The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Death of Borders and the Rebirth of Books

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Last week, we learned that Borders bookstores would liquidate its assets and close all of its remaining 400 stores.  Cue the hand-wringing and proclamations of falling skies.  It means losing valuable shelf space for books.  It’s a signal of the troubles of the book industry.  It’s the end of the world as we know it.  Blah blah blah, etc.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve said this again: I don’t think books are going anywhere, and I don’t think that books are “in trouble” as many seem to imagine.  The book industry is changing—a fact that Borders failed to get behind.  In the long run, what may be bad for big box bookstores may be good for books.

One of the reasons that has been cited most often in Borders’ downfall is its failure to embrace the ebook market the way Amazon and Barnes & Noble have.  Back in May, Amazon announced that it was selling more ebooks than print—only four years after the launch of the Kindle.  I remember first hearing about ebooks in the late 1990s.  At the time, they were pretty limited: books you could download and read on your computer screen.  Not surprisingly, they didn’t take off then: who wants to sit at their computer for hours at a time reading?  But with the launch of ebook readers, we gained a way to experience ebooks that was convenient and easy.  And now, it’s cheap, too: the price of the lowest-level Kindle has dropped from $259 to $114 (for the ad-supported version).  The lowest-level Nook is $139.  Other ebook readers (such as Sony’s ebook reader) are beginning to infiltrate the market.  The iPad has its own reader.  And that doesn’t count all the free apps you can access via your mobile phones and other portable electronic devices.

Right now, I see the book publishing industry as being in the same situation that the music industry was in a decade or so ago: shifting from the traditional, retail-based model to a digital one.  Of course its booksellers and publishers (though admittedly, not all of them) the ones fighting this change, the way record stores and music producers did 10 years ago.  It’s hard to think outside the box, especially when the box has worked so well for so long.

I’m a realist by nature.  The fact is, more bookstores likely will fail.  Independent bookstores have been faltering for decades now, struggling to compete with the likes of Barnes & Noble and the (now defunct) Borders, which were able to take deep discounts on books that the independent stores could not afford.  And Barnes & Noble itself struggles against the much-bigger and more diverse Amazon (not to mention the even cheaper books at the Walmart Supercenters that are popping up all over Smalltown, USA).  

As for publishers, the “big boys” may find themselves outmoded by independent publishers, who often sell their ebooks for far lower prices than the bigger publishers, and self-published authors, who have embraced ebooks as a way to sell their work with much lower overhead.  With the emergence of ebooks as an increasingly dominant force in book sales, publishers have been primarily worried about two things: that their lower sales price will eliminate an already-slim profit margin, and that the digital format will more easily enable the spread of piracy.  These are important concerns, and something publishers need to figure out how to deal with.  

But consumers are primarily concerned with two things: convenience and price.  Ebooks are succeeding for the same reason Netflix triumphed over Blockbuster a few years ago: they are cheaper, and they come right to you (rather than you having to go get them).  Furthermore, ebooks over an advantage that Netflix (until recently, with its online streaming) doesn’t: if you’re an insomniac, and you want to buy a book to read at 3am, you can get it immediately, rather than waiting two days for mail delivery.

So where do I see the book industry going?  I think the popularity of ebooks will continue to increase.  I think Amazon, with its willingness to embrace change and new avenues of business (it recently announced an ebook textbook rental service) will continue to be a dominant player in the industry for quite some time, but they won’t be the only one.  I think publishers and the manufacturers of ebook readers will ultimately come up with some universal formatting standards, making sure you can buy an ebook from anywhere and read it on any reader, which will allow for greater competition with the likes of Amazon.

This New York Times article points out that the closure of Borders could be a boon for independent bookstores located near former Borders sites.  But how will they maintain this business?  This may sound counterintuitive, but I think the bookstores that succeed will sell fewer books.  Why?  Because there will always be book readers, but then there will be book lovers.  Book readers are the types that may casually pick up a book just because they’re bored, or they need something to read on a plane ride.  Book lovers are the types that will preorder their favorite authors’ books so they can have them on release day, who will travel hundreds of miles in bad weather just to see those authors at a signing.  

Part of the reason consumers started picking big chain stores over the independent booksellers is that they gave the feeling of being someplace where one could sit and stay for awhile.  On the other hand, most of the independent bookstores I’ve been to have been smaller and more cramped—and, as someone who detests having people in her personal space, I do not deal with “cramped” well.  But if I knew a favorite author was coming to a bookstore in my area to do a signing, I’d be there with bells on!  I’d buy an autographed copy or two—an indulgence I won’t allow myself online—just to have a few seconds of interaction with said author.  And while I was there, I might happen to pick up another book…or seven.  What can I say?  I’m an impulse buyer when it comes to books.  If independent bookstores have the space and the inclination to host these kinds of events, people will come.  And book signings aren’t the only option.  What about hosting book clubs?  What about readings?  What about including coffee and food as part of the retail, as some of the bigger stores do?  People have long treated Barnes & Noble and Borders as places to gather and socialize.  Independent bookstores could—and, in my opinion, should—capitalize on this.

This is not to say I don’t mourn the loss of Borders.  I still remember the first time I went into a Borders, after years of shopping at those tiny bookstores that used to be so popular inside shopping malls.  I was awestruck with the grandeur and the scope of it.  Never before had I seen so many books in one place.  It felt like I was coming…home.  And I miss that feeling, of being overwhelmed by books.  (The closest I’ve come, in recent years, is Powell’s Books—a place I highly recommend visiting if you’re in the Portland, Oregon, area.)

Right now, we’re seeing some very rapid changes in the book selling and publishing industries.  It’s a little scary, because it all feels very Darwinian: only the strongest book stores, and publishers, and those most able to adapt, will survive.

But books themselves?  They’re not going anywhere.