Monday, July 18, 2011

Dinosaurs and the Borders Closure

I don't claim to be a business expert, okay? I'm lucky if I can match my khakis with my golf shirt without benefit of helpful Garanimals. So I don't mean to imply that I could be CEO of anything, particularly a business facing the challenges bookstore chains and publishers are facing in today's rapidly changing environment.

But I read a statement today that literally made my jaw drop, or at least hang open for a few seconds, giving me the look of a mouth-breathing idiot. Even more so than usual.

Inside a Wall Street Journal article by Mike Spector and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg discussing the pending closure of the remaining 399 Borders stores, which will result in 10,700 people losing their jobs, was the following statement: "The chain's demise could speed the decline in sales of hardcover and paperback books as consumers increasingly turn to downloading electronic books or having physical books mailed to their doorsteps."

Or, as explained by CEO of Hatchette Book Group, David Young: "When you lose literally miles of bookshelves, it's going to have an impact."

Am I the only one who sees the tail wagging the dog here? It amazes me that something which seems so obvious to me has apparently escaped the attention of both the people who write about the business side of books and the people who run the business side of books.

And that is this:

Readers aren't going to begin downloading more ebooks because the Borders chain is closing, it's the other way around. The Borders chain is closing because people are downloading more ebooks!

In my opinion, this perfectly illustrates the disconnect that will doom the dinosaurs of the publishing world, those publishers and booksellers who just simply cannot grasp that the literary universe has changed (not is changing, has changed) in a very fundamental way, and is never going back. Things will never be the way they were for hundreds of years; that ship has sailed and isn't coming back.

The ability or inability of the largest publishers and booksellers to adjust to these changes will ultimately play the dominant role in determining which of them will survive and in what form. Everybody knows that. The problem is, the more hide-bound and entrenched the organization, the harder it is to effect that change. It takes a lot longer for an aircraft carrier to change course than a speedboat.

I don't mean to imply that there was no understanding of publishing's new realities at the top of the Borders food chain specifically; it's entirely possible upper management did everything they could to help the company survive and just weren't able to pull it off.

And the apparent misunderstanding of the primary cause of Borders' demise by the article's authors is pretty harmless, too. But if I was employed by Hatchette Book Group and I read the quote attributed to their CEO, David Young, I would be pretty freaking nervous right now. Might be time to get a jump on things and start polishing up the ol' resume, before that Hatchette falls. On their heads.


Bill Bertrand said...

This is the saddest part of the article.

Mr. Norris said other booksellers, including Barnes & Noble Inc. and Inc., will go after the shoppers who formerly considered themselves Borders customers. "They won't be able to pick up everyone," he added. "If shopping at your local Borders is part of your weekly routine, and then Borders is gone, you may end up doing something other than buying books."

Al Leverone said...

Hi Bill, it is sad, but I'm not sure I completely agree with Mr. Norris's statement. Casual bookshoppers undoubtedly may "end up doing something other than buying books."

But anyone whose weekly routine includes shopping at Borders would have to be considered a pretty avid reader, I think, and I believe avid readers absolutely will find other ways to buy their books. Maybe Amazon and B&N, maybe not, but those books will come from somewhere.

Hopefully, at least some of the locations will see independent booksellers take over the retail space. Being a booksdeller is a tough go right now, but some of them have to find ways to survive...