Mark Rubbo is Managing Director of Readings and the Readings Foundation. Readings is an independent retailer of books, music and film, and a cornerstone of the Australian literary landscape. In 2016 Readings won the Bookstore of the Year Award at the 2016 London Book Fair, and in 2017 opened its seventh books and mortar store in Melbourne.
In addition to his life's work at Readings, Mark serves on the Board of The Wheeler Centre. He was previously President of the Australian Booksellers Association, Chair of the Australian Book Review Board, and the founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Mark received the Australian Book Industry Awards's Lloyd O'Neil Award for distinguished service to the Australian publishing industry in 2015. He also received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 'for service to the community through fostering an awareness of Australian literature as a bookseller, literary critic, and promoter and supporter of Australian writers'.
- Michael Heyward, Managing Director of Text Publishing and another industry figurehead, spoke to The Garret about the Australian and international publishing industries.
- A. S. Patric, who works at Readings, was awarded the Miles Franklin for Black Rock White City in 2016, and is mentioned in this episode.
- Mark has vivid memories of reading Mirolov Sasek‘s books on cities (including This Is London and This Is Paris) as a child, as well as Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. He also, surprisingly, read and loved John Steinbeck ’s Cannery Row in as when he was 11. Mark also read Australian writers, including Allan Marshall‘s I Can Jump Puddles and Hal Porter’s The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony.
- Mark discusses the differences in sales of specific books between stores (and mentions the works of Readings employees A. S. Patric and Miles Allinson).
- The first Australian bestseller Mark experienced was Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip in 1977.
- Mark refers to other leading independent bookstores in Australia, including Glebe Books in Sydney.
- He also reflects on the changes in the Australian publishing industry over time, and the rise of small and independent publishers including Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, Hillary McPhee, Morry Schwartz and the late Di Gribble.
- Mark founded the Readings Prize in 2014 to support Australian literature. It now includes the Children’s Book Prize, Young Adult Book Prize and Prize for New Australian Fiction.
- Readings supports the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to a special episode of The Garret podcast. We have been privileged to hear the stories from great authors like Tony Birch, Sofie Laguna, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, John Marsden, Kerry Greenwood, Anita Heiss and Christos Tsiolkas. They are all writers of immense talent and scope. They have several things in common, one of which is that you can buy their books at Readings bookstores.
Readings has been a great supporter of The Garret podcast since its beginning. It’s also the world’s number one independent bookstore. Its Managing Director is Mark Rubbo, and I spent time with Mark recently and learned how a former medical student became an accidental bookseller.
Mark Rubbo: Lovely to see you, Nic.
Nic: Thank you.
Mark: Lovely to be here.
Marl: What a great program.
Nic: Thank you very much. And I’ll just point out, we’re doing this in your office, which is… Thanks for inviting us into the office.
Mark: Very tidy, isn’t it?
Nic: It’s very small!
Nic and Mark: [Laughter]
Nic: Were books part of your early life growing up?
Mark: Yes, yes. I was always a great reader. My parents were readers, so the house was always full of books. I remember reading quite early on. I read all the time, I think. My father was an academic, and I remember he… One of his colleagues was a guy called Adrian. Adrian travelled a lot, and he used to send us kids books. I have a vivid memory still of getting these parcels from Uncle Adrian. I do remember quite vividly, you can still get them, those Sasek books on cities.
Nic: Oh yes.
Mark: This Is London, of This Is Paris.
Nic: Oh yes, absolutely. I remember, I had them as a kid.
Mark: Pouring over those…
Nic: They were fantastic.
Nic: And they’ve been rereleased, I’m sure of it.
Mark: Yes! They are.
Nic: And hopefully updated, because there were some very disturbing images that you couldn’t get away with nowadays. [Laughter]
Mark: The illustrations were delightful.
Nic: They were, they were.
Mark: What other authors – when you were say 9, 10, growing up in those sort of days – do you recall the authors or the books that really interested you?
Mark: Look, I’d loved, I really loved Enid Blyton. The Secret Seven and The Famous Five.
Mark: I do remember loving those. Then when I was 11 my father went on sabbatical and he went to America, and we all travelled with him. I remember we drive from San Francisco across America, and I vividly remember reading Cannery Row in Monterey.
Nic: Ok, wow.
Mark: At 11. It’s a vivid memory for me.
Nic: Wow. As you were going through your teens then, your reading changed then, obviously. Are there any names that jump out either while you were at school or, you know, on your own?
Mark: I think I read a lot. At school, it was a much more traditional curriculum, but I remember reading my first Camus at school. My sister was a friend of Allan Marshall, so I remember I read I Can Jump Puddles and thought that was wonderful. And also, Hal Porter was hanging around too, so I read The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. I was reading a lot of Australian writing.
Nic: You were.
Mark: Not that there was a lot. But also reading other things quite widely.
Nic: Ok. And what were your… Towards the end of high school, what were your plans for the future? Where did you think you were headed?
Mark: Well, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. But my father taught in the medical faculty, so not knowing, he said, ‘Well, medicine is not a bad profession’.
Nic and Mark: [Laughter]
Nic: Oh boy!
Mark: And I thought, you know, I wanted to help people and be a good citizen, so I thought, ‘Oh, that will do’. So that’s what my first undergraduate degree was.
Nic: Ok. So how do you go from being an undergraduate student of medicine and a lover of reading and books, if you like, to being a seller of books? Tell us the story.
Mark: [Laughter] Well, that was an accident. I wasn’t a very good medical student, much to my father’s disappointment.
Mark: And so that only lasted a year. I then started an Arts degree, thinking writing and journalism was probably something I was interested in. So, I did a major in politics and economics, and then at the time I got a part time job at the Melbourne University Bookroom, which in those days was a really good bookshop. They not only stocked course books, but it had a very wide range of general books. And so that was a great experience. They also had a record bar, and I ended up working most of my time in that. I was doing that and trying to keep up with my studies.
I was also working quite actively on the student newspaper Farrago. A friend of mine was the editor, Terry, the late Terry Counihan. He appointed me his News Editor. I don’t think I was very good at it.
Nic: Was there much news around? I mean, was it just university news, or was it much wider than that?
Mark: Oh, it was mainly university news and getting stories and things like that. There was no music shop in Lygon Street, and together with a friend we thought we would start up a music record shop.
Mark: The friend was actually the Assistant Manager of Melbourne University Bookroom, a guy called David Wilson, who became a journalist. So we decided to that, but somewhere I lost David along the way, so I started up the record shop.
Mark: I did that for a year or two, and down the road from the record shop was the wonderful Readings Bookshop, which had started a few years earlier. It was started up by Ross Reading and his wife Dorothy, who was a high school teacher, and a guy called Peter Reid. And so, we very friendly, and I would go down a lot, and they would recommend books for me to read. I remember Dot, going into the shop one day and Dot said, ‘You’ve got to read this book, you’ve got to read this book. It’s by this South American author, One Hundred Years of Solitude’.
Mark: And I remember taking that home and just being blown away by it.
Nic: When did you start writing? Was it while you were at high school? What sort of writing did you enjoy doing?
Mark: I guess it was just articles about things. I never… I’m not a great writer, or enjoy it that much, I struggle with it.
Mark: I haven’t written a book yet, and I don’t think I will.
Nic: Were you getting articles published? Were you submitting them and getting them published?
Mark: Look, only in say Farrago, or… We had a school magazine, and I published a few there.
Nic: Ok. All non-fiction? Or was it a bit of creative, a bit of poetry thrown in there?
Mark: No, no poetry.
Nic: No poetry, no fiction. All right. So, tell me about how you then got into Readings.
Mark: Well then Ross and Dot decided to… They had some land up near a town called Inglewood, and they decided they had enough of the business world and they decided to move up to Inglewood and grow organic almonds. And so they came up, because we had become quite friendly, and they said, ‘Look, do you want to buy our business?’ And I said yes straight away. I had two business partners at the time, and together we borrowed money from our respective families and bought Readings. I moved from the music side of the business.
Nic: And did you take the music into the bookstore, or was it… Back then was it both?
Mark: At the time they were separate.
