you do touch on it – job losses. Similarly self interest in being a “Christian” will also incur a price – loss of the fruits of Redemption.

    All the other arguments about exploitation of overseas workers and excess profits are well understood. Such is the global market of impoverishing all except the owners of capital.

    We, the saints of His Redemption are not yet strong enough to be His instruments in bringing about Righteous Justice here on earth. Why is an important question here.

    Perhaps, says he with a tongue in cheek, there may be a little too much dithering and dallying over books rather than interactively allowing Holy Spirit to transform us to Christ likeness – more quickly than has been occurring over the past 2000 years?

    Ray Robinson

  • For some reason bookdepository.co.uk and bookdepository.com have differing prices. More often than not .com is cheaper, in my experience, but I always check before ordering.

    Peter Grice
    thinkchristianity.com

  • Thanks Peter

    Yes the .com store is the American one, and yes it is usually cheaper than the UK one. The price differences would for the most part be due to the different exchange rates, I suspect.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill I think you’re right – what they seem to do is manifest the discount as a “sale” of a few dollars. Clever.
    Peter Grice

  • Thanks again Peter

    Plus it is also likely that most of the books we buy through them are from American publishers, so cheaper to get them direct from the US than indirect from the UK.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    I can highly recommend the Kindle or similar e-book reader. The latest generation of the Kindle is small, light and the display actually looks like a real book. Only $139 for the WiFi version which works off your home network.

    Recent books cost around half or less of the paper version and the thing will store several thousand books so you can take them with you wherever you go. It’s only about 250 grams (8 ounces) so light enough to read in bed.

    There’s thousands of older books that are out of copyright and therefore free.

    This thing has saved my marriage, so it might do the same for yours 😉

    Cheers,
    Rick O’Malley, Brisbane

  • Even though this article is from an American perspective, the same pro–free-trade principles apply to Australia: Pummeling protectionism: free trade is good for America by Nathaniel Davidson.
    Jonathan Sarfati, US

  • Great Australian website:

    http://booko.com.au/

    It allows you to search for a particular book or DVD and it automatically finds and allows you to compare the total prices (book + shipping) from a number of different websites (Amazon, book depository) all one web page.

    Saves heaps of time and ensure that you get the best price every time.

    Nick Smith

  • Thanks Nick

    Yes as I mention in this article, it is a terrific site which I use all the time. And given that it features so many overseas sites, non-Australian book lovers can also benefit greatly from this site.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks guys

    Here is an article discussing in more detail the Australian protectionist policies on books, and why we have to pay so much more for them: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/booksellers-spell-it-out/story-e6frg6zo-1226008374875

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • And see this wise editorial: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/a-farcical-tale-of-protectionism/story-e6frg71x-1226008367468

    “As Gillard government ministers relax at the weekend with a good coffee or glass of wine while browsing the new titles at their favourite bookstores, they should consider that their adherence to old-fashioned protectionism is jeopardising the future of such shops, which are an important part of our social fabric. By rejecting the Productivity Commission’s advice to scrap parallel import restrictions in 2009, the government is preventing bookshops importing and selling books at lower prices.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • We are living in a different world now and those who try to keep living yesterday will go under. Remember Polaroid Cameras? That company in 2001 filed for bankruptcy protection with a share value of 28c. In 1997 it’s share value was worth $61.31. What went wrong in such a short time? Answer: Digital cameras. Polaroid refused to change to digital camera technology saying their unique technology would not fade away.

    The core product of any camera company is not their particular camera, (as Polaroid seemed to think), but rather an acceptable photo that the consumer can produce himself. Digital cameras are doing this now and cheaper and easier to.

    There must be a lesson here for we “Churches”. Our “core product” is to demonstrate the love of Christ (the Gospel) to a lost world. Our core product, as with photography, never changes but the means of communicating this, from generation to generation, does. Live Christ today not yesterday. Just a thought to share.

