In a unique and chilling departure from all previous relations with the Australian book publishing industry, the management of booksellers, Angus & Robertson, has sent a letter demanding cash-in-advance payments from its suppliers in order for them to continue to have their titles on A&R bookshelves. The company wrote to more than 160 local publishers giving them just over two weeks to shell out thousands of dollars sums of between $1500 to $40,000 per publisher or their books would cease to be stocked. The impertinence of one of the country’s biggest book chains was breathtaking and its action has been condemned as ‘arrogant,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘bullying’ and ‘stupid.’
Written by Charlie Rimmer, A&R Group Commercial Manager, the 30 July, 2007 letter was made public by one of its recipients, Michael Rakusin, of Tower Books. Rakusin’s bold reply is now circulating the publishing industry where it has become the charter for a revolt against A&R’s greed-driven assault on Australian publishing houses, especially those in the middle and niche ranges. Rimmer’s take-it-or-leave-it demand said:
We have concluded that we have far too many suppliers Accordingly, we will be rationalising our supplier numbers and setting a minimum earnings ratio of income to trade purchases that we expect to achieve from our suppliers. I am writing to you because Tower Books falls into this category of unacceptable profitability. As a consequence we would invite you to pay the attached invoice by August 17, 2007. The payment represents the gap for your business, and moves it from an unacceptable level of profitability to above our minimum threshold.
The letter, which was sent to publishers all over the country concluded with this Pythonesque flourish:
If you would like to discuss this with me in more detail, I am delighted to confirm an appointment with you at 1.00pm on Friday, August 17, for 10 minutes at my offices at 379 Collins Street, Melbourne. Best Regards
Rukusin’s reply, which deserves inclusion in any anthology of letters written to self-important management pests, opened with startling panache:
We are in receipt of your letter of July 30, 2007 terminating our further supply to Angus & Robertson. As you have requested, we will cancel all Angus & Robertson orders on August 17 and will desist from any further supply to your stores.
After declaring Rimmer’s approach to be ‘both immoral and unethical,’ Rakusin concluded:
If you wish to discuss any of the contents hereof you may call my secretary for an appointment at my office in Frenchs Forest (Sydney). I shall be marginally more generous than you and at least allow you to pick a convenient time.
A&R’s extortionate demand and Rakusin’s call-to-arms response has fuelled a rebellion involving publishers, authors, booksellers and readers. There have been calls for a boycott of A&R, protest petitions, a flood of angry emails and even support for legal action using the powers of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
A&R management is now trying to calm the storm. Chief Operating Officer Dave Fenlon produced a soothing letter for Crikey (subscription required) but it was forensically destroyed by Rakusin the following day. Another A&R functionary Lauren Thomson has now officially informed publishers that the deadline for payments has been extended, with uncommon generosity, from 17 August to 31 August and that ‘one-on-one’ meetings are being encouraged to work out differences.
The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has joined the call for an A&R boycott (because the chain’s franchisees are not subject to the company’s policy, the ASA does not call for a boycott on A&R franchisees) with the ASA’s Executive Director Dr Jeremy Fisher declaring:
This is an outrageous insult to Australian authors. Only yesterday the Australia Council highlighted the parlous state of Australian literature in education. Now, the private-equity owners of A&R, Pacific Equity Partners, are trying to bully their smaller suppliers into paying for the ‘privilege’ of shelf space in A&R-owned stores. They are hurting not only these publishers but also their authors. A&R is stealing money from Australian authors, whose average income is only $11,000. Why, that’s an amount which is probably even less than the daily income of the directors of Pacific Equity Partners.
(For the record, Pacific Equity Partners is currently licking its wounds after failing in its messy bid to take over Flight Centre, which commands 40 per cent of Australia’s $2.5 billion travel services industry.)
The Australian Publishers Association (APA) has issued a statement which has been roundly condemned for being diplomatically muted. APA Chief Executive Officer Maree McCaskill said publishers and authors were ‘concerned and very distressed’ about A&R’s blackmail demand and urged the company to engage in a dialogue with APA members. The restraint is probably understandable: the APA’s 10-person Board includes representatives from Macmillan Publishers, Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill and Random House whose policy is not to antagonise other major global publisher investors such as Pacific Equity Partners.
