The Listener editorial ‘The Book Case’ raises challenges and issues with which Kiwi booksellers are very familiar: the threat of the internet, the lack of GST on goods bought online from offshore retailers. However, some of the conclusions drawn by the editorial are invalid syllogisms. For instance, three bookshops have closed + internet sales have increased = three bookshops have closed because of internet sales. Wrong. The reasons for Benny’s Books closing had more to do with the personal circumstances of the owner than anything else, Parsons in Wellington is closing because the owners want to pursue other interests in retirement and their music business had fallen off markedly. In Timaru, local competition was probably as much, if not more, to blame, for the demise of Chapters and Verses, as internet sales.
It is also invalid to conclude that just because three Independent bookstores have closed that we are going “to be left with a few large shops selling books alongside anything else that makes money.” Current evidence and trends, especially out of the United States, point to medium and smaller bookshops that focus on meeting the needs of their local communities and customers are more likely to survive than big chains that have turned themselves into “gift shops”.
The editorial, however, has it right when it states that “reading is a bedrock for all sorts of social and intellectual skills and that we should be making books as accessible and attractive as possible.” There is plenty of evidence that supports this and it is interesting to note the efforts of many New Zealand organisations to boost “reading for pleasure” as a social and economic imperative. This was supported by a hui of educators, reading and writing activists, booksellers, government agencies, and publishers late last year in Auckland. A lot of new initiatives are likely to come as a result of that exercise.
And the editorial is right in calling for government action on issues such as GST. Booksellers don’t need government subsidies (authors do), but they do need a level playing field in which to compete. However, it is wrong of the Listener to advise retailers “not to hold their breath” on the GST issue because nothing has changed since 2011. A lot has changed including obviously that a lot more revenue is being lost to the Government since 2011. More importantly, the fallacy that it would not be cost efficient to collect GST on items below $400 has been exposed by research carried out by the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation at Victoria University. This research showed that the government was calculating its collection costs incorrectly, but also suggested solutions that would not be unduly expensive. It is time the Government did what the Japanese Government did a couple of weeks ago and declare its intent to collect GST on these goods, including books, while a solution is implemented.
It is also invalid to conclude that “books in New Zealand are very expensive” because the Book Depository/ Amazon can land books in New Zealand much cheaper than local booksellers can sell them for. Like for like must be compared, and the books that the BD often sell into New Zealand might have the same title but are not exactly the same book from a pricing point of view. Take for instance the now world-famous The Luminaries. BD are selling Catton’s authorship , both in hardback and paperback in New Zealand dollars at prices discounted from a Recommended Retail Prices (RRP) much lower than the RRP in New Zealand. This is because BD is buying The Luminaries from the UK publisher where the GST equivalent, VAT, is not charged on books – thus the RRP is lower – and then converting that to NZ dollars and discounting from there.
New Zealand has more bookshops per head of population than most other English language countries. There is a lot of change occurring, with many now selling e-books and e-readers and also selling books throughout New Zealand and overseas through their own online stores. It would be very foolish to write off the kiwi bookshop because of the internet revolution.