Tag Archives: bookstores

Alas, poor Borders, we will miss you

I grew up in a household where the book was valued, not only as a form of entertainment but as a friend.  A book was something that could transport you to faraway lands and worlds.  A book could teach you things you’d never learn in a classroom.  The author was respected for the work they did, even if you didn’t always agree with what they said.  After all, back in the days of Remington portable typewriters and IBM Selectrics, you knew how dedicated they had to be just to write the book.

But it went beyond that.  Books were affordable then, even taking into account inflation, rising prices, etc.  Publishers at least seemed to be better gatekeepers and they promoted books.  Newspapers had book review sections that were sections and not just a page or two in the entertainment section of the Sunday paper and they were filled with reviews not only from syndicated reviewers but local reviewers as well.

Something happened as I grew up.  Part of it was, I’m sure, the fact that I did grow up and I started looking at the world through slightly — okay occasionally very — jaded eyes.  Part of it was also the changing in economics and demands by big box booksellers that publishers change the way they dealt with bookstores.  And then, of course, there were the big box booksellers themselves.  They came in and pushed the smaller indie bookstores out of business.  Those small stores simply couldn’t negotiate the same deals with publishers that the big box stores could.

I was like so many back then, entranced by the larger selection of books.  Enthralled because I could buy my music at the same time I bought my reading material.  Then they brought in coffee shops.  Oh my, I’d died and gone to reader heaven.  Coffee and books!

But, like so many business ventures that look to be initially very successful, these big box booksellers made mistake after mistake.  They over-expanded.  Every mall had either a Barnes & Noble or a Borders (or similar big bookstore).  Almost always, you’d find their competition opening a store within a mile or two radius.  While there might not have been a bookstore on every corner, they saturated the market and still kept building.

Then there’s the change in how they ordered titles for each store.  Initially, store managers and district managers were allowed to decide which titles to stock.  Sure, the “best sellers” were stocked nationwide, as were titles where the publishers purchased endcaps etc.  But the stores were allowed to also buy based on their market.  So, if I walked into a Borders or B&N in Dallas and then took a jet and look at the same store in Boston, I’d find a different selection.  Why?  Because interests and buying patterns vary from region to region.

But just as some marketing guru has told grocery stores to put in long aisles with no middle break, someone told bookstores that they could save money and sell more books by changing their buying patterns.  Local buying control was moved to regional and then to national.  Not only that, but bookstores were suddenly being told to remove titles from their shelves based not on how well that title is moving in the store or locally but based on how it is moving nationally.  So, a book that could build a large following if left on the shelves long enough for word of mouth to build is removed after a week or two simply because it didn’t reach a certain level of sales determined by some bean counter in an office well removed from the sales floor.

A lot of stores also moved away from manning their staff with full-time employees to a roster of mainly part-time employees.  It saved the company money by going that route because they didn’t have to pay as much in benefits, etc.  But it all too often also led to a decline in customer service.  I’ll never forget the day I went into a Border superstore across the street from my son’s high school.  I wanted my coffee and book — remember, I’m a caffeine addicted book addicted writer — and was sure they’d have both.  Well, they had the coffee.  But they didn’t have the book, which happened to be the latest by David Weber.  DW is a best selling science fiction writer.  The book was new.  Baen is not some new, never heard of publisher.  So I checked the shelves.  Nothing.  I went to the new release table.  Nothing. I found, after some searching, an employee.  He’d never heard of the book or of DW, but he’d check their system.  Nope.  No book.  Did I want to order it?  Sure.

That’s when I fell down the rabbit hole and I’m not sure I ever climbed out.  He couldn’t order the book for me because their system didn’t recognize it as a legitimate title.  Five minutes later, the manager appears.  Nope, can’t order it.  Their system doesn’t recognize Baen as a legitimate publisher.  Never heard of Simon & Schuster, Baen’s distributor.  The manager only gets upset when I go to the stacks and produce DW’s previous books — almost all of them.  No, they won’t call anyone for help.  If I’m not happy, I can leave.

No, I haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole, I’m in the Twilight Zone.  I’ve been thrown out of a bookstore because — gasp — I wanted to order a book.

