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Why are booksellers leaving Leading Edge?

A number of Australia’s most prominent independent booksellers are leaving Leading Edge Books in favour of a new buying group set up by the Australian Booksellers Association. Sarah Farquharson reports.

‘It is a very significant development,’ says Readings managing director Mark Rubbo. ‘Leading Edge Books is considerably weaker and frankly I think it will become increasingly difficult for them to continue as their membership base continues to erode.’

Rubbo is talking about the shift among several independent booksellers that’s taken place over the past few months, with a number of prominent bookshops choosing to leave Leading Edge Books (LEB) in favour of Booksellers’ Choice, a new opt-in buying group service established by the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) that helps members achieve better trading terms with publishers for a monthly fee.

Sydney’s Gleebooks, Queensland-based bookshops Riverbend Books and Avid Reader, and Melbourne’s Readings, Avenue Bookstore and Brunswick Bound are among those who have already made the decision to move across, and ABA CEO Robbie Egan says there are currently 38 stores in the process of completing their notice period to join Booksellers’ Choice. Egan estimates that the membership base for the new buying group will be ‘about 55 stores at some point in April’, noting that the situation is ‘in flux’ and that the ABA is ‘being flexible and giving [stores] time to make the decision and the change at a pace that works for them’.

Given that LEB states its membership base is ‘160+’ bookstores, the ABA’s growing membership for Booksellers’ Choice is significant. As Rubbo says: ‘Most of Australia's leading independents have made the switch and in turnover terms they probably made up a considerable percentage of Leading Edge members turnover.’

What’s behind the shift?

‘It’s not just about saving money,’ explains Avid Reader owner Fiona Stager. ‘It was more that the [ABA] is going to support the industry, it’s an industry-led initiative and any money made will stay with the ABA. I would’ve gone [to Booksellers’ Choice] even if there were no financial incentives.’

However, the financial incentives are notable, according to booksellers who spoke to Books+Publishing.

‘The fees to administer [Booksellers’ Choice] are much below what we were paying to get the same service from LEB,’ says Gleebooks owner David Gaunt. ‘Speaking as an ABA life member ... I can’t imagine why [independents] wouldn’t move across [to Booksellers’ Choice]. As I understand it, there's a significant number already, and growing. It's a very healthy figure. The figures I’ve been given show that it’s a very healthy operation.’

Riverbend’s Suzy Wilson thinks that the ABA has the potential to design a better buying system, noting, ‘Galina [Marinov] and Robbie [Egan, both from the ABA] are in a unique position, given their combined but different experience in the book industry, to design a more efficient, workable buying system that will benefit all.’

Many booksellers also stress that LEB has provided an important service, one that, for a long time, no one else was providing. ‘Leading Edge has been critical to our success, especially in the early days,’ says Stager. ‘Ruth [Hipwell] in particular has been very supportive, so it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.’

Gaunt notes: ‘I’ve appreciated what Leading Edge has made possible for booksellers since they entered the book industry but I have to say that from the outset I couldn’t see the rationale behind why we had to join an association to do this work for us and we couldn’t do it for ourselves ... What Leading Edge did was make it easy for publishers to say yes to something that booksellers should have been able to work out for themselves.

'[20 years ago] we couldn’t operate in concert, for a variety of reasons, and Leading Edge made it possible to.’

LEB: ‘We are not a business for everyone’

Leading Edge Group says it is ‘surprisingly supportive’ of the entry of a new direct competitor into the market.

‘We are not a business for everyone,’ adds recently appointed CEO Simon Lane. ‘We understand that there are some operations who may prefer the kind of support the ABA might be able to offer. Our focus remains on those independent family businesses looking for that care and attention we have given over the last two decades.’

Lane also notes plans to secure a ‘multi-million dollar investment in the retail operations of the group’. When asked how Leading Edge plans to use the investment, a spokesperson points to ‘increased services, technology, offers and benefits’, which they indicate will be in place this financial year.

For his part, Egan agrees that both organisations serve different memberships. ‘We are different organisations with different missions. My mission is to harness the strength, passion and intelligence of our membership to gather some heft and power for independent booksellers.

'Independent bookselling is my career. I don’t discount our Dymocks and Collins members, but they already have an architecture that delivers better outcomes in terms of margins and other services. We need to use our collective power to level the playing field and keep our wonderfully diverse bookselling industry strong.’

LEB conference under the spotlight

With the annual LEB conference coming up in March, some industry commentators are predicting a smaller turnout this year. Readings, Avenue, Gleebooks and Brunswick Bound have all confirmed to Books+Publishing that they won’t be sending staff to this year’s LEB conference in Brisbane. Queensland-based shops Avid Reader and Riverbend will both send staff to the conference and trade show, with Fiona Stager confirming this will be Avid Reader’s last LEB conference.

Leading Edge, on the other hand, is showing no signs of worry over the upcoming event. ‘I am delighted with the amount of interest, attention and patronage the conference is receiving,’ says Lane. ‘You can copy a lot of offers and approaches, but it is difficult to replicate the kind of expertise and unwavering care our bookseller members receive and deserve.’

What’s next for Booksellers’ Choice?

Extra marketing and promotional support, an extended offering of seasonal reading guides and a new Book of the Month promotion have all been established to complement the group’s buying power.

Despite the Book of the Month promotion experiencing a shaky start, with the ABA’s choice of the inaugural title—US author Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel American Dirt—receiving backlash from Australian booksellers, Egan is positive that it’s a ‘tried and tested way’ of generating conversations about books.

‘[Book of the Month] isn’t an activity that is set in stone for us,’ he adds. ‘I’ve been talking it over with our staff and some booksellers and board members and there are obviously different views … We will make missteps along the way and keep evolving our output as we search for improvement. This month we have asked a group of booksellers around the country to vote, using a huge master list, to determine the title.’

Egan is also adamant that Booksellers’ Choice is not ‘simply a buying group’. While the initial purpose is to achieve better buying terms for independents, Egan says the ABA is focused on building ‘a group with power’.

‘For [independent booksellers] to thrive we need to be able to create markets [for] and support books that we love, not just books that are bestowed with marketing dollars. I’d love for us all to work with publishers to build markets for those books that are special to our members, wherever they might sit in the yearly cycle or the stratum of each month’s releases.’

Sarah Farquharson is the managing editor of Books+Publishing

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