Thinking beyond the Borders

Much ink and many electrons are being expended in the wake of the confirmation that UK Borders is entering administration, after a day yesterday of announcements and denials. Predictably, many of these articles and comments have gone beyond the fact of the Borders news, predicting all kinds of apocalypse for chains, physical bookshops, print books, authors, you name it. The Book Trade information service sums up articles in The Guardian, The Independent, and by Susan Hill (an author and small publisher) in The Spectator, thus:

A double ecology is evolving. Discounted bestsellers from big publishers are being sold in supermarkets, not shops like Borders. But a vibrant and more interesting trade is taking place in smaller shops. People who want to buy serious books can still find them; people who want to write are not without hope of finding a publisher. The electronic book might change everything, of course: margins on ebooks are already greater than in print. But good publishers, and creative retailers, will surely adapt to that too.

Susan Hill has stopped publishing adult fiction because whereas a novel might have sold 2,000 copies in hardback ten years ago, nowadays it is lucky to sell 500 and most sell far less. As an example of the economics of publishing, she mentions a good non-fiction book by a well-known author on a subject of interest to many, which has sold a mere 48 copies in its first couple of months of publication.

It is true, as the authors of these articles and many others state, that a smallish number of "top selling" celebrity ghost books, cookbooks and one or two others, and an equally smallish number of (mostly poor quality) fiction is both skewing the entire publishing/bookselling industry and is subject to a discount "price war" involving each other, Amazon and the supermarkets. I've observed that, for example, W H Smith couldn't (more or less – £5 per title) give away many copies of the current hardback nonfiction list over a weekend, making me wonder how much longer people will be prepared to buy books written on behalf of celebrities recycling half-digested pap, or yet another book filled with painted, sprayed, pretend "meals" full of ingredients that nobody buys to be cooked by methods that nobody has time to undertake. Fine to leave all those to the supermarkets, in my view!

Leaving aside the digression of the "bestsellers", I think there are quite a few factors and features that aren't being taken into account in the articles I'm reading in the news media and on blogs.

First, Borders is coming under attack for selling "non-profitable" DVDs, CDs, stationery, magazines and for hosting coffee-shops. But W H Smith and Waterstone's, (now) the main two UK book chains, do just the same. WHS in particular has turned around its business over the past few years, in part by drastically reducing its book stock in favour of in-store coffee shops, phone shops, post offices (that don't stock bus pass renewal forms, but will exchange your money for other currencies), computer accessory centres, etc. Similarly, in Waterstone's you can have coffee, lunch, dinner and book your holiday, as well as buy stationery, magazines, christmas gifts, calendars, souvenirs, etc. So this can't be a prime reason why Borders has got into trouble. (All three chains have cut down a lot on their DVD and CD stock over the past few years.)

Second, many of these commentators seem to think that e-readers and digital books are threatening to wipe out print books. They won't. There are situations in which digital "books" are useful – in education, as service manuals (eg when the person comes to service my boiler he accesses the latest-edition manual on his laptop), while travelling and so on. It's also confounding the argument to bring e-readers into the equation, as dedicated e-readers may be a temporary technology. As computer screens improve, when Apple produces its famous tablet, people will read books, magazines, news, watch films, etc using these devices when it suits them – as a few do now on their mobile devices or on e-readers. They'll probably still read print books on the beach, in the bath, in the hospital, while telling good-night stories to their children, and in a host of other situations.

Third, one reason why Amazon, perhaps the biggest threat to booksellers even though it only accounts for 15 % of UK book sales, rose so rapidly is that it filled a niche that customers wanted  – limitless stock of everything in print – but that booksellers themselves had not been able to fill because of local competition, technological innovation beyond their expertise, the organisational and logistical challenge, etc. Nowadays booksellers are using the internet more innovatively, for example the independent bookshops network (customers can order online and pick up their title from their nearest independent in the network, as discussed for example in this Petrona post back in 2006), and Waterstone's online. Nobody's online stock matches Amazon's, of course, partly because of Amazon itself and partly because of its marketplace network. Which, of course, enables a tiny local bookshop in Hereford or Salisbury to let me find out about and then sell me an out of print book which they have in stock second-hand. There is every reason for "physical" independent booksellers to do more online innovation and collaboration.

Fourth, publishers are in a time of uncertainty about digital formats and rights management. However, they all have long out-of-print backlists to which they own the rights, and many of them are digitising these to make them available print-on-demand. This is leading to new models of book publishing and selling, as well as writing. An author who will only sell a couple of hundred titles rather than a couple of thousand is a far smaller risk to a publisher on the print-on-demand model rather than the print-run and distribute to bookstores model. And the Espresso machine can only increase the options for publishers and booksellers. To a large extent, once these technologies are perfected (many of them are, or are nearly), it becomes more an issue of marketing than anything else - reaching your market by some other way than a publisher paying a physical bookseller to be "deal of the week" or part of a "three for two" offer.

Finally, one good aspect of all of this is that we still read lots of books, in whatever format. I read an article the other day in which the point was made that the industries and companies most vulnerable to collapse are the ones that focus on doing just one thing and doing it superbly. Those that survive are the ones that are good at looking around them. (A restatement of Darwin's argument that the species that survives is the one that adapts best to its environment.)  I think that there is still plenty of lateral thinking that can be applied to the writing, production, selling and, indeed, reading of books.