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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