Nic: Ok, ok.
Mark: And so, one of my business partners… The other two business partners stayed in the music side of it, and I sort of got engulfed by books.
Nic: Ok. I’m sure you could have been content with one wonderful shop – which is an institution, not just here in Melbourne but in Australia – but at what point did you look further? Why expand? Why open new shops, it’s only a headache, isn’t it?
Mark: I guess when Ross and Dot approached us, we – with my business partners Steve Smith and Greg Young – we already had the shop in Carlton, but Greg had had a shop in South Yarra.
Mark: And we’d opened one in Hawthorn. So, we already had three, and Readings made four.
Mark: Just… organically we tried more, and closed some. I suppose we always thought if we had something to offer, it would be interesting. I was quite ambitious for the business, and wanted it to succeed.
Nic: Ok. Do you have different readerships for different stores? Do you sell different types of books in different stores? Do you have different strategies for different stores?
Mark: It’s always been my philosophy to have good staff, and let them make decisions about what they stock to reflect the different communities. But there is a sort of underlying similarity. I mean, people will probably go to Readings because they expect to get a certain type of book. But then there are differences between certain suburbs, and things like that.
Nic: Any sort of marked differences? You know, particular books that have done particularly well at one store but not in another one that come to mind? Or genres, perhaps?
Mark: Look, where we’ve seen the marked differences is really where you have a passionate staff member who is pushing a particular book. So that’s where you can see a huge discrepancy. One shop will suddenly have this spike in a book that the other shops are just piddling along.
Nic: So, the St Kilda store obviously sells a lot of this year’s Miles Franklin Award?
Mark: It certainly does!
Nic and Mark: [Laughter]
Nic: But that aside…
Mark: Yes, they were very strong on A. S. Patric books… And Miles Allinson.
Nic: That’s right. Which books over the years have really taken you by surprise with their success? That you thought they might be a sleeper, or you didn’t think they were going to be enormous? Or you paid no attention to them? I mean, there must have been a few, which stick out in your mind?
Mark: Harry Potter. I’ve never been strong on children’s books, since I was a child.
Nic: Right, right. Reading Cannery Road at 11, obviously!
Mark: Harry Potter was a surprise, I think. Although my wife picked that. She was working in the shop, and she said, ‘This is going to be really big’.
Nic: Really? Is that right? Wow.
Mark: Exactly. My first big Australian book as a bookseller was Monkey Grip.
Mark: Which came out about 1977, which was a year after we took over the business.
Mark: And that was very memorable and exciting for me, and I probably didn’t know enough at that stage to know that that book would be big.
Nic: How does a bookseller go about… I mean, ordering must be... Ordering quantities must be… I don’t know if it is an art, or just chance? Over the years, you must learn how to order the right sort of quantities. How do you go about doing that?
Mark: I think it’s part intuition and experience, and you listen to what a publisher will tell you about it, what the promotion plans are. I suppose early on in my career I didn’t really understand that terribly well. I think one of the things I’m particularly proud about Readings now is we’re proactive. We try to identify books that we like and want to promote, and feel very excited about making those into big sellers. It’s sort of hand selling by machine. If you know the author… There’s a whole range of things that go into making that decision. And now, of course, with the industry becoming much more computerised we use past experience of similar books, and things like that.
But often it’s just a gut… and often that gut thing is wrong.
Nic: Unlike medicine thought, it’s not life and death.
Mark: No, it’s not. But it can be for the author.
Nic: Well, yeah, that’s true. You, and say Glebe Books and lots of other major independent store and small chains, if you like, are seen as servicing a particular part of the reading community. Over the years, the big chains – Dymocks, Angus and Robertson etcetera – are seen as servicing, I guess, more the general public. And then of course there was Borders, who came in and set up shop across the road from you. Tell us about those years, about when you firstly found out they were going to set up across… and then the competition and the inevitable victory, if you like, for the little man.
Mark: Well, that was really interesting. I guess when I took over the business from Ross and gone into books, Ross’ speciality had been importing books from America. Certainly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was this sort of, I guess, small press network that grew up publishing books outside of the mainstream – a lot about lifestyle things, going back to the land, building handmade houses and that kind of thing… and sort of alternative psychotherapies, that sort of thing.
