The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Chuck McKenzie

Chuck McKenzie is the champion of horror (and SF & Fantasy) in major retail bookstore chain Dymocks. He’s the manager of the Dymocks Southland (Melbourne) store, and his devotion to all things dark and speculative has resulted in that store becoming a beacon of sales success.

Chuck is the Keeper of the Dead (Managing Editor) of zombie fiction review site NecroScope and a reviewer for HorrorScope. He’s also a writer of humorous (and often poignant) horror and SF. His body of work includes the collection Confessions of a Pod Person (MirrorDanse Books) and the novel Worlds Apart.

As someone with his foot in both camps (author and bookseller) – and especially as he’s an innovator for a major bookstore chain – Chuck’s opinion on e-books counts in a very big way:


“Factoring e-books into the bricks-and-mortar equation”

I manage a franchised chain bookstore in Cheltenham, Victoria, and as a traditional print bookseller, I’m often asked by customers walking in off the street whether we stock either e-readers or e-books. Most are only mildly surprised that we don’t because e-readers seem to be regarded by many as the natural enemy of the printed book. What tends to surprise these customers more is when I go on to tell them that at some point we certainly will be stocking e-readers, and that we’re currently in the process of seriously researching the pros and cons of what’s available on the market, and what products are likely to be released in the near future.

Certainly, we’re not the only bookseller to jump aboard the e-reader wagon. RedGroup (who own both Angus & Robertson and Borders in Australia) stocks the Kobo, Amazon has the Kindle. Even independent Melbourne retailer Readings recently announced that it had produced its own user-friendly e-reader. There’s no doubt that the playing field for traditional booksellers has changed forever, but does this necessarily mean the end for traditional bookshops?

I would suggest not. For a start, as indicated above, there’s the option for booksellers to begin selling e-readers, and by extension – e-books, and I can only see this area of bookselling growing in profitability. Sure, you have to sell more e-books to make the same profit you’d make on a single printed book, but then, that’s kinda the point – readers can, and do, buy more e-books for the same money they would once have laid down for a single printed book. Also, it’s worth pointing out that there are still those customers who would prefer to purchase – and more importantly, own, books in the traditional form … but I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. There’s no doubt in my mind that the traditional bookselling industry is in for a rough time in the near future. Already hit by the double-whammy of the GFC (which made book-buyers pull their belts in) and the growing popularity of cheaper online purchasing, booksellers are now feeling the brunt of the massive surge in the development and sale of e-reader technology. Why buy a single blockbuster new-release fantasy novel for $32.95 when you could buy it as an e-book for around $10? Why take a suitcase full of cumbersome paperbacks on holiday when you can download hundreds of e-books to a handy little device that just about fits into your pocket? Given that a remarkably large portion of the population is now extremely tech-savvy – and more importantly, have a preference for tech over traditional media – it seems obvious to me that e-books will soon monopolise the retail bookselling industry; comparing sales of print books with those of e-books will be like comparing sales of CDs to those of music downloads.

That’s not an accidental analogy, by the way: the bookselling industry is currently facing exactly the sort of changes that the music retail industry faced around eight years back, and unless booksellers quickly learn to roll with the changes – in the same way that the music industry didn’t – many may simply go out of business. Many will go out of business precisely because they can’t – or more likely, won’t – accept change. Some, however, will demonstrate sufficient flexibility and market understanding to not only remain operational, but to do extremely well in the New Market.

Which brings us back to the lure of traditional printed books …

Here’s how I see it. Within the next few generations, those who grow up with e-reader technology will largely adopt it as the sole means of buying and reading books, with almost any e-reader able to inexpensively access virtually any published work that has ever seen print, from ancient classics to the latest releases. Now, this may just sound like another way of stating that everyone will eventually download all of their book purchases, thus relegating traditional print publishing to the scrapheap of history, and certainly, this is a concept that has seen a vast amount of discussion – both positive and negative – in recent times.

