Friday, August 10, 2007

They're not called Anguish & Robbery for nothing

Overland editor and Leftwrites blogger Jeff Sparrow has a terrific piece today at crikey.com.au on the breathtakingly shameless move made by the Angus & Robertson book chain in recent days to snort up hundreds of thousands of dollars in blackmail-like payments from publishers and distributors deemed insufficiently profitable for them, the alternative being to lose their place on A&R shelves. This is a long and unsavoury story that I heard yesterday from some Adelaide publishers and that deserves more time than I have to do it justice, but here's Jeff's conclusion:


' ... the real threat to Oz-lit does not come from snooty postmodernists who deconstruct beer-coasters rather than reading books. The problem lies instead with the contemporary infatuation with neo-liberalism, a system that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

We should fight for literature. But the important struggle is not in education: it’s in the market-place.'


Never mind the quality, feel the Ka-Ching!

Boycott, anyone?

23 comments:

Perry Middlemiss said...

A boycott won't be hard; I can't remember the last book I bought in A&R. Probably had to cash in a book voucher.

Bernice said...

Particularly like Fenton's (A&R CEO) letter of reply to Crikey, which sounded horribly like something from Howard's office. "we didn't mean to hurt the authors, BUT we have to make lots & lots of lovely money" - rather ruined the attempt at contrite grovelling.

Matthew da Silva said...

Did y'all catch the news at Matilda that Julie Bishop will fund a new chair of Oz lit?

Seems like Rosemary Neil's crusade is paying off...

Likewise Perry, I never buy at A&R. It's soooooo like, 1953.....

meggie said...

I will take the tip & avoid A & R like the fecking plague.

TimT said...

I usually use secondhand stores, with the occasional visit to some of the Melbourne chains as well, and haven't used A & R for a long time. But I will make sure to avoid them. Also, I'll be sure to spread the word.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I don't think many people who actually read buy books at A&R. I can't remember when I last ever got a book there. And I buy from amazon, borders, readings and local small new bookshop and second hand shops. A&R is more like a gift shop.

I don't really see the problem - A&R have declared that books as they see them are a commodity and they will charge for shelf space like a supermarket.

Just like supermarkets caused the downfall of small grocery shops but then fertilised the growth of "health food" shops and delis, so will supa mart bookshops serve to send business to small independent bookshops.

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Ariel said...

YES! I don't shop there anyway, but certainly won't now ...

Wouldn't it be great if this backfired on them?!

I'm equally gobsmacked by the idea of publishers paying $1.25 per staff 'recommendation' of chosen titles. How is it a recommendation if it's paid for? I pity the bookseller working under those conditions. Dignity is hard enough to maintain in retail without being forced to blatantly whore your opinions.

Rufus said...

You've read one book, you've read 'em all, right team? So here at A&R we're just gonna stock the proven winners, the big-margin blockbusters. So from now on it's Dan Brown and nothing else. Oh, maybe a Warnie/Bradman bio for father's day, but that's all. No stoopid arty novels by people I've never heard of. And no poetry! Sheesh! Do you think we're the damn ABC?

(sigh)

Viva the indy bookstores! Viva the second-handers!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I remember asking staff at A&G if they have a particular book by the likes of David Malouf or Kate Grenville, and they look at you blankly. So the staff are not lovers of reading, like they are at stores like Readings in Melbourne. I like to engage the staff at Readings in a chat about the books, and often they have something interesting to contribute. It's part of the pleasure of shopping there; staff who are on the same wavelength. The comparison between bored-shitless checkout chicks at supermarkets and passionate provedores in small food shops and markets mirrors the difference between A&G and independent booksellers pretty well, I think.
Sigmund Marx

Jonathan Shaw said...

What a number of other people said about no need for a boycott. But in country towns, the A & R franchisees are often real booksellers

David said...

This just sucks. I'm not buying from A&R again, not that I would anyway, Borders is much better in terms of good books.

Ampersand Duck said...

Of course, but as Perry said, it won't be hard to avoid them. So who does buy from them?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Sorry, the boycott suggestion was really only throwaway -- although I do wander into A&R occasionally myself, either because up till now they have actually stocked something I was looking for and couldn't find elsewhere, or, as on Harry Potter day, because there was a queue stretching back to the inner suburbs outside Borders where I'd ordered it.

And depending on the bookseller, some of them are good. The &AR franchisees in Norwood (Adders inner-suburban strip, sort of Newtownish I guess) are very good, huge range, genuine bargains, really excellent attitude -- and I gather they're really upset about this latest order from Bean-Counter HQ.

Of course real book lovers, like everyone who has commented here, don't rely on the chains -- though I am racked by Borders guilt myself. But Jonathan's point about country towns, for example, has a darker side to it in that A&R is often the only decent-sized bookseller even in the big regional towns, and if they're not stocking a particular publisher or distributor's works then that's very bad news for the authors and the publishers as well as the town's readers, teachers and kids.

Back in the days when profit was not taken for granted as the only real motive for doing anything, and that attitude even where held had not been sanctioned and entrenched by eleven years of conservative government building it as a norm into government practice and legistlation across the board, good booksellers (and publishers) used to produce and distribute unprofitable lines of book -- poetry, literary criticism etc etc -- and bankroll them with the huge sales they got (and presumably still do get) from gardening, cooking and self-help books. There are still lots of good publishers who struggle against this, but now they're up against the book chains as well, seemingly.