Nic: And a lot of university presses from around the world as well?
Mark: Yeah. And at that stage when we took over there was in San Francisco in Berkeley there was this big cooperatively owned distributor centre called Book People that specialised in supplying those books, and Readings bought a lot of those. That was what Readings at that stage was known for – having those books that you couldn’t get easily from other places.
So, I guess it was the Helen Garner experience, ‘Oh, here’s an Australian author that can sell really well’. Jack Hibberd, the playwright, has been a longstanding customer of Readings, and I remember he came into the shop one day and he said to me – I’ve said this to him before and he has no recollection of it at all – but he said to me, ‘Why don’t you ever have a bloody Australian book in your window?’
Mark: … ‘You have all these books about smoking dope and building mudbrick houses’. And so that was a bit of an epiphany, and it became my personal passion of working with local authors and publishers to try to promote more Australian writing.
Nic: Borders comes along and they proclaim to have just about every book you could possibly get, and they were huge and enormous and everything.
Nic: How did you accept the challenge?
Mark: I’d been going to America quite a lot, going to places to buy these books that we still had a bit of a name for, because at that time it was still very hard to get American sourced books, because usually they had to come via the UK publisher, and that could take years.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Mark: And I’d seen lovely independent bookshops go out of business because a Borders or a Barnes and Noble had opened up across the road from them. And I always thought, ‘That’s a real worry for us’. Especially Carlton, it was always our biggest. I thought I had to do something. And I started looking round – if we could find a bigger site to make ourselves more competitive or resistant to competition. We were very fortunate, sadly, that the State Savings Bank of Victoria went broke, and they had a branch in Lygon Street and they were taken over by the Commonwealth Bank, so there were two branches and one was vacant. And that came up for sale, the Commonwealth Bank site, and it was four times larger than what we had, or five times, I think. And my business partner and I managed to scrape enough and borrow enough to buy that site.
Mark: And so, we had a relatively large site with a big offering, because I knew that say, if Borders or someone came in and we were a small shop, it would be… people would be wowed by their selection. Not knowing that that was going to happen but thinking it might. They did subsequently come to Australia…
Nic: Great forward planning!
Mark: … And open up. I remember they opened up first at the Jam Factory, but I went over there and had a look. I walked in and there was the African American history section, and the baseball section, and the gridiron section…
Nic: That’s right. They had no idea.
Mark: And I thought, ‘Great’. They do not understand this market. They’ve just said ‘Melbourne is the same size as Minneapolis or whatever, we’ll put what we put in Minneapolis’. So, I thought, ‘We have got an edge’.
Mark: And so, we worked hard saying, ‘We are part of your local community. We support Australian writers. We want to be part of you. We want to tell you what we think is important. We want to hear from you’. And it worked.
Nic: So, they opened up across the road from you, with the same... I think by then they probably started selling to the Australian market just a little bit better than perhaps the first days at the Jam Factory, but how were those years when they were there?
Mark: They had central buying, and the buyers had all come from a mass market background, and some of them weren’t even book people, they were used to arranging large retail stores. So, they weren’t as agile, and didn’t have as much understanding of the market that we did, I think.
By that time, we did start our very extensive events program, all that sort of thing which they couldn’t offer.
Nic: So, you were getting in touch with the community, the literary community and the local community.
Mark: Yeah. And I think we could react a lot faster than they could.
Nic: How often did you walk across the road and have a look inside?
Mark: Very rarely, because I would get depressed.
Mark: Hardly ever.
Nic: Hardly ever did. Did you disguise yourself when you did, put on Groucho Marx?
Mark: I probably only went in twice, I think.
Nic: Ok, ok. Did you celebrate, did you open a bottle of champagne when they closed down?
Mark: I was quietly pleased. But then, the most interesting thing was that… We’d never… Our business had dropped a little bit when they opened, and then it started to grow. So, in fact, we were coexisting, really. And when they closed business went up a huge amount…
Nic: Sure, sure.