Frankly, if the APA is to retain any shred of credibility with both the industry and the reading public it needs to take a much firmer stand against this kind of outlaw corporate behaviour.
Novelist Charlotte Wood, author of Pieces of a Girl, The Submerged Cathedral and The Children, has set the boycott ball rolling with a letter to A&R which is now traveling around the cyber arts community. ‘I am devastated by the greedy attitude towards small publishers of quality books and the complete disdain you [A&R] have shown to Australian readers and writers in your letter to publishers and distributors this week demanding payment to stock titles such as the Miles Franklin-winning Carpentaria,’ she wrote.
Quoting A&R’s claim that it wanted to create a ‘good deal for readers,’ Wood countered:
For this reader, a good deal means a store that stocks quality Australian literature, not just the latest blockbuster from overseas. Your decision spits in the face not only of readers but of Australian writers. I am both a writer and a reader, and until this decision is reversed I shall not set foot in any of your stores again. It’s also a shocking insult to readers in regional Australia, where I have many family members and friends, and where the A&R store is often the only bookshop available. I will be suggesting to my family and friends in Launceston, Orange, Dubbo, Goulburn and Forster and elsewhere that either they buy books online from independent stores in Sydney, or I shall buy from independent bookstores in Sydney on their behalf and post them.
Enraged bloggers have been venting their anger in similar vein. Chris Deal opted for direct action saying: ‘As of today I am canceling my browsing and purchases from A&R;’ while Glenn White fumed: ‘As both a novelist and a very frequent book-buyer, I have written to A&R this morning telling them they’ve lost my c
Describing Michael Rakusin as ‘my new hero,’ well known publisher and literary agent Pat Woolley said: ‘His letter says it all. We went through the same range of emotions when our company (Wild & Woolley) received the letter. Michael’s letter is a truly wonderful Australian response to bullying and corporate belligerence. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the picketing crowds outside A&R across Australia.’
Richard Harling, a member of the APA, wrote: ‘Congratulations, Michael Rakusin and Tower Books. We condemn this form of financial censorship, primarily against Australian publishers and authors.’
(Some humour was provided by Chris Burgess of Leading Edge Books who concocted a spoof of the A&R letter which has been doing the rounds, much to the amusement of the books industry but to the chagrin of Fenlon, Rimmer and Co. See link).
In essence, the outrageous A&R edict appears to be a further sign of the monopolisation of the publishing industry. As this process unfolds, books have become mere commodities to be packaged, marketed and boosted through lavish advertising campaigns.
While big international names take the spotlight and a small fortune in royalties local authors are barely able to find a spot on the shelves or in the catalogues. Witness the fact that the country’s major fiction prize, the Miles Franklin. It started in 1957 with an award to Patrick White and has been awarded to the finest Australian writers since (Randolph Stow, George Johnston, Peter Carey, Shirley Hazzard, Thea Astley, to name just a few), yet it receives fewer column inches and in many shops less in-store promotion than the UK’s Booker or the American Pulitzer.
Incidentally, similar corporate forces are at work ignoring and destroying the local music industry. The likes of Sony spend a fortune each year promoting big overseas names in collaboration with the servile Australian electronic and print media; it’s done at the expense of home-grown talent with innovative bands and musicians left to struggle in near-poverty on the margins.
Australia has an admirable tradition of thoughtful and critical book readers who have a keen appreciation of local and international authors, fiction and non-fiction. Keeping our bookshops filled with good stories, literature for all tastes and ages, as well as valued information is the way to stimulate love of literature and the popular imagination.
It’s also the way to turn a profit, as the best booksellers keep demonstrating. Transforming bookshops into Wal Marts may suit the needs of private equity conglomerates who know the price of everything and the value of nothing but it’s not the way to deepen our culture.
It will only cheapen it.
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