E-book numbers, Borders & other random thoughts

For those of you who haven’t discovered Shelf Awareness yet, I highly recommend it.  Their daily e-mails offer a great look into the world of publishing on all levels, from the writer to the publisher to the bookseller.  In my mind, this is a resource everyone involved in, or interested in, the industry should follow.

Today’s issue is a case in point.  One of the articles concerns USA Today’s best sellers list. Specifically, in the list to be published Thursday, digital sales of six of the top ten titles were higher than hard copy sales.  Of the top 50 titles, 19 of them had higher digital than hard copy sales.  According to USA Today, “It’s the first time the top-50 list has had more than two titles in which the e-version outsold print.”

What can we infer from this?  Well, the first is that a lot of folks found e-readers of one flavor or another under their trees this Christmas.  New e-readers means increased digital sales.  Add to that the latest report showing that 40% of iPad owners also own a kindle and that more iPad owners plan to buy a kindle in the upcoming months and you can see there is still a market for dedicated e-book readers.

The second thing we can conclude is that no matter how hard major publishers try to deny it or postpone the inevitable, e-books are here to stay.  Whether it is the convenience of being able to carry around hundreds or even thousands of e-books on a single small device or the fact that so many people are like me and running out of room at home for physical books, more and more people are adapting to this new technology.

And that brings us to the next bit of news and all those who will shout from the rooftops that this situation has been brought on in large by the advent of e-books.  In the last few days, Borders has been purging its executive level.  It started with the firings of Thomas Carney, their legal counsel, and Scott Laverty, chief information officer.  Tony Grant and Larry Norton, the vice president of real estate and the senior vice president for business development and publisher relations respectively, have also been let go.

Add to that a report from the Wall Street Journal that Borders has “stopped writing checks to key suppliers” and will be asking suppliers to allow them to push back payment dates as they work out a refinancing plan and, well, you have a recipe for disaster.  Consider also that in this same article it is noted that Borders canceled payment on a check for books shipped to it by an unnamed publishing company in October.  Folks, this doesn’t look good for Borders and really makes laughable the word that came out a week or so ago that Borders might actually try to buy Barnes & Noble.

In this article from DealB%k, it is reported that Borders has begun discussions with publishers seeking to delay payments.  This is necessary if they want to be able to restructure their loans from various financial institutions.  Without enough publishers agreeing, it is most likely the banks won’t agree to restructure or refinance.

From the same article:  “Several publishers said Borders owed them millions of dollars in payments, up to tens of millions each for the larger publishers. Publishers said they had been told by Borders executives that more than two dozen vendors were owed money.”

Also in the same article, a spokesperson for Borders said they expected the publishers to offer the “same terms” to the other booksellers.  Now, maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t that basically telling the publishers to take another hit, one they can’t afford right now?  Sorry, but if a company is on shaky financial ground, it shouldn’t be the one to dictate terms to its lenders or suppliers.  Those lenders and suppliers should be able to reasonably protect their investments.

Now, is this a case of e-books bringing down a major bookseller?  No.  E-books are but one of the myriad of causes behind what looks to be the inevitable collapse of Borders as we know it now.  Mismanagement, over-expansion, and no longer demanding that their employees be customer oriented or knowledgeable about the product also had a hand in Borders’ decline.

I love going to bookstores and browsing.  When my son was in high school, there as a Borders directly across the street.  I’d go there and sit in the coffee shop and read or write.  I’d look through the stacks and buy books or magazines.  I did this even though I was already reading e-books.

But things changed at that store as things changed in the company.  The floor plan was changed, taking away not only a lot of the music they’d been selling but also — and more importantly — the books.  Unless a book was a “best seller”, it either never made it to the store or only remained on the shelf for a few days before being pulled for something.  The staff started having high turnover until it reached a point where I asked them to order a book for me and 1) they couldn’t find it in their computer, 2) they’d never heard of the publisher and it was a major publisher and 3) they’d never heard of the distributor.  So, no book ordered and, when this repeated several more times, a customer was lost.

Bookstores are necessary, in my opinion.  But I think we’re going to see a return to the specialty stores and smaller stores.  The big box stores just aren’t going to be the norm in the future.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.  Most of all, bookstores need to sell BOOKS and they need to be staffed by employees who read and can converse with their customers about a wide range of books.  They at least need to know their stock.

At least that’s my opinion.  Any thoughts?

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