    Dave Powell

  • I’ve spent some time reading The Punch’s blog on this subject today. The saddest point here for me is the supposition that the most important consideration is about the consumer getting the best deal and ‘looking after number one’. I’d love it if the conversation also embraced a bigger picture about retail, employment, the common good, the consequences of internet purchasing and the grief of watching an industry in decline.
    Am I being a bit naive to cite St Paul ‘…mourn with those who mourn…’ ?
    Terry Darmody

  • I have published a few titles recently, selling them into the US and UK market, and also distributing Australia. A few points I have discovered:

    1. the bookdepository.com sources its books in the US, and its prices are based on US wholesale prices. However thebookdepository.co.uk bases its prices on UK wholesale prices. Anyway that’s been the case for my titles. Books are cheaper in the US, but shipping is often cheaper from the UK, so the two factors tend to cancel out, but with the greenback so weak, thebookdepository,com has been doing better recently.

    2. The problem is not just Australian protectionism and inflated local prices. Borders has gone broke in the US too, although the problem is worse in Australia. It has to do with how the whole book trade is structured, a model which developed around 100 years ago. The standard wholesale discount for books is 55%, and books are returnable. However Amazon and TheBookDepository are happy to make 20% profit, or very less, so they heavily discount to a price well under the RRP. They also stock their warehouses very efficiently. Books and mortar stores can’t afford to keep chains of shops full of books while selling them on a 10-20% margin. So they are folding.

    Mark Durie

  • Thanks Terry (and Ray, above)

    I partly deal with your concerns in my article. And it is not so much a question of an “industry in decline” as an industry which needs to adjust to modern realities if it wants to succeed. See some of the other links I provide, along with some of the other comments here.

    Let’s put it this way: I know someone whose dad was a cabinet maker, but he complained about cheaper units produced and sold at places like K-Mart. My reply was this: while no one wants to see anyone out of a job, in this world there will always be trade-offs. While it might be nice to get one of these hand-crafted cabinets, and keep this guy in business, most people – including me – simply can’t afford such items, and are very grateful for mass-produced units which may not be as nice but are a whole lot cheaper. I for one am grateful for places like K-Mart, where all kinds of goods are affordable for a poor guy like me.

    If you are wealthier or fussier you can go for the hand-crafted items. But most poorer folk like me really appreciate the fact that the mass-production of goods means that most things which were only for the rich just a century ago are now affordable to everyone.

    So some trade-offs must take place here. Perhaps you think it is the job of governments (that is, you and me, the taxpayer) to subsidise the cabinet maker so he can keep his job. But should we taxpayers have to prop up everyone and everything? Or should people learn to adjust to the times, and meet the needs of most consumers? If this cabinet maker can make a living by serving the fewer people who prefer his stuff, fine, but if he can’t, why should he expect me to subsidise his lifestyle? Maybe he needs to find a new job, or find a way to increase demand for his more expensive products.

    It is the same in the book industry. All this protectionism seems to be doing is driving people to the cheaper overseas online outlets. I for one very much appreciate these places. I would be broke if I had to pay the exorbitant prices most Australian booksellers are charging. They need to become more competitive in their pricing, and make other changes (such as offering online services) if they expect to keep their customers and stay afloat. But if they refuse to make these adjustments, why should I mourn for them, or be forced to subsidise their inefficiencies?

    I would suspect that on most occasions, whatever you and your family are buying, you shop around and look for the cheapest prices. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing unchristian about it. I don’t know of very many people who deliberately pay much more expensive prices to show their ‘solidarity’ to someone who is less competitive and unwilling to make some changes to go with the times.

    So in a free market adjustments have to be made. The consumer really should be king. I see no moral or biblical reason to argue for protectionism or government subsidies for failing industries. But a whole article could be written on such issues. But thanks for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Greetings Terry and others
    Yes I do agree that we should mourn the loss of jobs and I do see Bill’s article in that light. His focus was, though, more on the benefits of using new technology as opposed to hanging on to the dying past.