The one point that people almost always seem to ignore, however, when discussing the inevitability of the Universal Download, is that – currently, at least – people like books.

Technology doesn’t always relegate tradition to the scrapheap. Sure, PCs have been around for about 30 years now, and who uses a typewriter anymore? But on the other hand, e-mail (and twitter, etc.) – while certainly the primary method of communication between the tech-savvy – certainly hasn’t put Australia Post out of business. By the same token, many readers are genuinely fond of printed books: something you can not only hold in your hand (as you can with an e-reader), but also display on your shelf, get signed by an author*, or – dare I suggest it – accidentally leave on a train with minimal psychological or financial trauma.

Will this love of printed books be sufficient to save the bookselling industry? No. At least, not the bookselling industry in its current form. I predict that over the next few years at least half of all traditional booksellers, particularly bricks-and-mortar retailers, will close due to the dwindling market for printed books and the inability of the publishing industry as a whole to adapt to a purely price-driven market (which is a whole ‘nother post in itself!). Those that survive will be the booksellers who can compete on factors other than price, such as service (an aspect sorely neglected by many bookshops currently), specialisation and range (i.e. providing a range of certain specific genres such as speculative fiction, romance, academia, etc. that other shops don’t carry, with staff knowledge and expertise to back it up), and the ability to factor e-tech into their operations, above and beyond simply stocking e-products.

What exactly does this mean? Consider the following idea, for example: in the near future, the average reader will spend the $24.99 they have budgeted for book purchases – and which would once have got them only a single printed book – on purchasing up to three e-books. As a result, more titles overall will be purchased per capita by readers, including many titles purchased purely on the basis of low cost, which the buyer would never have purchased if those titles had been expensive print publications. So: more publications are purchased and read – and by extension, enjoyed – than would have occurred in a print-only market. Now, while a downloaded version of any book will suit most readers just fine, there will remain a reasonable percentage of folk who will still want printed copies of the books they particularly enjoy (just as many who download music will eventually purchase CD copies of those downloads). Having read ten books on their e-reader, maybe the average person decides that they’d like to purchase hard-copies of three of those books, so they take their proof of purchase to a bookstore to indicate the titles they’ve downloaded from that store’s website, and the bookseller gives them a 20% discount on the printed versions of those books. In other words, the bookseller is actually taking into account the buying habits of the New Market customer, rather than simply servicing an increasingly small niche market of print-book readers. In doing this, the bookseller actually creates a demand for print books, rather than simply replacing print with downloads, while simultaneously prompting readers to buy their e-books specifically from that shop’s own website.

Just one example of how it could all work. Many more to be explored. In the end, we can only speculate on what the future will bring. Based upon the trends and information at hand, though, I can still see myself selling printed books for a fair while to come. With a little help from my PC.

* While you can’t yet get the actual text of an e-book signed by your favourite author, I can see the possibility of eventual alternatives: perhaps including a video function on a future e-reader that allows you to record a personalised message from John Scalzi or Peter V. Brett when you meet them at a convention.

Note: The opinions expressed here are those held by Chuck as an individual and do not necessarily reflect those of Chuck’s employer, Dymocks.


If you’re in Melbourne, visit Chuck at Dymocks Southland – Shop 3067/8 Westfield Southland, 1239 Nepean Highway, Cheltenham – where he’ll provide you with excellent service and even better advice on a good book to buy.

Chuck’s collection Confessions of a Pod Person (which features a zombie or two) is available in good old print from MirrorDanse Books.

And if you like zombies (and who doesn’t?), Chuck is the Keeper of the Dead at NecroScope, Australia’s #1 zombie site.


The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at www.jiraiya.com.au until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at shane@jiraiya.com.au.

6 Comments

  1. Patty Jansen says:

    I think this is a very sensible view, Chuck.

    I also see a place for the espresso book machine, where a reader can have a copy of any book made on demand by the shop. Possibly there will also be a gourmet book market, for people who like beautiful copies of books of their choice.

