Monday, July 18, 2011

The Last Chapter

I've returned from parts unknown, mes auteurs, and I trust y'all enjoyed last week's guest posts while I was gone. Many thanks to our five guest posters!

All is not sunshine and lollipops in Ye Olde Publishinge Lande, however. If you haven't yet heard the sad news, Borders is converting from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to Chapter 7, meaning they are liquidating their assets and going entirely out of business.

First, my sincere condolences and heartfelt thanks to all the Borders employees who have helped me so much over the years and to whom I wish the best in their pursuits and endeavors after Borders. BGP's liquidation will entail roughly 11,000 layoffs—not including potential job losses at ancillary corporations, such as publishing, shipping, and food services companies that may have departments dealing exclusively with Borders—and my best wishes are with those who will be seeking work in this economy in the next several months.

Second, this will impact the industry in many significant ways, not all of which will become immediately apparent.

• There is now only one major bricks-and-mortar physical book retailer in the country: Barnes & Noble. B&N no longer needs to contend with any other major player in terms of physical co-op, in-store couponing, &c &c. I expect they'll continue to compete heavily with Amazon, however—especially in the increasingly popular e-book arena—so I don't foresee any immediate or comprehensive shifts in the price of physical books.

• There is now a significant surplus of physical books in the market. I'm not completely clear on the returns policy for distressed retailers, but I believe they're entitled to return most—if not all—of their unsold stock to the appropriate publishers. While I imagine many publishers moved to minimize their exposure back when Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, I think a lot of them are going to get hit with big returns as Borders dissolves.

• Print runs are going to become smaller. When making final decisions in terms of binding books, publishers have taken two major chains into account; now they'll only account for one. While it's true that Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and (to a lesser extent) big-box retailers like Wal*Mart and small, independent book shops will absorb some of that business, a portion of it will be permanently lost.

• I think this will hasten physical/electronic equilibrium in the market. With fewer physical books being printed and more consumers going to Amazon and Barnes & Noble—many purchasing books electronically via the Kindle or Nook, respectively—I think the American market will be fully half e-books by the last quarter of 2013 or the first quarter of 2014. Over time, areas traditionally resistant to electronic media (such as art books, children's books, and international editions) will increasingly move in that direction, as well.

Again: is the physical book dead? Absolutely not. But the loss of Borders will, I think, hasten its transition to a secondary format.

The times, they are a-changin', ladies and gents, and I don't pretend to know what's going to happen over the next several months. I can tell you, however, that I'm not surprised by this turn of events—in fact, Borders managed to hang on much longer than I expected—and I was by no means alone in the industry in that expectation. Though the methods by which customers purchase books will undoubtedly continue to change, people will still need great stories. Books, whatever their form, are here to stay, and it's my sincere hope that Borders' demise will engender more opportunities than it dissolves.


  1. Aww, that's so sad. I didn't get to Borders as often as I would have preferred since it was so far away and Hastings was closer. Speaking of Hastings, what shape are they in? I think they've done better since they deal in 3 main products: Books, Music, and Movies. Then again, the digital revolution seems to be endangering physical forms of these things.

  2. I love Borders...and will certainly miss it. It's a shame and deep down inside I wasn't really surprised, just disappointed.

    I agree this is probably going to give a huge push to the e-readers. I don't have one yet, but it's starting to become more and more apparent that an e-reader will become near-essential over the next few years.

    Is Barnes and Noble really the only retailer left? What about Books a Million? I know they're not as big, but unless I'm mistaken I think they're still around...for now.

  3. I was in the Detroit airport today and stopped into a Borders to get a birthday book for my son (the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Chatted with the two employees for a while and offered my best wishes. Their opinion: The Internet is killing bookstores.

  4. This is a good take on the situation. I agree it will hasten e-book parity and predict B&N will adopt a more e-centric and smaller footprint for its physical stores in coming years. Picture something like an Apple store with hard cover and special edition books prominently displayed (i.e., no more endless shelves of paperbacks).

  5. Tears in my eyes over Borders. The one at Columbus Circle was my favourite spot. Sigh...

  6. Glad to have you back! And thanks for your assessment - you provide a great service here, Eric.

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