Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Staying relevant: Robbie Egan on his plans for the ABA

Ahead of the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) 2019 conference, Books+Publishing spoke to ABA CEO Robbie Egan, who took over the role from Joel Becker in December 2018.

For those who don’t know you, tell us how you got into the book industry, and what you were doing prior to taking up the role of CEO at the ABA.

Prior to this I worked for Readings in Melbourne. I was very lucky to work there as I was able to negotiate some flexibility while I studied and brought up kids. I worked in receiving and returns initially, then was night manager for years. I ended up managing the Carlton store and then moved into a role where all the stores reported to me. I was able to bring about a focus on key metrics that helped drive some efficiencies in the business, and I learnt a lot about managing people. You have to be open to multiple perspectives and accept that everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made plenty. I’ve also learnt to listen to others and to try to understand my own weaknesses. I fear people are more unyielding than ever so I have tried to soften. I loved bookselling, it was really good to me. I hope to help support others to have the same kind of experiences I had.

What do you think the Australian book industry is doing well and what can it do better?

I think our publishing is incredibly sophisticated. At the ABIA awards recently I was so impressed with the quality of the books that were showcased—the talent on display was amazing. We have a nice array of small publishers that do a great job of surviving and thriving in competition with the major entities. The majors do an incredible job too, and the smaller companies really complement a diversity of riches.

Our booksellers are also very sophisticated. I go into bookstores wherever I am in the country (or the world) and find Australian booksellers carry interesting ranges and seek out and feature titles that they want to back. It is a huge amount of work to get that sales momentum going so that booksellers can support the new release cycle and backlist re-orders. The pressure seems to centre on price: that is the final mechanism for delivering income to publishers, authors and booksellers. Publishers are facing pressure from increasing paper prices, and for booksellers wages and fixed costs only ever go up. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, a priori, book prices need to increase.

One thing we can do better is use data. Booksellers have no benchmark for understanding their businesses. They have good information on their own affairs, but we end up only comparing ourselves with ourselves. I would like to see some numbers around average sales per square metre, ratios such as sales versus wages, and stock turn and gross margin return on inventory investment (GMROII).

What are your main aims for the ABA and what goals are you working towards?

My aims broadly are to keep the ABA relevant in a fragmented industry. Franchise businesses operate in their own ecosystem, while some members use the Leading Edge Group for services. Then there is Amazon, a corporation larger than most nation-state economies, settling on our shores with essentially infinite funds to invest in operations. There is money flying around the industry but it’s not getting into my members’ pockets. As a not-for-profit association the ABA is ideally positioned to offer low-cost services in addition to its role in advocacy. I can work with publishers to provide better trading terms for members. There is also an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) proposal to implement automatic exemptions for small businesses that would allow them to collectively negotiate with suppliers, so we may be able to work on broader deals in areas such as utilities. We represent the majority of booksellers in the country but we can’t take that for granted. We can always do more for them.

Working with government will depend to some extent on data. Politicians don’t have a lot of time and aren’t likely (initially) to want to hear the story of our social and cultural importance as a third place where ideas are nurtured. They will want numbers: how many people employed, what are the sales, what economic activity is generated. I’m not sure we can accurately pull that from ABS statistics, so surveying our membership will be necessary. Ultimately capitalism isn’t great for low-margin businesses because it is efficient at shaving those margins. We really need to work together to generate the best return on investment we can. The relationship between publishers and bookshops is inherently unbalanced so I’ll be working as hard as I can with publishers to achieve better terms. We all know however that there is no free lunch. The quid pro quo will be in the quantities as publishers have experienced margin creep. That all works well when sales are going up, but when sales flatten commercial limits tend to become more rigorously enforced.

We also need to extol ‘the benefits of reading’, but there is no way the ABA alone could afford the cost of a campaign. It needs to be grassroots, needs to lean on social media and word of mouth, and it must be guilt free. I am a little concerned that the campaign to level the GST on small imports has been such a focus that its success implies some momentous change. It was a good outcome, but I don’t imagine buying patterns have changed at all. I’d like to see us focus on what we can do to lift ourselves.

I do want to note the recent announcement that Pages & Pages in Mosman will cease trading. This is an incredibly sad thing for the family and the community, and shows the challenges booksellers face. Retail is a hard game to be in and sometimes demographics and trends can work against you. Some booksellers are expanding their businesses at this time, which suggests the vicissitudes of retail life are far from universal. It would be wonderful if someone was able to step in and keep the business going and we all wish Jon and his family the best.

There’s a big push towards green bookselling at the moment. Does the ABA have plans in this area? What can booksellers do to cut down their environmental footprint? And how can publishers help?

I would like to see a reduction in waste. In terms of individual action, planting trees seems to me the best way to offset the unrelenting production of greenhouse gases. For booksellers and publishers, reducing returns and pulping would seem logical. The tension between subscriptions and inventory management is a tricky one. Of course publishers want high subs. They also want lower returns. I advocate for much higher discounts for firm sale purchasing.

I also want to explore whether the responsibility for dealing with books they would otherwise return can be taken up by booksellers. By that I mean there could be a mechanism for crediting and re-invoicing titles as a form of remaindering, rather than pulping, or booksellers could simply recycle books due to be pulped rather than send them off on a diesel truck. These are ideas, not policy statements, so I don’t want people getting alarmed. I’d like us to think about better ways of doing things so we can get trucks off the road, and perhaps spend less time on returns.

The B+P sexual harassment survey from 2017 found that 54% of all respondents reported being sexually harassed, and 15% of those who reported being sexually harassed said they were working in bookselling at the time. The issue was also a topic of discussion at last year’s ABA conference, and the ABA said then it would prepare guidelines for booksellers, create a policy template and sample wording for workplace agreements and contracts. Where is the ABA up to with all this, and is there more you plan to do in this area?

The ABA has a draft policy on bullying and sexual harassment, and a list of resources sorted by state and territory. I understand that it was developed as the ABA’s own policy, and was to be offered as an example for our members to use. This has not been done—I can’t tell you why, as I wasn’t at the ABA at the time, but it may have been lost in the changeover of CEOs. I will workshop the policy here for our own use to make sure we get it right, then make it available to members along with the list of resources. We have to keep shining a light on these behaviours, keep talking about it, and in the worst scenarios make the process as clear and as empathetic as possible.

I am not inclined to be writing workplace agreements for members or recommending enterprise agreements over the modern award. Our members have different-sized businesses and different needs. I would recommend booksellers use Fair Work for information about modern awards and agreements rather than the ABA creating templates or sample wordings.

The 2019 ABA conference is coming up on 23–24 June. Who are you most looking forward to hearing from at the conference and why?

I’m looking forward to hearing from Meryl Halls from the UK Booksellers Association. She is really smart, interesting, and passionate about bookshops and booksellers. She will be a great part of the conference. Sally Rugg is a highlight for me—I am always slightly in awe of activists, and she is, I suspect, quite fearless. Her book will be amazing. Hearing Paul Grabowsky play piano with Archie Roach singing will be something I think we will never forget, so that qualifies as a highlight. Of course I am at risk of saying the wrong thing with a question like this, so I must add that all our guests will be incredible and I look forward to all the sessions at the conference!

The 95th ABA conference runs from 23–24 June at Pullman Melbourne on the Park.