    The real culprit in all this is the book companies. They and many other companies are not looking after their employees by keeping up with technology and offering continuing education. It is the companies responsibility to look after their employees not the general consumer by faithfully buying at a particular shop.

    The common good would be served if all companies kept up with changing technology in their respective field. Their employees would stay employed with upgraded skills, companies would stay competitive and the consumer would join them all in the deposit line at the bank. Just a thought.

    Dave Powell

  • Related to that cabinet maker, the article I cited above says:

    Claim (a): Trade barriers save jobs.

    First, big deal. The objective should not be jobs, but more goods and services for all. We could “create or save” plenty of jobs by giving half our unemployed “jobs” of digging ditches, and the other half “jobs” of filling them in. But this would hardly benefit the country. Sorry to say, manufacturers who can’t provide goods that people would freely pay for are not much different, so they should find a more productive line of work.

    Second, no it doesn’t! The great French economist Frédéric Bastiat pointed out back in 1850 that this considers only what is seen: jobs saved in the protected industries. But what is not seen are the greater jobs lost in industries using the protected goods. For example, tariffs on imported sugar saved 2,261 jobs during the 1990s. But jobs using sugar outnumber jobs in sugar production 7–1. For example, already Lifesavers moved to Canada in 2003 with the loss of 600 jobs, 4,000 confectionary jobs were lost in Chicago, and overall 6,400 workers in the sugar-processing industries have lost their jobs. But how many of those will blame the sugar tariffs?

    Furthermore, there are losses to businesses beside those which use the protected product, because consumers have less money to spend. Economist Dr Walter Williams points out, “average household pays $21 more per year for sugar. The total cost, nationally, sums to $826,000 for each job saved.” This is money that can’t be spent buying other goods.

    Unfortunately, this is hard to change because the costs are diffused while the benefits are concentrated. Although the total costs to consumers, and thus to other businesses that no longer have their custom, is huge, it is widely spread out, to “only” $21 pa each. It doesn’t motivate customers to lobby. But protectionism makes a huge difference to a relatively few sugar barons and their employees, so they have a big incentive to lobby politicians on both sides.

    Jonathan Sarfati, US

  • A little patience works wonders when buying books, as they soon turn up on the amazon used book list at a fraction of the price. For example, I recently saw a copy of Karen Armstrong’s “The History of God” at the airport in Malaysia at $45, and brought a second hand copy from amazon at $5 plus postage of around $8. This is a great way to read and review books by apostates and those hostile to the Christian worldview, as the author get nothing from you, and the seller will has fewer dollars to spend on any new releases.
    John Heininger

  • Bill,

    First time commenting on your blog although I’ve been reading it for a few months. I really appreciate your witty and profound commentary on our world today. Reading this article, I really wanted to share one of my favorite online book store, betterworldbooks.com

    It provides free international shipping and donates a percentage of the their profits to numerous literacy programs. Although the new books may not be the cheapest alternative, the used books are quite cheap. I’ve bought the Francis Schaeffer Triology for less than $10 USD. Just wanted to share with fellow book lovers.

    David Hong

  • Hi Bill, I love reading your articles, and I can see both sides of the book argument.
    I’m in an industry that has had all tariffs abolished; farming. Our commodities are traded globally. But we are at the mercy of other countries “dumping” their produce on us from time to time. This has the flow on effect of e.g.
    Leaving juicing oranges to rot on trees because they can be replaced with imports for less than the cost of the picking of them (thanks to subsidised exports).
    Or our farmers being forced to sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes of potatoes to the processors at a reduced price because the processors threaten to buy them cheaper on the “spot market”. Only with these unseasonal rains of late have they suddenly realised they can’t buy all of the shortfall from overseas!
    Also, most imports are not subject to the strict quality assurance/Australian standards that our farmers/processors must spend a lot of time and money complying with.
    Surely a fairer way would be to have all countries impose an import tariff of say 10% on all imports, except items that cannot be produced locally. This still allows quite a bit of competition while slighly benefitting locally made/grown.
    Mark Lambert

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