Matthew da Silva said...

A good summation.

It is interesting to speculate as to how this trend will impact on writing itself.

If the value of cultural exchange must be predicated on monetary return, it seems to be inevitable where value is only granted to products that are exchanged (because people want them). Initially, a move toward basing value on exchanges between individuals -- any individuals -- in society is something we nowadays must applaud as it served to dilute the influence of unwarranted power in society. The losers were the aristocracy and the crown. The winners were formerly disenfrachised elements, particularly wage labourers, women, and slaves.

Habermas is instructive in this regard.

If exchange between individuals that is only based on money is a good thing (where the alternative is a kind of despotism) then in terms of bookselling, the end point must be that each book must pay its own way.

Otherwise, it is not fulfilling its function in the 'marketplace of ideas', which only emerged, initially in England, near the beginning of the 18th century.

Defoe wrote in this period. he knew the value of compelling prose and began to write stuff people wanted to buy. His literary heirs, such as Capote and Mailer, also managed to make money from their books.

fifi said...

Was in an A&R last summer (buying a dictionary!)

This one had been a lovely franchised one run by great people, was more like an independent, but sadly, the mothership took over, and it reverted to starship bland.

Anyway, this highly pregnant girl was asking the gormless 14 year old behind the counter if he could recommend something upbeat, since everything was making her teary.

Umm, he said, picking books at random, how bout THIS, or THIS! he said, thrusting all manner of miserable shockers at her.
I asked him if perhaps he had "I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes", thinking this a rather cheery book, but he looked at me, puzzled.

For the lady, who needs cheering, I said.

oh, he said,
we don't Do food.

and THAT sort of says A&R to me.
And now, a boycott it is!!!

oops, long comment. scuse.

rufus said...

I live near a regional town, and the bookshops there are disappointing. One A&R and one Collins, both ordinary. One good second-hand store. But thanks to the interwebs, I buy everything from Book Depository or Amazon or Readings. If A&R disappeared tomorrow I would barely notice.

TimT said...

I lived in Newcastle when the two main stores in town were an independent ('Pepperinas') and A&R. The A&R stayed, while Pepperinas (which specialised in Australian literature and other neglected books) went out of business. A@R were, in fact, in the habit of renting out certain stores for six months on end and using them as a 'warehouse outlet', so they often had two outlets in town to Pepperina's one.

They were pretty awful overall, and the secondhand bookstores (in plentiful supply in Newcastle, thankfully) were much better.

Though I did once get six copies of P J O'Rourke's 'The CEO of the Sofa' there for under 20 bucks. (A worthy buy: it's one of his best books.)

TimT said...

(I give the extra copies to people who I think might be interested.)

Anonymous said...

(Just in case people think you might be rooly eccentric and read them all one by one)

Teresa at Making Light has taken this up.


C.I.Balcony

Anonymous said...

I'm boycotting - I read a thing saying rural readers will be disadvantaged and this may be true in some big centres, but many smaller towns, like mine, have good quality non-chain bookshops which will order Carpentaria without blinking if they haven't got it.

genevieve said...

God, imagine reading six different copies just for the hell of it. You're mad, Madame B (affectionately meant, of course).

Tim, P.J. O'Rourke is sensational, in both senses of the word. In one of his books he told this awful story about an autistic foster child who reassembles a gun that his lawyer foster father is keeping for some underground revolutionaries, carefully locked up in pieces of course: said kid, all of seven years old, leans out the window and shoots his gardening foster mother dead, through the noggin.
I would love to know if this anecdote is true. (Also I do enjoy getting him mixed up with J.P. Donleavy.)
There is a lovely little A&R next to one of the Safeways I frequent, where I am ashamed to say I picked up three Hanif Kureishi titles for $10 each once upon a time.

But the Antichrist Borders stores, I NEVER have purchased from, and never will. (Have blogged their Miles Franklin display, though, I think.)
So now, if A&R buy Borders, I will still have to boycott them...is there such a thing as a double boycott?

TimT said...

That story is told, I think, in 'Age and Guile beat Youth, Inexperience and a Bad Haircut', and would be in one of the anecdotal/autobiographical essays he wrote and published in National Lampoon magazine 'Because I was the editor and I could.' He's got a number of strange stories from his hippy days, and that book makes an interesting record of the transition from his liberal youth to his republican middle age.

I don't really read O'Rourke for his politics anymore, though his satire can be in its own way very persuasive - he's got an idiosyncratic personality that shines through best in his book reviews, some autobiographical pieces, and other occasional pieces he writes. This is why I think his 'CEO' is his best work; it's a loving homage to an American classic, (Oliver Wendell Holmes' Autocrat of the Breakfast Table), and in its humour reminiscent of American family sitcoms. The way he organises his chapters is particularly affecting (September 2000 - August 2001...) He said afterwards that it was a humour work that displayed shocking timing in its publication dates!, though in a sense this just adds to the poignancy of the book.

NSW Writers Centre, interestingly, called for a boycott on A&R too, last week. This little attempt at making money from publishers could be haunting them already...