Alas, Borders

by wjw on July 19, 2011


Borders is dead.  The bookstore chain failed to find a white knight that satisfied its creditors, and will go into receivership within the next few days.

This, my friends, is bad.  Borders was nearly half the bookstore sales in North America.  While competitors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will doubtless pick up some of the slack, I’ve been reading lament after lament from readers who are no longer within easy commuting distance of a big bookstore, or any bookstore at all.   Small stores may benefit, but there may not be enough small bookstores left to take advantage of the drop in competition.

(And Barnes & Noble, it should be noted, is for sale.  So far nobody’s offered to buy.)

Moreover, Borders’ long agony has already left its mark on publishing.  Many publishers had stopped shipping books to Borders because they weren’t getting paid.  And even so, Borders has collapsed owing $272 million, mostly to major publishers such as HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette.

Publishers are highly leveraged companies.  They borrow money in order to purchase and print books.  They “loan” books to distributors and bookstores, in hopes they will be paid in sales.  With tens of millions of dollars suddenly missing from their account ledgers, we can expect publishers to react as they have always done: editors will be fired, lines canceled, advances cut, and fewer books will be purchased.

And while the situation with major publishers is dire, the situation with small to middle-sized publishers may be catastrophic.  Small presses simply may not survive losses from the Borders collapse.

The tertiary effects will extend to writers: even more writers will find careers collapsing, or careers not even starting.  Writers with careers may be forced to cope with smaller sales and smaller advances.   Artists will be squeezed: so will the various specialists necessary to publishing, such as copy-editors.

Yet another sign of yet another Publishing Apocalypse.

And more personally, I had grown to like my local Borders.  It was a place of refuge after a day of rushing around, where I could sit in their lounge with a cup of coffee, read quietly, and try to recapture a bit of the peace and pleasure that I lose while running errands.

I don’t know how to react to this except with sadness and quiet terror.  How many more Publishing Apocalypses can we writers stand?

Alas, Borders.  Alas, alas, that great city Babylon . . . for in hour is thy judgment come.

Max Kaehn July 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I gave up on my local Borders when they were unable to handle basics like having my preordered book waiting for me when the book finally hit print. (And I only used Borders because the last F&SF store within 15 minutes’ drive had closed.) These days I just preorder things on Amazon as early as possible to make it clear that there’s demand for a book.

Ken Thomas July 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I have to confess up front that I sympathize with people who actually shop(ped) there, but I can’t work up any personal sorrow about Borders’ demise. Aside from one book purchased out of desperation when a flight was delayed and I was stuck in an airport for 6 hours, I haven’t bought a book at a brick-and-mortar establishment in at least 5 years.

Far more interesting to me is the death of the traditional publishing industry, which leads me to pose the following question:

I can see how the death of traditional publishing might have a negative impact on authors, but do you feel it will also have a negative impact on readers? If so, I’d be interested to hear how and why.

Max Kaehn July 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I suspect the big question is: how many readers will switch to some other medium for entertainment if they don’t have a convenient bookstore to visit? If the money from book sales goes away, that means fewer writers able to afford to make a living at writing, so fewer books published.

Dave Keck July 19, 2011 at 10:22 pm

I am hiding under my couch. It was bad enough when three book buyers could determine the fate of an author. Now, it’s just the river and the nobility. (And the Borders buyers were dear sweet types who deserved betteer).

Ralf The Dog July 19, 2011 at 10:28 pm

My question is, if the publishers go out of business and people just e-publish on Kindle, what will the lack of editors do to the quality of books? Perhaps we need a market for good freelance editors.

Bruce Arthurs July 20, 2011 at 12:19 am

I may be wrong in this, but I’ve had the impression that some small presses (Subterranean?) make the majority of their sales online, either thru Amazon/B&N/etc or their own websites.

The best thing about a physical bookstore is being able to browse and sample the actual books. Online listings, or print catalogs, are slower and way less satisfying. (On the other hand, when I go into my local B&N, I’ve found I spend about $100 an hour. Online browsing saves me from myself.)

wjw July 20, 2011 at 12:53 am

We =have= good freelance editors, and if the layoffs continue, we’ll have more. If you’re going the self-published route, do yourself a favor and hire one.

I like a brick-and-mortar store because it allows for serendipity. I can browse, I can pick things up and examine them, I can flip through the pages. “Books I might like” from Amazon really can’t duplicate that wonderful experience.

OwenKL July 20, 2011 at 5:20 am

Most self-published stuff I’ve read could have been improved immensely with some decent editing and proofreading. I won’t jinx it by saying it’s a prediction, but what I think the future should bring would be the ascendance of the editor, with the editor’s name right on the cover under the author’s. With the production part of publishing going electronic, “publishing” houses should become “editing houses”, and readers will learn to avoid books that come through inferior editors, or none at all.

Undine July 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm

As much as I love browsing through stacks of books, the problem with Borders, and most other brick-and-mortar bookstores, is the lack of variety. Unless you want something newly-published, and preferably on the bestseller lists, it’s practically impossible now to find older or more obscure books anywhere but online.

I have to admit, I haven’t stepped into a bookstore for years for precisely that reason. Buying books online has become a necessity for me, not a choice.

Lisa Osman July 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm

The Borders near me was one of the first to close. It was strange watching certain books disappear from its shelves at the start of the year that I can still find in Barnes and Noble even now.

So this closing changes my local circumstances not at all (one independent and one B&N in town), but what I am wondering is: will the government offer any sort of bailout to publishers to help them keep in business if it gets too bad? They may not make banks and cars, but they do “make jobs” both directly and indirectly…

TC/Writer Underground July 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I live in the middle of nowhere, so visits to bookstores are relatively rare, but it’s hard to see Borders as anything but The Big Company That Wouldn’t Change.

They had no real digital strategy (pretty much everything they did online was a relabeled something else), and sticking your fingers in your ears isn’t the best long-term survival strategy. Look at what happened to the music superstores…

And it’s probably not the most popular sentiment, but since I got my Nook ereader and an Android smartphone, I’ve been reading way more than in prior years. Publishing’s being disrupted (so have most other writing fields), but it might end up better instead of worse. After all, the midlist authors weren’t doing very well, and the potential to make a few bucks certainly exists…

John Appel July 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

As a child of the 70s and young man of the 80s, I’ve never quite forgiven Borders for killing off Waldenbooks, which was the haven for many a suburban mall-going geek in those days. And where, if memory serves, I first purchased works of our host.

I was never a fan of Borders specifically, but I do appreciate bookstores for the reasons others have mentioned. I can’t count the number of books I’m glad I found from poring over the shelves.

There’s also the simple fact that many valuable works aren’t yet, and may not for some time, be available in some sort of e-reader format. Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, I’ve just started C.V. Wedgewood’s “The Thirty Years War” and 10 pages in, I can tell this is a keeper. But it’s dead tree only (well, audiobook, but that’s not a suitable format for histories IMNSHO).

Shash July 21, 2011 at 1:48 am

Undine, I agree with your assessment of typical brick and mortar stores. I love being able to browse but rarely find favorites this way simply because if the book can’t be easily catagorized, it won’t be found in the store.

A writer I know was told constantly that his audience would be too small for the nostalgia/motorsports books he wanted to write. He wrote ’em anyway, self-published and started hawking them at racing events. He now has five books published and a very loyal following.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out. But, yes, if you are going to self-publish, please hire a good freelance editor.

Clyde July 22, 2011 at 5:48 am

“… but what I am wondering is: will the government offer any sort of bailout to publishers to help them keep in business if it gets too bad?”

Oh God, Lisa! Let’s keep the government out of it. Everything they touch turns to shit. Another fracking bureaucracy is the last thing we need.
The times they are a changing, but the book business (well … the text based storytelling business) will shake out.

On the general subject, I think our gracious host is doing exactly what he needs to do by putting his backlist up as self-published ebooks on multiple sites. Those titles will never go “out of print” again. (Let the long tail work for you!)

Clyde July 22, 2011 at 6:09 am

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s latest post complements our host’s.

Elizabeth Gurd August 3, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Since I was an immigrant girl of 9 learning English, books have been my best friends (my father was a country doctor)…..
now that I’m 70, with my wild ski days and carrousing pretty much over, I rely on books more and more.
I cannot image a world diminished by the lack of enough book stores.
Borders, you were a refuge and will be sorely missed.

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