    One of the issues I have with ebooks is that they don’t store very well, requiring constant maintenance in the form of equipment and version upgrades. A paper book is so much better at sitting on the shelf undamaged for twenty years. But for that first sampling, I suspect many of us will reach for an ereader sooner rather than later.

  2. Truly fascinating stuff. I’m loving February, thanks to the Grand Conversation/Experiment, so thanks to Shane and his contributors.

    I agree with a lot of what you said, Chuck, except for the Australia Post analogy. Perhaps email has not put AusPost out of business, but it has certainly kicked its ass. Personal letter writing is almost dead, and if we add to that the unwillingness of many banks, not to mention the phone, electricity, gas, home loan, credit card, and cable TV companies to send you physical bills through the mail then I think Australia Post would be dead if they didn’t have multiple income streams (parcels, etc.).

    This article is more than a year old, but the numbers are telling: http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/323193/email_hits_australia_post_where_it_hurts/

    I think we it may be more apt to look at video rental as an example. They rent one thing, just as bookstore sell one thing (sure, both sell other stuff, but that’s all gravy, not meat). Digital distribution has absolutely smashed video rental in the US and it’s in the process of smashing cable TV, two huge industries that had YEARS to prepare. Hell, most of the cable TV companies SUPPLY the houses that are cutting back with the Internet that they’re using to replace their 500 channels.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. People will always want books, yes, but those books are going to have to start celebrating the fact that they are objects, because that’ll be their only advantage (and it isn’t one I’m willing to pay $30 dollars for, very often…).

  3. John Farrell says:

    I’m not convinced by Chuck’s arguments. Tech-savvy readers are already not buying that $24.99 on one book, they’re going to on-line sites and buying three books for that price. The last ebook I bought was not because it was cheaper, it was because it was out-of-print. A physical copy would have been cheaper if the on-line store could actually provide it – $7.99 instead of $9.99. While e-book retailing follows Amazon’s current financial model, I don’t expect e-books to be significantly cheaper than physical ones. Physical books are cheaper again in India, if you can figure how to get them from there.

    Secondly, I won’t read more because of the availability of e-books, because the limiting factor in my reading is time, not cost. I can only find about an hour and a half each day to read. If you can find a technology to fix that, I’ll buy it.

    I have found myself reading (or at least planning to read) more specialty magazines since I got my Kindle. If I can download a PDF of an Aussie SF magazine for $4 I can do it in seconds without blinking, stick it on the Kindle, and hope to read it one day. Consequently I think e-books will be a boon for tiny publishers.

  4. Elfwreck says:

    John Farrell :
    I can only find about an hour and a half each day to read. If you can find a technology to fix that, I’ll buy it.

    “If you have never said ‘Excuse me’ to a parking meter or bashed your shins on a fireplug, you are probably wasting too much valuable reading time.” ~Sherri Chasin Calvo

    My ebook reader (Sony PRS-505) means any wait of longer than 45 seconds includes reading time. I read on elevators. While waiting in line for my coffee. While rebooting my computer when Windows cra… um, attempts functions too complex for its current arrangement of memory. On the train to work. Walking between the train and work. On hold with a client’s voicemail.

    The difference between “pick up book and flip to right page, hold pages open & find my place on the two-page spread,” and “pick up ereader, push button, find place on the 6″ screen” is enough to turn two-minute waits into actual reading time instead of just frustrations.

    I know that won’t work for everyone; reading in short jumps isn’t always worth it for me. But having the ereader at hand has meant any unexpected twenty-minute delay (“I’m sorry; he left for lunch early. Just wait here in the lobby for a few minutes please?”) is not wasted looking at three-year-old magazines of hobbies I have no interest in.

  5. […] in the country, Chuck McKenzie, to contribute an article to this blog as a companion piece to his ‘Grand Conversation’ on ebooks guest post. Keep an eye out for Chuck’s article here soon! […]

  6. […] A guest blog-post I wrote for Shane Jiraiya Cummings a few weeks back, on the impact of e-readers. […]

%d bloggers like this: