Dispatches | May 27, 2011

I’m in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of weeks, and I’d intended to commemorate my trip with a blog post devoted to all the Australian books I’d been reading. Before coming here, I’d only knowingly read one contemporary Australian author—Tim Winton. So I went to the State Library of Victoria to get some ideas about who to read next. Right away I was struck by how many people were at the library; nearly every spot was taken in the reading rooms that I passed through, and even the stately central dome (equipped with fewer power outlets and an [observed!] ban on talking) was crowded. Signs prohibiting the saving of spots led me to understand that this is exam time at the universities. But something else may account for Australians’ love of the library: the outrageous price of books. Browsing through the library’s shelf of new releases, I’d decided to buy something by Chris Womersley. Critics’ blurbs describe his work as Cormack McCarthy-meets-Amy Hempel; his second novel, Bereft (2010), is set in an Australian town called Flint (and it’s been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award). In every way, this sounded like the book for me. But then I looked at its price tag: $24.95 for a mass market paperback! With the conversion rate, that’s $26.14 American. I couldn’t strike a bargain by buying Womersley’s first book, either: The Low Road (2007), is available as a $32 trade paperback.

The issue of book prices apparently bedevils Australians as well as travelers; a search for “why are books so expensive in Australia?” turns up both conspiracy theories and more considered editorials. I decided seek answers to this question from booksellers themselves. I set out with some trepidation. Though I’ve had lovely conversations with Australians in casual situations—on the plane; in our seats at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (that’s right: the sequel to Phantom of the Opera)—I have not felt nearly as comfortable in retail situations. I can’t for the life of me remember how to order a coffee (flat white? long black?). I have to examine nearly every coin in my wallet to determine whether any $1 or $2 pieces lurk among the lesser coinage. Even if the dollar were stronger, I couldn’t afford most of the things that draw me off the street and into Melbourne’s innumerable boutiques. And I suspect that shopkeepers know all of this as soon as they hear me speak. Even so: I needed answers.

Turns out everybody was happy to talk to me about this issue. The clerks at the used bookstore in my neighborhood said that Australian book prices are high because of import restrictions. Ostensibly meant to protect Australian writers, these restrictions instead create a closed market (explained more fully here). Thus the standard price for a new hardcover book is $49.99 Australian. But according to one of the clerks, Australian internet shopping has grown 100% in the last year; she predicted that this would force changes in the media market (CDs are also twice as expensive here as in the U.S.). The clerks sent me down the street to Readings, an independent bookshop with six locations in Melbourne, to ask about the high price of domestic books. There, the clerk who helped me find a copy of Womersley’s The Low Road reasoned that economy of scale accounts for book prices being so high: the market for books simply isn’t very big in Australia. He said often imported books often wind up being cheaper than domestic ones, even after factoring in the taxes involved.

Readings was busy on a Wednesday afternoon (much more so than the florescent-lit, echoing Borders across the street). There were also a lot of people working, and the young man who explained prices to me helped me navigate the Australian fiction section. He couldn’t offer any personal recommendations; it’s not what he reads. We didn’t get into the reasons why not. Unable to find Bereft on the internet at any cost, I bought both it and a collection of David Malouf stories. It’s probably for the best that I couldn’t afford to weigh down my suitcase with anything else. But if you’ve read other Australian writers, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. A book costs only $15 or so at the used bookshop . . .

Stephanie Carpenter is a former TMR staff member and Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint.