Monday, February 28, 2011


by Graeme Lay      
Photo - Chris Skelton, NZH.

So the Whitcoulls chain is broke, its parent company, the aptly-named REDgroup, chronically indebted. No one who has been closely connected with the book trade over the last twenty years – writers, publishers, reviewers – is in the least bit surprised at this demise. The once-proud, pioneering New Zealand company formerly known as Whitcombe & Tombs and which served the country’s publishing and book-buying public so well for over a century, had descended into a trashy chain in which first-rate books were marginalised in favour of celebrity biographies, stationery, greetings cards, DVDs and electronic playthings.

Bought and quickly flicked on since the 1980s by men such as Ron Brierley, Eric Watson and Graeme Hart, money-men not renowned for their love of literature, the Whitcoulls brand became more and more debased. Its staff (abysmally paid, we now learn), were as unknowledgeable as its owners and unhelpful towards those who sought their assistance. New Zealand publishers and writers grew increasingly frustrated at Whitcoulls’ refusal to stock their books, or if they did so, failed to market them effectively. Even if books were sold, re-orders never came. Predictably, overall sales plummeted and REDgroup’s owners began to drown in a sea of crimson ink.

Stories of Whitcoulls’ ineptitude towards local literature became legion among New Zealand writers. For instance, after my first novel was published, called The Mentor, I went eagerly into the Whitcoulls flagship store in Queen Street to see where it had been shelved. It was nowhere to be seen. So without divulging that I was the author, I asked an assistant if she could show me where a new book, The Mentor, was. She looked thoughtful. ‘Mentor. That’s a kind of insect, isn’t it?’ And she pointed me in the direction of the Natural History section. ‘No, no, it isn’t an insect,’ I protested. ‘Oh no, that’s right.’ She thought again. ‘Mentor, mentor. Oh yes, that’s right. It’s not an insect, it’s a creature. A half-man, half horse. Try the Classics Section. It’s at the back of the shop.’

Compared to today’s hapless staff, this young woman’s knowledge was encyclopaedic. Since then things have got much worse. When I compiled and edited an anthology of short fiction by young male New Zealand writers, entitled Boys’ Own Stories, it required a lengthy search to discover a copy in the Whitcoulls store. Far from the Fiction shelves, it had been placed in the Parenting section.

In recent years, the firm’s treatment of local fiction has become even more lamentable. Even potentially profitable novels have been relegated to obscure sections of the store, far to the rear of the celebrity biographies, cookery books, computer games, calendars and DVDs. In 2006 another novel of mine, Alice & Luigi, was published. After a lengthy search, I found four copies in the very back shelves of the Queen Street store, a shadowy section where it was unlikely to be discovered by a buyer. Outraged, I picked up the four novels, carried them to the well-lit front area of the store and added them furtively to the stand on which were displayed ‘New and Best-Sellers’. There Alice & Luigi kept company briefly with Dan Brown, Tana Umaga, Nigella Lawson and Jeffrey Archer. A few days later I looked for the four copies of my novel. They had all gone.

Sadder still was the fate of another book of mine, In Search of Paradise – Artists and Writers in the colonial South Pacific. A very large, lavishly illustrated work, I knew I could not fail to miss it in the Whitcoulls store. I did miss it. After enquiring as to its possible location, an assistant searched for some time, its anxious author trailing after her. We eventually found three copies, on the very bottom shelf of the ‘Pictorial’ section, close to the floor. When I asked why they had been placed there, where they would never be noticed, she replied cheerily, ‘Oh that’s because it’s such a big book. If it fell off a high shelf it might injure a customer and Whitcoulls would get sued.’

The ray of sunlight shining through this book-retailing gloom is that our independent bookshops continue to provide wonderful service to authors, publishers and book-buyers. Their proprietors stock New Zealand books, display them prominently and are knowledgeable about them. Forget about Whitcoulls and their wretched vouchers, and even and ebooks. Instead, support our independent book-stores.

Graeme Lay's story, which I warmly endorse, was was first published in the NZ Herald 28 February, 2011.
The NZ Herald have closely monitored the Whitcoulls saga running many stories and opinions. These can be viewed at their website.

Graeme Lay is an editor and a prolific writer of stories, magazine articles, television plays, fiction and non-fiction books. He was books editor of North and South magazine from 1990-99. He has published several novels and collections of short stories, and edited many short story anthologies including the popular Short Short Stories series. In 1999 and 2002 he was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards for his young adult novels.

NZ Book Council.


Anonymous said...

I too lament the loss of a once iconic bookseller. I began my working life working for Whitcombe and Tombs shortly before the merger with Coulls Sommervile Wilkie into the Whitcoulls brand.
Back in those days, if you didn't know your authors, you just weren't up to the task. It was important also to know your customer - to develop an affinity with them that allowed you to send them a postcard when something they might be interested in came out.
New Zealand books were always at the front of the store and heavily promoted.

Anonymous said...