Then came e-books and, in the following years, viable and affordable e-book readers or reliable free e-reader programs for our computers, smart phones, etc.  Amazon, already seen as the bane of all things bookstore, brings out the Kindle.  Barnes & Noble follows, later than they should but at least they followed, with the Nook.  Borders played pretty much the same hand it did when it first tried to have an online presence.  The first time I tried to order a book online from Borders imagine how surprised I was when I was redirected to Amazon.  One one hand, Borders had been crying foul because Amazon was selling titles lower than anyone else.  On the other, they are using Amazon as their online store.  HUH?  Finally, after who knows how large a loss, Borders pulled out of that agreement and, for awhile, they had no online presence at all.  Then, finally, they were back and selling their own stock.

Enter e-books and the sound of crickets.  Because that was all you’d get for a long time if you wanted to buy an e-book from Borders.  They never came out with their own e-reader, instead opting to promote and sell other vendors’ readers in their stores.  If you bought an e-book from Borders, you were buying it from KOBO.  Again, too little, too late, especially when you have upper management making like ostriches and burying their heads in the sand.

Now Borders is facing, as I predicted months ago, having to auction off all their assets.  Their stalking horse bid has withdrawn the last I heard.  The deadline for a sale of the company, in whole or in part, is today.  The last I read about the process was that the liquidators have been named as the new stalking horse.  If this is the case and if nothing happens to change things, we will soon be without Borders Books.  As much as I’ve hated what the company has done, I still have fond memories of the stores when they first opened.  I still believe fervently in the importance of having bookstores.  I’d much rather pay a little more for a book that I can buy locally.  It helps the local economy for one.  But there is still something about going into a store and browsing the titles, finding a book I might not have heard about and flipping through it.  I’ve bought so many books, and found so many new authors to follow, by doing that.  It’s not something you can do with Amazon or Google books, etc.

I’m going to put on my rose colored glasses and hope something happens to save some, if not all, of the stores.  I want that for the employees and their families and I want it for folks like myself who still enjoy the bookstore experience.  But it will only work if the new owners learn from the past and do all they can not to repeat the mistakes made by Borders’ management.

If Borders is forced into liquidation, hopefully their fate will be a warning for other bookstores, especially the chains.  I do not want to see bookstores disappear any more than I want to see physical books disappear.

Cross posted to Mad Genius Club

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What Should Be Done?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I spend time each day checking out various discussion boards relating to e-books.  I’ve been doing this for a long time, far longer than NRP has been in existence.  One reason is I’ve been an advocate of e-books from the first time I was introduced to them via Webscriptions.  The second reason is that, not matter how contentious the boards get at times, they are populated by readers.  These are people who are passionate not only about the technology behind e-books and e-book readers but are passionate about the books as well.

One of the topics that comes up from time to time is how e-books and online retailers have impacted bookstore sales and why.  It’s not a new discussion by any means.  It started with the first online order from Amazon and has never really gone away.   There have been different permutations of it, including the possible cannibalization of hard cover purchases by e-book sales. It’s too early in the morning to kick my ulcer into full gear by going into the agency model.  We’ll do that later.  Today, a few thoughts on bookstores.

The U. S. Census Department released the September figures for bookstore sales.  New book sales were down from September 2009 by 7.1%.  August figures were down 6.5%.  For the year, sales are down 2.6%.  To translate that into dollars, year-to-date sales for new books from bookstores is $12.3 billion.

According to John Marmaduke, CEO of Hastings, their sales for stores open at least a year fell 6.2%.  That includes a 9.3% drop in new book sales.  However, they experienced an increase of 7.8% in sales of used and “value” books.  Marmaduke claims that e-book readers are impacting the sale of new books but noted that they are countering this by offering used and value books at “price points that resonate well with our customers.”

That last phrase is the key, in my opinion.  Books are not, to most people, a necessity.  Especially not in this day and age of the internet.  You can go online and find something to read, no matter what your taste.  Be it fanfic or your local newspaper, it’s there.  If you don’t mind breaking a few laws, you can find the newest best seller for free.  (And I am not advocating this!)

There’s also the local library.  Most of us can go a few miles from home and take advantage of free library services.  Not only can we check out books, but there’s music and video as well.

