Tag Archives: liquidation

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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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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