Posts Tagged Borders

Playing Dirty vs Playing Stupid

First, some required reading.  The Chicago Tribune has an opinion piece up looking at how publishers should be tackling declining print sales in the light of eBook readers.  Give it a read, it’s what I’m about to talk about.

Back?  Okay, good.

There is so much I reject about the premise of this piece that I hardly know where to start.  Perhaps breaking down my objections into a list.

Point the first.  Publishers don’t act as a monolithic force.  They just don’t.  They haven’t.  And I suspect they won’t.  And there’s never in my memory been a campaign generically for books.  That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be, but it’s such a vague thing to be selling to the American public.  The comparison made in the article is to the pork council sitting down and raising pork’s public acceptance with their “Other White Meat” campaign.  But here’s the differences.  Pork is a much more specific product than books.  And there is a single monolithic entity that represents the entirety of the pork industry within the United States.  Books are not pork.  If anything books are meat, or perhaps food stuffs in general.

So while Pork: The Other White Meat worked, I don’t think that Meat: It’s Made of Animals or Food: That Stuff You Eat is as workable of a campaign.  And that’s partially the problem with the idea.  The piece is looking to create an awareness campaign for a broader category of commercial goods than has ever been made before.  Perhaps the closest example is Microsoft launching general “buy a PC ads,” but in the end those still boil down to being ads for Windows, not ads for PCs in general.  Any attempt to more generally advertise a broad market sector is typically done buy a retailer.  You don’t have a conglomeration of companies saying Movies: Come Watch Them!  No, you get AMC Theaters advertising.  You don’t get Electronics: Plug them in and Use them!  No, you get Best Buy or HHGregg ads.

Which really comes into point the second.

Point the second.  This isn’t a publishers issue, this is a book sellers issue.  The fight here is not publishers vs Kindle.  Publishers ARE Kindle.  Yes, there are now channels open that allow for easier direct publication of titles onto the Kindle, but those are a miniscule share of the market right now.  Books are made available for Kindle by publishers.  And in the end, publishers still make the money from them.  In some cases they’re making MORE money due to slightly less overhead.  So there is absolutely no financial advantage to a publisher advertising against the Kindle, much less publishers as a broad category doing so.

This is a book sellers issue.  If you want people advertising FOR books and AGAINST Kindles, it’s going to have to come from the brick and mortar stores.  This isn’t Publishers v Kindle, it’s Book Sellers v Amazon.  Just as it has been for the last decade.  Sure people are buying books directly from the Kindle, but I see no solid evidence that the sales losses are coming predominantly from retail sellers rather than from Amazon themselves.  If it is, as I suspect, “hurting” Amazon paper sales more, then it’s a net wash to the book sellers, and it means Amazon is probably pushing more product in the end (don’t over estimate the power of impulse buying).  If it is coming from the book sellers, the remaining behemoth is already fighting back with the Barnes & Noble Nook.

So in the end what we’re left with might not even be book sellers vs Amazon, but independent book sellers vs a tag team of Amazon and Barnes.  Which really has been the state of things, again, for the last decade or so.  And it’s a fight a lot of them initially lost.  But plenty have their niche, but that doesn’t mean that books are a niche product, which brings me conveniently to point the third.

Point the third.  Books won’t become vinyl unless they’re treated like vinyl.  Yes there’s still a market out there for records, actually honest to god literal records rather than “records” as a term for any music.  And the piece talks about them.  Talks about the audiophiles that love them.  But here’s the trick.  Even with audiophiles loving records, they’re a niche market.  Super niche.  You don’t have big box record stores anymore.  Big box music stores maybe carry a few dozen, usually hidden where only the chosen know where to find them.  Modeling books after vinyl when trying to craft a campaign to “save” books really just says that books have already lost.

They haven’t.

The death of Borders isn’t the death of books, it’s a result of years of mismanagement and ignoring problems at hand.  It could have happened to almost any company.  However, since it happened to a big box book store at the same time as the rise of Kindle makes it easy to paint this as Electronics-1, Books-0.  But that’s not right.  That’s not the score at all.  Barnes and Nobles, which actually approached the change in the book selling market intelligently, is doing just fine.  Their stock isn’t where it was, but it certainly isn’t falling into the abyss.  Those independent stores that survived the advent of the Big Box are fine.  Books are fine!  People want them, people buy them.

