Fat Books & Thin Women

Borders, E-books and the Future of Book Buying
July 30, 2011, 5:08 pm
Filed under: General Book Stuff | Tags: , , , ,

Gillian at Portrait of a Would-Be Artist as a Young Woman recently posted about the failure of Borders as viewed through the eyes of a, for lack of a better term, “real booker,” someone who doesn’t believe that e-books are a great idea. It’s undeniable that Borders’ demise is due in large part to e-books, but to place the blame for its liquidation solely on e-books is unfair and not wholly accurate. E-books are changing the way we read and buy books, but there are bookstores out there – Borders not among them – demonstrating that e-books can be made part of a successful business plan.

To ignore the impact e-books will have on the way we read, borrow and buy our books would be a fatal error, because as much as we may want to believe that real books will always win out in the end (they smell better, feel better, you can write in them, you can start conversations based on the books strangers are reading) it looks more and more like it’s going to be e-books our kids will be reading ten or twenty years from now. Unless you run a bookstore, the desire to wipe e-books off the reading map probably won’t be a harmful one; but the desire to frame Borders’ closure through the rise of e-books is an interesting one for the way it suggests our thoughts on books and reading are formed in part by nostalgia, by a desire to go back not just to the days before e-books but to a day before book buying was dominated by Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

To get it out of the way early, e-books did contribute to Borders’ fall – not that people are reading and buying them, but that the management at Borders never tried to get into e-books in the way that Barnes & Noble did. Borders is a startling example of what happens when a company fails to get into new technology; not only did Borders not make an effort to jump, Barnes & Noble- or Amazon-style, into developing and selling e-readers, they never had their own, independent website for buying books. Gillian is right when she posits that e-books mean lost sales for physical bookstores (if you own a Kindle, the only place you can buy your e-books is from Amazon), but even creative independent bookstores are seeking ways into the sale of e-books.

To offer customers a way to purchase a lower-priced e-book version of a hardcover book may not be the most viable of business models. The stores that partnered up with Google Books to offer their customers a way to purchase e-books, though, are showing more creativity and initiative in this realm than Borders did. Still, while Borders’ failure to get into e-books was a contributor to the end of the brand, it was the company’s management – not e-books or readers of e-books – that deserves the blame here.

Now that e-books are a major part of our reading landscape, why do so many of us continue to resist them? Why do so many of us look at e-books as another sign that reading culture is failing, when they may prove a way to invigorate that same culture by making books more immediately accessible and making it easy (maybe too easy?) for first-time authors to get their books into publication as e-books? Do e-books and e-readers “devalue” books by making them cheaper and faster to buy and produce? Or is that they’re one more sign of the loss of the independent stores that used to exist all over America, before they were replaced by the box stores? (And how odd that we are now mourning one of those box stores – the same store that put so many independent bookstores out of business.)

I imagine the reason the news about Borders brings up some tension over e-books is not just that the store may have held on longer if it had figured out how to work with the new format, but because – contrary to our daydreams of a reinvigorated landscape of independent bookstores filling the gaps left by Borders – the closure of the chain’s stores will probably create new e-book readers out of people who have lost their last physical bookstore. As Gillian wrote, “Once Borders closes for good, there will be communities that have no bookstore at all.” And those communities, most of them, won’t be getting a new mom-&-pop bookstore to replace the Borders.

As part of a generation that grew up surrounded by bookstores offering plush chairs, coffee and pastries, seemingly endless rows of magazines and novels and remaindered coffee table books, there’s something undeniably sad about the thought of losing the ability to pick up a book and flip through it before buying. The thought of walking into a bookstore, looking through a book and then purchasing it as an e-book (as is possible with the Google Books partnership some indies are testing out) feels wrong, not just because it is so similar to visiting a store to make a list of books to buy on Amazon, but because it’s trading the “real thing” for a product you can’t hold. While I hope that independent bookstores will rise to the occasion and take over where Borders failed, it’s more likely that they won’t. Book selling is a tough business whether you’re a box store or an indie, as evidenced by the (still nearly unimaginable, to me) collapse of Borders. The ways we buy books have changed tremendously over the past few years as more and more people start buying e-books over paperbacks, and that’s been scary enough. Looking at this new America without Borders, and our inability to predict how people will be reading and buying when they lose their town or county’s only bookstore, is terrifying.

