Notes on the Borders Affair
We’ve been hearing for some time now that Borders was on shaky ground and recent word that they’d stopped paying publishers confirmed that more bad news was sure to come. Today Borders announced that they will go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
What is that likely to mean? The most immediate impact will be the closing of many of their stores — 30% according to today’s story in the New York Times. I look at this story from at least three different perspectives.
As a reader, I like Borders and have found it to be the friendliest of the two book superstore chains. I grew up loving books and even though I’m a techie, I still like the feel of a book in my hands and expect that I’ll continue to read real hard copy books for years to come. I could also see reading books on a reader such as the Kindle, Nook or IPad, but can I really curl up with one of these? I’m sure it won’t feel the same.
As a writer, the path to publication is now a multi-channel business and e-publishing gets stronger every day. In my favorite genre of science fiction, many of the periodic publications have been cutting over to e-publishing and the trend seems likely to continue. I’ve recently been reading the 60th anniversary edition of Fantasy and Science Fiction with great delight, but it’s been years since I’ve seen F&SF on a newstand.
As a business person — I’ve been doing marketing in the high tech world over the past decade — the heart of this story strikes me as being about business models. Around 1997, I toured on a road show with office equipment vendor Pitney Bowes, talking about the future of facsimile technology in my role as an industry consultant. Another panelist talked about a different kind of future — new Internet-based business models. Even at that time, the rumors were strong that bricks and mortar stores would soon be a thing of the past. He told stories about meeting the CEO of a young company called Amazon and offered us the following quote from the relatively unknown young man, Jeff Bezos.
“I’m Jeff from Amazon and I’m into getting rich.”
At the time, Amazon only sold books, but it wasn’t long before Amazon took its mission of being the leading Internet storefront and went way beyond books. Amazon still cares about books as a business and has created a number of innovations in marketing them. In the process, they’ve done more than any other company to change the prevailing business models of the publishing industry.
Will Borders survive? It’s hard to say. In the comments section of the article in the Times, several people mentioned that Borders had put many independent booksellers in their area out of business. At the time, the superstone was the innovation in the sale of books to the public, but Amazon has shown that a company can sell a lot of books without ANY bricks and mortar presence. By contrast, Apple has reinvigorated the concept of a physical store in their business and done very well with it. So it is possible to be successful with a combination of a storefront AND online presence, but Borders is currently failing to innovate and is not likely to recover unless it can re-invent itself.
Ultimately, we the readers will be the decisive factor. If you care about independent booksellers, vote with your dollars and patronize them. If you like the atmosphere of places like Borders and Barnes and Noble, where you can browse magazines, buy a book or CD, and perhaps get a great cup of coffee, again, you should vote with your wallet. Amazon has a very effective business model and also carries books that I can’t find in the superstores. I like shopping for books at Amazon, but I hope that won’t be my only choice in the future.