Mark: … But then surprisingly after about a year it started to decline. So, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
Nic: Yeah. To some extent, you can see why it would be good. If you know there is going to be four or five restaurants in a certain situation you go there to eat. So, people know if they want a book, they’re going to go to Carlton – if they can’t get it there, they’ll get it there; if they can’t get it there, they’ll get it there. So, it could have worked for you at the same time.
Mark: Well, I think that is probably what had happened.
Nic: You are in the perfect position to comment on the balance between protection for Australian stories and writers versus the benefits for consumers, who are talking about parallel importing, and all sorts of other things. What are your thoughts on that? As a bookseller, as someone who loves Australian stories and writers, but as a bookseller you are straight down the middle, so I am really interested in your thoughts on this debate.
Mark: Yeah, it was really interesting. Because, as I say, Ross’ reputation had been to bring in books from America.
Nic: That’s right.
Mark: And often technically he was, and then we were, doing it illegally.
Nic: Yeah. You had to, though.
Mark: We had to. Because people couldn’t get it.
Nic: They were wanting the book, and couldn’t get it.
Mark: Couldn’t get it! I was conflicted. I wanted the market to be more open, because I felt that people should be able to get access to books, and as a bookseller I wanted to sell them.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Mark: But at the same time, I wanted Australian publishing and writing to flourish. So, it was a bit of a dilemma. And then I was President of the Australian Booksellers Association, which tried to reach a compromise, where… Because the publishers at that stage didn’t want any changes at all, and their argument would be, you know, if there was any changes at all the industry would be ruined…
Nic: Sure, sure.
Mark: … Everything would go to hell…
Nic: Chicken Little and the sky is going to fall in.
Mark: Exactly. And we were saying, ‘Look, this is untenable. We can’t wait for Tom Woolf to be published by Johnathan Cape in the UK, and wait 12 months before you get around to doing it and then charged three times the price’. So, it was always a bit of a conflict.
What we did at the Booksellers Association was… My view was if someone, a distributor just imported a book and distributed it, didn’t publish it, didn’t put any commitment into it, if they couldn’t supply it and couldn’t supply it at a reasonable price, why should they be protected? But if a publisher made the effort to build a relationship with an author, nurtured them, spent that investment, then they should have some protection.
Nic: Right, ok.
Mark: And that’s always been my philosophy.
Nic: So, the current situation. You happy with the balance, or would you like to see further changes to the legislation?
Mark: It has changed a huge amount. What happened out of that review and that negotiation was that they introduced wat they call the 30 day rule. An overseas book had to be published in Australia within 30 days, otherwise the bookseller could bring it in. And that just changed the whole way, especially the overseas companies, looked at the way they published books, and books became available here very quickly, most often in the trade paperback format…
Mark: … So, they were slightly cheaper than a hardback. The missing piece there was the price pressure. They could price the book at whatever they wanted, and there were some very bad pricing policies for books. Books were terribly expensive. And then the Internet came along.
Mark: The Australian dollar got to almost parity with the US dollar, but the distributors were still pricing the imported books as though in the old days, when they had a market that didn’t have any competition. As a bookseller, our customers would say to us ‘This book is 6 pounds. Why are you charging $30 for it? That’s only $10’.
Nic: Sure. Once you can compare so easily!
Mark: That’s right.
Nic: So how have you responded to the online competition? I guess Amazon being the main one, but obviously not the only one, with Book Depository and lots of other opportunities.
Mark: It has changed the dynamics. But I guess, going on from that, I think now we are talking about should the open market be opened further? And I think publishers and distributors now realise that we do live in a global market and they do have to try and price books competitively. And I think they are making a lot of effort.
So, as far as your question about whether the legislation needs to be changed, I suppose in an ideal world I would like a bit of compulsion to, if the price isn’t fair on an overseas books, then there should be some… Canada has an arrangement where if there’s disparity, I think something like 15%, between the American price and the Canadian price, if it is greater than 15%, then the bookseller can import it.
Nic: Alright, ok.
Mark: I think something like that would be quite a good compromise.
Nic: Tell me a little bit about the relationship between publishers and booksellers over the years. How do you work together?
