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.

7 thoughts on “Thinking beyond the Borders

  1. Maxine – What a thoughtful, cogent, well-organized set of points! You make a strong argument that there is a great deal that’s not being taken into consideration as people mourn the “death of books,” and you make an equally powerful argument for widening our perspectives about what it means to write and read. Well done!

  2. A great post, Maxine. As sad as it is that Borders has gone, I think this may actually help independent book shops by eliminating some of the competition. Interestingly, I received an email press release today from Legend Press which is launching a new online bookshop dedicated to independent publishers. The Fiction Desk blog has a good post about it:

  3. Very interesting post. I’ve seen it suggested that Borders’ out of town locations were part of the problem, though I must say this analysis surprises me, given that so many major chains seem to do well out of town centres.

  4. Nice post, Maxine. I find the suggestion (not from you) that Borders lost money because of having a coffee shop is bizarre. The Starbucks in our local Borders was always busier than the bookshop, and it has remained open now Borders has been replaced by New Look. How can have rent coming in from a coffee shop possibly have hurt Borders’ profitability? Boggle.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I agree that, superficially, Borders seems(ed) not much different to WHS and Waterstones in terms of coffee shops, etc. And yes, Martin, I read that argument about out-of-town superstores too – though I wasn’t aware that Borders had any B&N-type equivalents in the UK, apparently it did and they didn’t work out according to more than one piece. At the end of the day, I imagine that the particular creditors were less “relaxed” than in the case of some other chains. According to a comment at the Bookseller blog on the closures, the whole thing is a financial stitch-up, but I couldn’t really follow the logic.

  6. Great post Maxine
    It’s funny but Borders here in Australia doesn’t do well either – in fact they got bought out a year or so ago by one of the other chains although they are still branded Borders. I haven’t been able to work out why they don’t do well although in my personal experience their service is utterly woeful (on 3 separate occasions I asked about a book not in stock and on each occasion the sales assistant grunted that I should go to Amazon). I doubt that’s the whole reason (many of their customers wouldn’t be looking for anything but what’s on the shelves) and I do suspect there’s something about their financial setup that makes them different.
    I have noticed that one of the other chains has, over the past year or so, really changed its service model and seems to have started employing different people. They’re no longer staffed by teenagers who ooze disinterest and any request for a title not in stock is met with an efficient and helpful search through a range of catalogues (in one case they went out of their way to track down a cheap option for me when a title I wanted was only available as an expensive import).
    I have noticed too that an independent bookstore has opened near me – the first new bookshop I can recall opening in many many years. So there is hope 🙂

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