I have read with interest all the commentary around the possible demise of Whitcoulls. Goodness knows I have little reason to love RedGroup and its incompetent Australian management, but I feel obliged to provide some clarifiaction.
Many have deplored the high price of books in NZ. Don’t blame the booksellers. Certainly Whitcoulls was adding to the publishers' prices – but the price is a RECOMMENDED retail. If you want to find someone to blame, look to the British publishers. Ever since they began selling to the supermarket chains they have artificially inflated the recommended retail prices so that they can be seen to give the supermarkets a big fat discount. In many cases the British publishers sell to their NZ subsidiaries at the RRP less a discount, which results in high prices for New Zealanders. The bookseller is the fall guy in this chain, often forced to slash margins dramatically to meet the “market price” on books.
As for the pricing from Book Depository – surely no-one imagines this is a sustainable model? BD is often selling just above cost. It is heavily financed by private investors and, presumably, is following the Amazon model of making a loss for five years before starting to turn a profit. Whether or not its investors are willing or able to sustain these losses in the current economic climate is another story – look at the fate of cut-price airlines…
And now to the snobbishness prevalent in so many comments. Wake up, people: the majority of book sales are in mass market books, not in high-end literature. This is where middle NZ likes to read and it’s not up to those who prefer a different type of literature to censor their choices or restrict their access to these books. Whitcoulls caters to this segment of the market and is perfectly valid in doing so. It is pointless to compare a Whitcoulls store to a niche market bookstore (operating on a different business model). Do you scoff at a supermarket for not stocking a 50 year old balsamic vinegar, or throw a tantrum because your local big-box liquor store doesn’t stock a rare sherry? Different markets, different stores.
Graeme lay is outraged that his large, heavy book, In Search of Paradise, was placed on a low shelf. I have news for you, Graeme. In my decades as a specialist bookseller I was always careful to place heavy books low down. The Whitcoulls staff member was correct that a heavy book could fall from a high shelf and hurt someone. It is commonsense to avoid this, even if it means disrupting the “correct” order of books. It all becomes part of the lovely serendipity of browsing in a bookshop and is a practice I also follow in my private collection of 20,000 books.
Whitcoulls has become, over the years, more of a mainstream bookstore than it was in the past. But its head office used to be staffed by a team of knowledgeable and passionate people who balanced their love of books with the business imperatives of the company. Under their stewardship Whitcoulls championed some new and little-known authors, turning a number of them into bestsellers, and tried to support NZ publications as much as possible. I watched with sadness as these people were bullied by the Australian management, were thwarted in every effort to be good booksellers and ultimately, were made redundant two or three years ago.
Whitcoulls pays high rents to maintain the presence of books in front of middle New Zealand in the malls. Its volume means it can have a major impact on the viability of a local print run – or, indeed, the local presence of the international publishing companies. Where will the NZ book trade be if everything goes off-shore to Australia?
Whitcoulls is in its current parlous state, not because of the global economic crisis, not because of e-stores and e-books, and only partly because of RedGroup’s debt issues. It has failed as a bookstore because of the appalling mismanagement of its senior management. The real question is: can we afford to do without Whitcoulls?

techydude said...

"Anonymous" (11:05pm) is spot on. The collapse of REDgroup is far more about a bunch of "bovver boys" trying to impose standard corporate thuggery on the subtle art of bookselling. It didn't work. And now a lot of 3rd-party creditors will pay the price for REDgroup's negligence. All other factors affecting both AU & NZ booksellers remain constant, but they aren't in $130M of debt and holding massive amounts of useless stock to sell that should never have been purchased in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Whitcoulls have been using their suppliers as a 'bank' for a long time. In recent years they made terrible strategic and basic retailing decisions repeatedly, not the least of which was getting rid of their highly respected book buying team (most of whom now work for PPG) - then were forced to implement increasingly short sighted, short term initiatives just to keep things rolling. Think: ever decreasing circles.
Having suppliers (not only book publishers) effectively over a barrel due to their historical market share and also due to many catagories being "in too deep", there was practically no good faith there.

A J Dormaar said...

I am a relatively new writer but in recent years I have been advised to have my work looked at overseas as trying to get anyone here in NZ to take it seriously was almost impossible! I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I wrote about New Zealand, did biographies, cookbooks, sports albums etc there was no real market for older children's fiction. At the moment it is for sale via the Amazon and Barnes and Noble sites, but many people have approached me wanting to buy direct from a store. Alas, how I would love to oblige them!

As a result of all this, my first book "The Unclaimed Throne" has been released in the USA, and for all those who like the Hobbit and the Narnia books, I trust there is something in there for you to appreciate. However, I would love to see my work on bookshelves but after so many setbacks I am at a loss of how to get noticed here. While saddened over the demise of Whitcoulls, a true icon of this country, I can only hope that the powers that be have learned their lessons and do more to support the many great writers out there who deserve so much better. At least give us a chance!