Mark: Personally, I think it has got much, much better. There could be a couple of factors there. Readings has got larger, so we are more important to them. But I think it’s more that they have gone from being distributors of overseas books to being publishers, being passionate. You know, you’ve had Michael Heyward talking on here.
Mark: So, when I started up there weren’t Michael Heyward’s, Hillary McPhee and Di Gribble and Morry Schwartz.
Nic: Yes. I know Morry, in various incarnations of publishing.
Mark: But now there is a much more collegiate atmosphere. Publishers talk to booksellers and try to get their feedback, so you feel that much more working together to achieve a common goal.
Look, it has been a lovely industry to work in, and still is.
Nic: Of course.
Mark: Because most of the people you are working with don’t see books as commodities.
Nic: No, they have a passion for the product.
Mark: I mean, they love to sell things, and I do too.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Mark: And sometimes you’ll put a lot of effort into selling something that is rubbish.
Nic and Mark: [Laughter]
Nic: That helps you with the others, that helps you stock the shelves with the other stuff, doesn’t it?
Mark: And that’s fun too. But, the greatest fun is selling something you feel is worthwhile.
Nic: Of course. What about the relationship between booksellers and writers?
Mark: I think that has changed too, especially with more and more booksellers doing events. They have contact with writers, they build up relationships with them, and try to work with them a bit more proactively.
Nic: What about writers who self-publish? Do you accept, have you in the past accepted books that are self-published? Because it is such a growing area, you must get inundated with people.
Mark: At Readings, it has always been our policy to take self-published works. But now, to be frank, it is becoming unmanageable.
Mark: We just can’t.
Nic: So how do you make a decision?
Mark: It is extremely difficult, because you don’t have the time to evaluate. And it is so easy to do now. So that is a really problematic area now I think, for someone like us who has always been saying ‘Yes, you’ve done your little poetry book, we’ll take five’. I know the staff who look after it find it very problematic.
Nic: I’m sure, I’m sure.
Mark: Sometimes you find a gem, of course, but that doesn’t happen very often. So, the idea of having a good publisher as a gatekeeper, and a good agent who helps to decide if this book is worth publishing…
Nic: Do you think the small booksellers who still exist and thrive, and there is a number of them, do you think it’s because of the connection with the community, the connection with the writers, the fact that they put on events and host local groups? Do you think you need to do that as a small bookseller to be able to compete, certainly with online, less so with the chains because there is so few of them now?
Mark: I think they certainly have to build some point of difference – a physical experience or an intellectual experience – that is different to what you can get from Amazon or Book Depository. And that is what worries me about those like corporations like Amazon or Book Depository – there is no diversity. If you have a diversity of retailers, they each have their own prejudices and passions, and you get all these different people putting things in and giving a richness to the whole industry.
That’s why I love small publishers too, because if the publishing industry is just dominated by Penguin Random and Hachette, it would be very dull. Not that those people who work there are not terrific and wonderful, but they have their own direction and obligations to their owners and things like that. So, I’ve always thought diversity in any industry is so important, and that is what worries me, very greatly, that people will get seduced by the click…
Nic: Of course.
Mark: … that instant gratification.
Nic: I mean, there is nothing like wandering through a bookshop, as I do regularly, much to the detriment of my bank balance.
Mark: The problem of course, you know, everyone is talking about Amazon coming here next year, and they’ll just chip away. And the bookshop you like to go into because it is stocked with lots of interesting books, suddenly the cream from its sales will be taken away and so they can’t buy as many, and slowly it erodes and disappears. Fortunately, in America there has been a bit of a resurgence in the independent booksellers, so there are some rays of hope.
Nic: Well, I do recall everyone was fearful ebooks were just going to be the demise of the bookstore, and then that plateaued, and seems to still be on that level, or even declining.
Mark: I guess one of the sad things about the demise of Borders was that it took down Angus and Robertson. So, you now have communities that don’t have access to books.
Nic: Way too many, way too many. You see it all the time everywhere.
Mark: And so, the bookshops that survive and thrive are the ones in very high socioeconomic areas, and are catering to rich people who can afford.
Nic: That’s right. So, they aren’t getting into the habit – 10, 20, 30 years ago just getting into the habit of getting books.
Mark: Well, they probably go to libraries and things like that, but also if they are going online to these big multinationals, what they are being offered is not Australian culture, they are being offered overseas culture, so they don’t discover the Bryce Courtenay’s. Well, the lower down popular writing. That’s what makes a book interesting, that it always throws up things.
Nic: Yes. As the owner of a bookstore, how do you choose what to read? I mean, it’s impossible.
Mark: That’s right. Look, I think sadly you choose what you feel you should read, because you want to promote it. You don’t necessarily choose what you would want to read. But lots of that stuff you feel you should read is great, so it works out in the end. Each month there is a new cycle of books, and your energies… I think publishers have the same problem too, and this is where many writers become resentful, because they think, ‘They are not pushing our book anymore!’
Nic: Sure. But they can’t.
Mark: They can’t. Because they have to move on to the next writers book, and the same with a bookstore. You have to be ruthless. If a book is not working, it loses its spot.
Nic: Are there too many books being published in Australia?
Mark: I don’t think so. Once again, you need diversity. But it’s a very… It’s a low sum economic game.
Mark: The ones that make money and are viable are few and far between.
Nic: Is there any common thread between the books – and this will help emerging writers who are listening – common thread between the books that do succeed? Anything that reoccurs, there something about those books that you think those authors are doing it right?
Mark: Well first, there is quality there. If we are talking about a fiction book, there is story there, it is well told, it is interesting, the structure is interesting, its innovative… A whole range of things. I think the author, once again working with all the different possible stakeholders in a way that is respectful and constructive can really help. So, as I say, making contact with booksellers and bookselling staff, getting people aware, those people who may be opinion makers…
Nic: Ok, that is interesting. So, realising that they are part of a lot of people who all have the same aim, which is obviously to sell books.
Nic: Which is difficult for some writers, because writing is such an isolated and solo business, and you can forget you are a part of a big thing, and there’s a lot of people who want success for you so they also have success.
Mark: Yes. That’s right.
Nic: Everyone is on the same page.
Mark: But there are lots of those different competing people, so…
Nic: That’s right.
Mark: It’s tricky, it’s a juggling act. And it’s something that concerns me at Readings. We’ve always wanted to be supportive of Australian writers. And how do you do that in an effective way? We struggle with that.
That is one of the reasons we started the Readings Prize. There was a bit of a downturn in the industry four or five years ago, and we were struggling. We were putting out efforts into what we thought we could sell, more commercial books, and starting to forget about what had been our soul. And so we were grappling with ‘How can we regain that a little bit’? And so, we came up with the idea of the prize, so we would start to look at those new emerging writers in a serious way. And so, the prize was for the first or second book, so a new writer, to give them a bit of attention.
Nic: And it is a great example of, as we were just talking about, you realising you are a part of a bigger thing. You know, there’s writers, there’s publishers, there’s booksellers, and everyone has to work together. And I know Readings does a lot in this area, promotes a lot of writer-related organisations and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which is fantastic.
Finally, you’ve obviously been to a lot of bookshops around the world, had a look. Which bookshop anywhere in the world would you most like to own, other than the ones you already do?
Mark: I haven’t been to as many as I’d like. The first bookshop that I really wanted to be was… My sister was an academic – there are a few academics in my family – and she and her husband taught in Ann Arbor in Michigan, which is a university town where the University of Michigan is. I used to go and visit her in the early 1970s, and there was this wonderful independent bookshop called Borders.
Nic and Mark: [Laughter]
Mark: And I said, ‘I want to be like Borders’.
Nic: Ok. So, what was it about that Borders bookshop back then?
Mark: Look, I think it was big but not too big. It had a fantastic range of books. You just felt engulfed by books, and the staff were interested.
Whenever I travel or go anywhere I always go to a bookshop.
Nic: Mark, thank you very much for spending time telling us about the world of bookselling and your history. It has been an absolute joy.
Mark: It has been my pleasure, Nic.
Nic: Thank you.