Thursday, April 14, 2011

Borders and bankruptcy

As I was driving along 82nd St, I saw a guy by the side of the road waving a sign, "Borders Closing Sale!" (Is that like the worst job ever? Especially now when it's supposed to be spring but is still cold.)  So I yanked the car into the right lane and, squealing on two wheels, jerked into the parking lot.  Books. Sale. I couldn't help it.

Ten minutes later, I walked out bookless. The line at the register was too long (I was on my way somewhere) as usual, and the discount wasn't that extreme (I want $3 hardcovers, see). And you know, I can just order anything from Amazon. I realized even as I formulated that thought that I, yes, I was responsible for Borders's financial problems. Yes, I, the one who used to spend pleasurable afternoons in bookstores, sampling this book and that, walking out with $100 worth of books I never meant to buy... and now, you know, go online to order books. 

So blame it on me.  But I was thinking of how long we've been moaning about this. I remember back in the day, when most bookstores were small and independent, and I was poor and got most of my books from the library.  I remember used bookstores... I discovered Patricia Veryan's historicals at some point, and there was one 6-book series out of print, and I painstakingly assembled the series one by one by visiting used bookstores all around the state. (I had a travelling job then-- one of my weirder ones, teaching speed-reading to laid-off autoworkers in the old, cavernous, nearly derelict auto plants-- and would always stop in at the used bookstore to check their "V" section. Now I would, you know, just check eBay.)  And that was the big controversy, whether used bookstores were evil because they deprived authors, publishers, and new-book bookstores of revenue. What a quaint form of evil, compared to identity theft and copy theft and all that stuff.  And then came the big bookstores, the BNs and Borders, and remember how everyone thought they would destroy the independent bookstore? (Well, they did hasten its demise, certainly.) 

Anyway. What do you all think?  What are you hearing about this bankruptcy, what do you think it means? What does it mean to the writer and reader (that is, US)? And fess up. What have you done to create this situation?  (Come on. I'm willing to admit that "one-click buying" has corrupted me utterly.)

I am more and more coming to wonder if publishers and bookstores are making themselves expendable, or at least not making themselves essential. 


Michael G-G said...

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

I have borrowed scads of novels from libraries.

I have scoured the shelves at used book stores for "how-to write" manuals.

I have ordered online.

I have even received hand-me-down books from others (and never returned them.)

But I have also purchased from my small indie bookstore, and from my big indie bookstore (Powells in Portland), and that is some salve to my sinner's soul.

Edittorrent said...

Michael, we should start a self-help group, and we can confess our sins at the meetings. :)

I have to say, I've even taken books to used bookstores for credit! And recently, in an attempt to clear some space on my shelves, I donated 50 books to a young friend with a boring job. I don't even get a tax deduction for that-- no effect on the economy, no positive effect anyway, except that knowing she can read one of the books at lunch probably helps keep my friend employed. :)


Julie Harrington said...

I think the main killer (just as in any industry) has been the evolution of technology and the economy.

Ebooks have certainly impacted bookstores because you don't go to a bookstore to buy an ebook. You go online. Ebooks now officially outselling paperbacks. How long was it going to be before bookstores themselves were outdated?

Of course I contributed to the situation just like everybody else, but I've never been a fan of Borders or B&N. When they first came on the scene it seemed like reading became an "elite" thing. People wandered around the store with cappuccinos while classical music piped through the store. Discount books? Who needed them. They were paying full price and bragging about it.

A couple of years later, of course, that changed. By then all the discount stores were gone and I was frequenting the used bookstores. I don't have hundreds of dollars to throw away and I like to read. But even my used bookstore has closed up shop. Why? Because a used book chain moved in that offered store *cash* instead of store *credit*. Guess where people in a building economic crunch went?

Technology and the internet is impacting books and publishing just like it's impacted everything else. I just saw a thing on the news here about how some hospital or other is introducing an "electronic doctor." You plug in the symptoms and it diagnoses you, no human doctor required.

In a weird way it feels like we're technologically advancing ourselves right out of jobs completely. Why have a chain of stores when all you need is one central warehouse and the internet? Cheaper, faster, more convenient.

How do you combat that? I don't think you can. But then the same online shopping is available for everything these days and I think you can see that by the way stores are slashing prices and offering incentives. But people still want to see the dishes they're going to buy Live & In Person, try the shoes on to make sure they fit right, and see if the color of that blouse is more green than blue or blue than green. Books? They're all the same. It's not 'different' at this store vs. online's version. One click and you're done.

I think technology in publishing and ebooks has made it easier for someone who wants to get their book published without needing a publisher. Anybody can sit down and format their work into a PDF or a Kindle format and upload it, but that doesn't mean the end product is "good," or that anybody will know it's there, or that there will be reviews on it, or that the author understands marketing or social networking.

What I think it's done is allow people who are creative and aggressive to seek alternatives in publishing where they can, indeed, flourish and build an audience. We're all starting to hear success stories from someone who did it all on their own without a publisher. The funny thing is, the most recent story ends with the author getting a regular book publishing contract. So does that mean all authors still really have the same goal deep, deep down? To be published by a "real" publisher and see heir book on a shelf?

I don't know if technology will ever replace that.


Anonymous said...