But let’s take those out of the equation right now and just look at why bookstore sales are down.  I’ll start by saying this is my opinion, based solely on my own experience as a customer and my discussion with booksellers in my area.

To me, the problem began with the influx of big box bookstores.  Before they came in and took over the market, we had small, often specialty stores.  The national stores were in the malls — where there was lots of foot traffic so they got a great deal of people just stopping in to browse.  That turned into sales.

Even though space was limited in these stores, the selection was broader than it is now.  New authors were highlighted.  Mid-listers had shelf space.  At least once a month there was some sort of activity going on, be it a signing or a release party or what, to bring in more customers.  Most of those working in the stores knew their product.  If you asked where a title was, they could take you right to it.  And they knew your name.  In short, there was good customer service.

There was a difference in the quality of the books, too.  I don’t mean they were better written — although, on the whole, I think a lot of them were.  What I mean is they were copy edited and proofread more closely.  Sure, you might find a couple of errors in a book — not a couple per page which seems to be happening more and more often now.

In short, when you walked into one of these smaller stores, be they a national chain or your local independent bookseller, you could be sure they had what you wanted or would get it for you.  In a lot of cases, you felt welcome and valued as a customer.

Then came the big box stores.  Oh, I welcomed them along with so many others because of the lower prices.  I didn’t think about the impact they’d have on the local independent sellers.  Living in the DFW area, I was lucky.  A number of our independents held out far longer than they did in other parts of the country.  Still, almost all of them eventually closed their doors, leaving only the big, often cold, box stores.

Prices creeped up and the smaller national chain stores located in the malls closed.  The once free “memberships” either became for purchase memberships or the requirements for the “free” benefits doubled or trebled.   To bring in more people, coffeeshops were added to the stores.  More big box stores were built, increasing competition but not lowering prices.

Basically, they flooded the market with locations at a time when the economy had to take a downswing — nothing keeps growing without hitting a bump somewhere along the line.  So costs were cut by hiring more and more part-time help that often didn’t read, much less know the product.  Books by new authors and mid-listers were taken from the shelves.  If they manage to get there now, it’s only for a very short period of time.  Instead, the “guaranteed” best sellers are stocked ad nauseum.  This hurts everyone, the reader and the writer AND the bookstore.

As book sales slipped, non-book items started slipping into the stores:  stuffed animals, board games, etc.  You walk into some of these stores now and they bear little resemblance to the bookstore they’re supposed to be.

Are bookstores doomed?  Absolutely not.  But, as with publishing as a whole, they need to retool their business plans and development plans to meet changing demands.  I think the days of the free standing mega bookstore are numbered.  Stores need to relocate to malls and other areas where they will get the walk-in traffic.  Getting people in the door is the first, and greatest, challenge.  The second is figuring out how to handle those who want e-books.  Follow the Barnes & Noble example and have you e-bookstore available in the physical store.  Offer discounts on coffee or something if the customer shows the Nook or that stores reader application on a smart phone or laptop.

People still want to go to bookstores, even if they also use online retailers like Amazon, or even Barnes & Noble or Borders online.  There is still something about seeing row after row of books and being able to take you time browsing through the titles, flipping pages and reading back covers.  If you don’t believe me, look at the outcry when the closure of a bookstore is announced.

It’s more than just a few people saying how they wished the store was staying open.  There are campaigns to find new owners or new locations for the store in question.  Don’t believe me, check out the facebook page for the Davis-Kidd Bookstores in Nashville.  Or look at what happened in Fort Worth when Barnes & Noble announced it was closing one of its stores because they hadn’t been able to negotiate a new lease.  There was so much public pressure put on not only B&N but the landlord of the shopping center where the store’s located that favorable lease terms were finally agreed upon and the store was saved.

This is a trickle down effect.  The bookstores can’t solve the problem by themselves.  It has to include the publishers and the customers.  If you want to keep your favorite bookstore open, visit it.  BUY something there.  Sign up for their email newsletters so you know when there’s a sale or they have a discount coupon available.  Don’t rely on someone else to do it for you.

There is room in this world for both physical and digital books.  The day of the big bookstore may be over soon.  I don’t know.  But there is a place for bookstores.  Let’s not forget that.

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