Do they buy as many?  Perhaps not.  But let’s get back to impulse buying.  People now have the ability to buy books right at their fingers.  Someone with a 3G Kindle can, on a whim, buy a book almost everywhere.  This is going to increase sales.  Yes, they’re electronic sales, but people are going to be reading, and they’re going to look for books when they want to continue on a certain subject or author and it’s not available electronically.  This isn’t the death of books.  Books aren’t in trouble.  Books don’t need some slick new pro-ecology message to stay alive, some new ad campaign.

Books: Those Things You Read.

Book sellers just need to be smart, they need to recognize that selling electronic readers is selling books.  And many have.  And they’re doing fine.  Borders killed itself, but the industry lives.

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Death of a Giant

There’s nothing graceful about watching a company go out of business.  It’s awkward, it’s drawn out, and in the end they’re not the stores they once were.  That’s what I felt walking through the Tysons Borders for the last time a few months ago.  The upstairs was closed except for fixtures sales, the fiction section was consolidated onto just a few shelves, everything was just not right.  I’d gone in a way to pay final respects to a store that was my bookstore for three years when I lived less than a mile up Route 7 from it.  It’s sitting empty now in an awkward little building that was never easy to get to and had been half empty for years already since losing first its Best Buy then its Filenes Basement.

Now, the rest of them are going away.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.  The first round of cuts really did stink of desperation, and the company has been struggling to hold on even with the lower overhead.

So that means losing the Borders now closest to me in Bailey’s Crossroads.  It always was the jewel location for Northern Virginia, and even when I had issues with how the company was starting to run other locations (consolidation of genres, bad pricing practices) it was a location I was always happy to go to because they were doing things just a little bit better.  It’s where I got to meet Alton Brown at a signing.  People were sitting around cross legged listening to him as he signed, waiting for their numbers to be called.  I commented that he was like the Buddha, and his publicist suggested he feed us all with loaves and fishes.  He pointed out “that’s the other guy” and he really would like to avoid how things ended for him.

That means losing the Borders in Springfield.  I was surprised it survived the first round of cuts.  It moved into the area around the mall, one of the first salvos in a box store takeover that would leave Springfield Mall a shell of its former self.  It drove out the Super Crown, which had been my first big box book store, but it was so much nicer.  So much bigger.  So much better.  I would go there just to go there on the weekends, even if I wasn’t shopping for something.  I never was much of a mall rat, but I was a Borders rat, finding new things to read and just enjoying the presence of so many books.  It was a magic place.

That means losing the Borders downtown.  The one that my wife and I would always go to when running early to an event downtown.  We’ve killed any amount of time there waiting for a movie at the E Street, or just getting in from the oppressive DC heat on a summer day.  It was always a little cramped, but it was a box store trying to be downtown, so that was allowed.  It wasn’t something I’d ever go downtown to do, but it’s something I did so often downtown.

I’ve read any number of articles about why Borders failed.  They insisted on their own inventory system that required relabeling every book with those Borders bar code stickers.  They didn’t see the power of the internet when it launched, and when they did finally understand they let Amazon be their online presence, which is much like going out into the ocean with a shark lifeguard.  It never felt like they understood that Amazon was their competition, not Crown, not Barnes and Nobles, not Books-a-Million.  This was most evident in their DVD section, which used to be rather decent, and it was okay it was a little overpriced because there were things I could only find at Borders.  But then I started being able to find them at Amazon.  For cheaper.  It’s the same thing that really took down Tower Records.

There’s any number of reasons Borders failed.  And I hope that they don’t spread to Barnes and Nobles.  I love the convenience of online book buying, but I also love being able to go into a store still and being surrounded by books.  And these are what has survived.  A lot of smaller book stores were gobbled up or driven out by these two behemoths, and if they fail there’s going to be a massive hole in the retail market that is going to be damned hard to fill.  The only company that probably has the resources to start a national chain of booksellers right now would be Amazon itself, but they would really have no reason to do so.

So there it is.  That’s my eulogy to a store and a company that I loved.  If you’re looking for me, you’ll probably find me in the stacks, picking over the bones of the giant trying to find a few pieces of meat, one last time shopping at a store that isn’t itself anymore.  In the end there’ll probably be a book written about the rise and fall of the company, because it does embody the growth of the box store and the failure of brick and mortar stores to adapt to the new online economy.

And I’m sure it’ll be available from Amazon and on the Kindle.

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