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Borders made two huge mistakes with their online presence. They handed over the keys to their online store to a third party manager, and then did the same thing with their e-book business by handing it all over to Kobo (Kobu? Something like that). B&N has been able to hold out this long because they still own their online store.

If publishers really want to get in on this e-book business, they should consider the Disney model. Disney has been doing this thing with their DVDs for a couple of years where you buy the movie and it comes bundled with some kind of access to a digital copy that you can put on a portable device. I don’t know if it’s a download code or a CD or what, but the point is that you’ve already bought the hard copy.

Comment by ohemgillie

i saw that sort of digital bundling mentioned somewhere as a possibility with book buying. It’s an interesting idea, and I wonder if it would work with books the same way it has for Disney. For some reason, the little part of me that celebrates when I find out a dvd I just bought comes with a digital copy isn’t thrilled by the thought of getting an e-book along with a book….but I hope someone thinks seriously about stuff like this. As frightening as it is to think of so many bookstores closing like this, there is potential for some innovation and I hope that bookstores will take advantage of it.

And you’re absolutely right that Borders giving the keys to their online presence to another company was a huge mistake. I remember a couple times, I think when I was trying to buy books for classes, trying to find the Borders website, ending up on “Borders thru Amazon” (or whatever they called it), and always ending up confused and switching over the normal Amazon site, if I decided to buy online. I didn’t even know they had an e-book business, and Kobo..Kobu? Never heard of it.

I’m glad you posted about this, there’s so much fun crap to think about here.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think the Kobo/Kobu/whatever was supposed to go head-to-head with B&N’s Nook as an e-reader you could buy and fill in-store or online. Clearly, it didn’t catch on as well as Nook.

What makes me twitchy about bundling for both DVDs and books is that it raises prices, and sometimes you don’t have a choice – you’re getting the digital copy whether you want it or not. Some stores will feel like they don’t have to stock both options.

I just got back from my second trip to liquidation land, and I don’t think Borders is even in charge of their own going out of business sales. The magazine section is completely cleaned out and in its place are…baby supplies? Not even kidding, all of those shelves are now racks and racks of blankets, pillows, and plush toys. It’s weird. But I’ve heard of companies that do this; they rent out that space while the store is clearing out its own merchandise, and stock it with totally unrelated stuff to basically justify those shelves’ existence in the store.

Comment by ohemgillie

ok, gotcha. So strange about the liquidation – I read a few days ago some guy writing about how the liquidation sale made him realize how little Borders was about the books, based on the sort of merchandise in there. Makes a lot more sense, weird as it is, that the space is being rented to sell other stuff.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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I went into a bookstore for the first time in about a year and a half. I do have an e-reader, and I buy books through that. Or, I purchase from B&N website where I can ususally manage to find the exact books I want for really cheap. But, when I went into the bookstore the other day I was blown away by how expensive the books were. I ended up spending about sixty dollars on only five books! All of them paperback. And they varied in price from $17.00 to $14.00. I think I found one for 7.00, which is what I am used to spending. I had more money to spend (about $140 in giftcards all together), but I stopped at sixty because I know of other ways that will allow me to buy the same books for less money.

Comment by Jackie

Ugh, I know the feeling. When I went to bookstores while I was home I found it nearly impossible to buy anything. $15 for a single paperback? There’s a reason I used to visit the library so much. Even used bookstores shock me with their prices…I grew up working in one that sells paperbacks for around $2 or $3, which I guess spoiled for me for life as far as buying books goes.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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