Borders Group said it would liquidate after failing to receive an offer that would save it. Its final 399 stores–including 250 domestic superstores and several abroad, in addition to, it appears, some 135 Waldenbooks, Borders Express and Airport stores. The $2.3 billion retailer of books, music, movies, gifts and stationery, headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI, employs 10,000 people and sells some 141,000 book, music and movie titles as well as other entertainment items.
In February, Borders sought Chapter 11 protection as it reorganized its business operations. It has since continued to lose money, and did not receive a satisfying offer to save it. As a result, Borders Group said it would liquidate its remaining stores in a process that may start as quickly as this Friday, with final operations terminating by the end of September.
Yes, ebooks are overtaking print books, particularly in fiction. But it is also true that Borders made mistakes with its business that ultimately led to its demise. Let’s assume that eBooks and online retailing is killing the big box bookstore and with it, the big publishing house. What does this mean?
Small publishing is AWESOME. If it weren’t for small presses, I can tell you for a fact there would be dramatically less choice for readers and many good authors would never have their voices heard. If it weren’t for Permuted Press, for example, I would never have considered the horror market to be accessible to my fiction. Hell, if it weren’t for small presses at all, I might never have been published. I was mailing agents and having them use my self-addressed stamped envelope to automatically mail me a rejection letter along with a flyer promoting their book on how to get published. I was mailing publishers and getting summarily rejected by interns because my pitches were coming through the “slush pile” (industry slang for toxic waste).
Digital publishing technology democratized publishing in a radical way, particularly when costs came down to a level where you could produce a cheap paperback, and to a significant extent broke the monopoly that big publishing editors had on the marketplace of ideas as the arbiters of quality. Suddenly, it was much easier to get published, and using online marketing tools, much easier to promote your work and generate sales.
There is much to dislike about traditional book publishing, to be sure, and much to admire about eBooks and the small publishers. On the other hand, one cannot help but believe there is a symbiotic relationship between the small presses and the big houses, and both benefit. If publishing overwhelmingly goes electronic, what will that mean for big publishers? Who will care what they say is quality if they don’t have the bully pulpit–the ability to choose what gets in bookstores and what doesn’t–to back them up? If the big publishers go, and the big bookstores go, and we’re all buying eBooks from smaller houses that are smart enough to specialize in a niche that people want–e.g., a zombie house, a Steampunk house, a ghost story house, a space pirates house, and so on–how will we find them, and how will we separate the gems from the huge amount of, let’s face it, low-quality stuff being put out by small presses and self publishers?
Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? (After all, what the hell else are you supposed to do with cake?)
I’m hoping the big publishing houses add value beyond the petering momentum of their brands. That they will focus on producing highly select, beautifully designed, high-quality product for print and tons of medium-quality product for eReaders. That they will add value to eBooks, such as higher levels of interactivity currently found with the iPad (think DVD extras built into the movie, but in a book instead). That they catch on to niche publishing and find ways to innovate at a lower risk.
I’m hoping the big bookstores will find a way to stay profitable by allowing people to browse miles of bookshelves, and then buy books in print or for their eReader in the store–maybe a guy in a backroom will actually manufacture your copy book for you after you order it within the store. Or maybe educate their book buyers so they can organize their stores more granularly, recognizing that sci fi and fantasy often don’t belong in the same shelf, that horror needs its own section, and so on. Or maybe find a way to identify, stock and sell successful titles from small presses so Amazon stops eating their lunch. Or maybe break up into smaller retailers that can make the kind of profit that makes individual investors rich but would be considered a dog with fleas by public stock shareholders.
Or something else. What do I know? I’m just a horror writer.
All I’m saying is if the old model is breaking, then get a new model, guys. Because we need you, big publishing, as much as we need the small innovators like Permuted. We need you, big bookstores, as much as we need our next eBook. You are producers and the dealers of our favorite drug.