IN an industrial estate in Sydney’s north lies a warehouse that may represent the future of bookselling. It’s in an unglamorous location next to an electricity substation and it’s an adamantly low-key operation; it houses a management team, but there isn’t a suit, tie or flash haircut in sight.
The nondescript building is the headquarters of Booktopia, an online bookshop that was founded in 2004 by two Sydney brothers and their brother-in-law, none of whom have publishing backgrounds. Since then, it has grown from a sideline with a daily marketing budget of $10 to become Australia’s biggest, locally owned online book retailer. Booktopia has a monthly turnover of up to $1.6 million and expects to sell more than 750,000 books this year. These are startling figures for a bookseller that took three days to sell its first title.
Co-owners Tony Nash, Simon Nash and their brother-in-law Steve Traurig are unassuming, middle-aged dads who ran an internet marketing business before they founded Booktopia. They used to show clients, including A&R, how to drive traffic to their websites. Simon Nash remembers how he and his brother eventually said to one another: “We should give that book thing a go”, referring to what would evolve into a multimillion dollar business.
The Booktopia founders were warned they could not make money running an online bookstore. They also ran into resistance from some publishers who initially didn’t take them seriously. Today, leading publishers make the trek to the no-frills warehouse to brief these booksellers about their latest titles. Booktopia employs 40 people. Some pack books in envelopes, others manage stock and take customer orders, and there is a team dedicated to a customer phone service. Online booksellers don’t usually offer phone contact but Traurig says: “We put our phone number out there because we wanted to be well known as an Australian company that provides an Australian service.”
Booktopia was a state finalist in this year’s Telstra Business Awards and has appeared twice on BRW’s Fast 100 list, which ranks Australia’s 100 fastest growing companies. Do traditional booksellers resent this tech-savvy upstart? “Probably,” admits Simon Nash, “but they probably shouldn’t. Our goal is taking on the 800-pound gorilla that is Amazon.” Nash admits Booktopia cannot always match Amazon’s low prices, but according to Traurig, “What we have found is that while price is a factor, it’s not the only factor.” These executives say that maintaining their phone service, specialising in Australian titles and offering a capped postage fee of $6.50 has attracted customers to an operation that has grown so fast it initially caught them off-guard.
Booktopia illustrates how with technological tumult comes opportunity.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.