The end of a bookseller

As predicted, Borders will soon liquidate its remaining stores, leaving almost 12,000 men and women without jobs.  The bookseller will leave behind millions of dollars in debt still owed, much of it to publishers.  Landlords will be left with unfulfilled leases.  The financial impact on the cities where the stores are located will remain to be seen, but the loss of tax dollars these days is never a good thing.

Now, there is still a very small possibility that the bankruptcy court won’t approve Border’s plan to liquidate the remaining stores.  But, in my opinion, my chances of winning the lottery are greater than the court not approving the liquidation motion.

Mike Edwards, CEO of Borders, sent a letter to the bookseller’s employees yesterday explaining what is happening.  He admits that they have been facing “headwinds” for more than a little while now.  These difficulties, according to him, include the economic downturn, e-books and a rapidly changing publishing industry.  All of which is true.  But what he doesn’t address — and I probably shouldn’t fault him for it.  No one likes to focus on their own shortcomings — is how mismanagement and a failure to adapt to the changes in the industry also played a large part in the fall of the once might bookstore chain.

I’ve written previously on why I think Borders has found itself facing the inevitable.  I don’t want to rehash all that.  No, what we have to do know is figure out how this will affect the publishing industry as a whole and how we — writers, publishers and retailers — will be able to step in and fill the void left by Borders’ closing.  Can that void be filled?

In my opinion, the day of the big box store is over.  Barnes & Noble and some of the other chain may survive.  But they are going to have to continue adapting to changes in the market and consumer demands.  Does the closure of Borders herald the end of the print book?  No.  At least not for a long time.  Nor does it signal the end of bookstores.  Despite the cries of the doomsayers, e-books still hold too small a percentage of the market to kill off the printed book.   Nor does the continued success of Amazon mean bookstores are doomed.

What I think we will see are more specialty stores.  Smaller venues catering to customers looking for a specific kind of book.  These will very likely become boutique-type of stores.  Think books and wine bar or upscale coffee shop.  Atmosphere will play a part in the success of the shop.  But, more importantly, customer service and employee knowledge of the stock will be key.  Just like it used to be in the local bookstores before they were driven out of the market by the big box stores.

What’s that you say?  That those stores have been proven not to work because they were run out of the market when B&N and Borders and other “superstores” came into the area.  Of course they were.  Because we, the consumer, were blinded by the bright lights and huge selection those new stores offered.  Those stores could buy in larger quantities than the locally owned stores could, so they could sell books at a lower price. Something else we liked.  But where does that leave us now?

Think about it.  With Borders gone, especially if you live in a major metropolitan area, where is the closest bookstore?  Two years ago, there were at least eight major bookstores — and probably more likely a dozen.  It’s too early to figure it out exactly — within thirty minutes of my house.  Now, once Borders liquidates the last of it stores, there will be less than half that many.  The closest is ten minutes from my house.  Not that far but it’s located across from the mall where traffic is horrid at the best of times and parking is a pain.  In other words, not someplace I go unless I absolutely have to.

Now, if someone were to open a specialty shop up in the area, one that specialized in mystery or science fiction/fantasy and made it an inviting place to shop, I’d be there in a flash.  It would be worth waiting a few days and paying a bit more to have a bookstore that catered to my wants and interests.  But, whoever opened that store would have to do so with enough reserve capital to operate for at least two years before posting a profit.  That’s just common business sense — something that is often lacking these days in both small and large business ventures.

But there is something else we, as writers and publishers, have to be worried about with Borders closing.  There has been a lot written about how the loss of approximately 400 stores will mean there will be even less of an opportunity for new authors to be discovered.  That might be true, but that’s been the case for a long time.  No, the real impact is going to be on the mid-list writer.  These are the workhorses of the publishing world, and all too often the unsung heroes.  These are the writers who can be relied upon by publishers to deliver several books a year that will sell a certain level of books — or more — each time because they have a solid fan base.  It might not be huge by best seller standards, but it is there and these fans can be counted on to buy and talk about that author’s titles.

Unfortunately, it is the midlister who has been getting the short end for awhile now.  That will only get worse as publishers scramble to find ways to recover from the financial hit they will take with Borders’ liquidation.  Remember, at the time Borders filed for bankruptcy, it owed publishers close more than $190 million.  In the five months since that filing, you know that amount hasn’t been decreased by much.  Add to that the amount that will be owed to those publishers who agreed to ship stock to Borders without payment on delivery.  That financial hit is going to have to be dealt with somewhere and, unfortunately, I’m afraid it will be midlisters and readers who suffer the most.

So, the best thing we can all do is support your favorite author by buying their books and telling your friends about them.  Word of mouth is the best promotion there is.  If you are lucky enough to have a locally owned bookstore, support it.  Amazon and other online retailers are great, but not for everything.  You don’t get that special attention from them you get from a well-versed, fun to talk to bookseller.  The demise of Borders is not indisputable proof that bookstores are dead.  But it can be the tip of the iceberg if the industry doesn’t learn and if we, as consumers, don’t support the local indie stores.

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