I have sinned too, and plan on doing it much more. For one thing if you know what you want Amazon will have it. In business I follow a couple of rules. There is no such thing as a little competition, and fighting technological change is like holding back the tide with a rake.


(My computer is hosed again. My account doesn't work. Oh,well.

Anonymous said...

Borders Group's practices have caused them trouble, not the consumer. "Special orders" are an example: anything not on the shelf at the moment is a s.o. You have to prepay to make a s.o. Cannot use a coupon on a s.o. Returns are miserable on a s.o. Soooo why buy it there when another retailer can get it to you cheaper and faster and smiles when it's returned? This is just one example.

ClothDragon said...

I was talking about this just the other day on my blog ( then a friend came over and said he'd gone to the closing sale (he's not a big reader -- yes, I know one) and while they sell a lot of things that aren't books, all of that is nearly twice as expensive as getting it anywhere else. I might splurge on a new pen at the cash register or occasionally a new tube of Burts Bees chapstick, but usually, when I'm in a bookstore, I'm there for books. I'd never noticed. But it gives me more ground for the bad business practices argument that I made.

Build it (bookstore) and we'll come, but there needs to be something - something- to keep us coming back. (The cashier in tears the day I went made me wish Borders had had something.)

Coolkayaker1 said...

I did a take on my final visit to Borders bookstore on the blog post above. Sad day, really, for the reason I've written. Writers can understand.

Thanks for your post, edit torrent.

Edittorrent said...

I think bookstores might have to have more entertainment value if they're going to survive. It seems like everything has to be a "destination," like a trendy restaurant.

What would a "literary entertainment site" be like?

Coffee bar with great desserts, check. (Or is that just me? :)

Programs every day of some kind, maybe lectures, readings, even communal DVD watching.

Music! Bands playing in the evening.

But no matter what, in the end, they have to buy books, right? Or can something else be sold, sort of a revenue generator so that we can also have books?

I don't know... but there must be a way. What would draw young people to a bookstore?

I remember when Borders and BN first got started, they really were destinations. We'd go there in the evening and hang out- it was cool.


Gail Dayton said...

My Borders isn't closing. But it's 30 miles away, so I hardly ever go there. I've mostly switched to e-books, besides (for the storage issues), so I don't buy much when I do go.

My bookbuying habits changed mostly because of a hurricane (not Katrina). I don't know if the hurricane was why all our bookstores closed, but the flooding sure didn't help. Only the used bookstore has re-opened, and I rarely visit. I used to love to browse Borders & B&N, but it's so hard to get there now...

I'd buy more ebooks from Borders--their prices can be competitive--but they don't make it very easy. You can't buy more than one book at a time with one transaction, and each transaction takes a long time. I've complained, but it hasn't made any difference. (Says she who rarely ends a book-buying session with fewer than 4 books.)

Julie Harrington said...

I totally agree with the idea that bookstores are going to evolve into something "more." I love the idea of the dessert bar. I also think book signings, author meet & greets, music performances. But I think the main function of the store is going to wind up being multi-media related. They'll still sell DVDs and the like, but I think they'll also carry the latest and greatest in ebook readers. I can see a point in time where ebook releases will contain "special" things (extra features, author notes, playlists, etc) if you, say, come to the store to buy/download the book on site. Special edition type releases that you can't get when you just buy it online. They do it already with CDs for music as well as video games like a Nintendo DS. I can go into the store, connect my DS and download special levels of the game, demos of others different music, etc at the download station. Instead of demos, I can totally see if you bring your ebook reader to the bookstore, you could download sample chapters of upcoming releases from a publisher.

There are ALL sorts of ways bookstores and publishers could join up together to come up with perks for readers to still come into stores. Oh! and another one? Autographed books. If you have a favorite author, s/he can't exactly sign your ebook reader, can they? LOL. So the more interactive and "special" the offer... the more draw the bookstore will have.


epic said...

I had an extra $20 in my wallet, so I bought all the Borders stock.

Going to spice it up a bit.
- new section: Zombies, which will also stock machetes, tents and firearms
- Nicholas Sparks, Tom Clancy and the Twilight books are used to fuel the environmentally friendly furnace (it's a renewable fuel)
- live rock bands, but only on days that end in Y

green_knight said...

Back in the days, I used to go into a bookstore. And it had a selection of books I hand't heard of, and I browsed, and I came out with two or three or five books.

Then the selections shrank, and the buying was centralised, so that all bookstores in town had the same books (apart from the Indie) and I went to the Indie, and I browsed, and I came out with two or three or five books.

And then the Internet got *really* useful and the Indie closed (or I moved away from it) and suddenly, instead of browsing a hundred books I could browse thousands - books from different territories, books that were several years old. And I bought the books I absolutely had to have and made note of the others because they would always be there, and I did not want them _that_ badly, and maybe there was a more interesting book around the corner.

And the bookstores got to a point where I walked into one, lured by '3 for 2' and walked out without books because all I could find that I wanted to read was one classic that I could get elsewhere and a so-so book that didn't tempt me enough, and every visit since then has been the same.

And then I got an iPhone and started buying books that were reccommended to me, straight from small publishers, or straight from authors, or from the most attractive source, and I am sad that bookstores seem doomed, but I am not giving them my business any longer because they do not sell what I want.