Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bye Bye Borders

Yesterday Borders bookstores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  (This is an arcane procedure which Jeff would need to explain to anyone outside the United States.  As far as I can understand it, it means that the company goes on operating and its creditors write off their money.)  Nevertheless, as Jack Quick wrote on 4MA today: “First 10 chapters so-so. Don't really expect a strong ending....”  And the process will be far from painless.  200 of the 650 Borders stores are to close and the staff – already down by nearly half from the good days – face steep cuts in the same proportion.  The news was not unexpected, but it leaves publishers holding fistfuls of dud checks and tasting ashes in a market which has had little cause for celebration for quite some time. This comes hard on the heels of the demise of The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles.  Jeff wrote about it last week (and I stole the picture from him) but it’s poignant that the big chains and the specialist independents are crashing together.  

So where does that leave us as readers and authors?  “Avante!” we cry.  “On to the e-book future!”  So we shrug off Borders and, having paid nostalgic respects to the mystery independents as they close one by one, we order what we want on Amazon, downloaded to our Nooks and Kindles and IPads and laptops at the convenience of a mouse click or two.  Google stands ready to make it easier to pay (10% for them); Apple and Amazon want 30%.  That’s lots more money for authors and much cheaper prices for readers, right?  The ultimate win-win.  And the middle people – agents, publishers and booksellers – move on to other things.

So let's imagine an e-book world - a world where all books are e-books (except perhaps a few superstars that remain available in hard copy and sold through the online retailers).  I’m not as sanguine about this outcome as some.  I’m aware that other authors have had varied experiences ranging from brilliant to horrendous, but our editors have done a great job improving our books.  I’d be very sorry to lose that input.  We have just been through the copy edits of our third book.  Perhaps it’s not changed dramatically as a result, but it has a gloss now which comes from the expert reading of English.  And the copy editor caught some inconsistencies and even a couple of howlers.  Who would believe that after the number of times we and others have read the book, it still contained: ‘Kubu leant back in his chair causing a loud creek’?  Okay, so no readers will imagine white water gushing from the seat, but it’s embarrassing!  I know of someone who was retrenched from a South African book publisher and decided to choose the niche activity of editing e-books for authors.  He had lots of enquiries, but few takers.  It’s a painstaking process and it comes at a price.  If the author is unknown, and paying from his or her own pocket, there is a strong motivation to throw the book at the internet as it is and see what happens. 

That’s another issue.  How will the strong new voices stand out in the cacophony?  How will they be distinguished from the other 749,999 new e-books that come out each year?  We’ve all heard the stories of unknown authors selling books from the trunks of their cars and becoming best sellers, or writing cooking blogs that become books and films, but how many of those are there actually?  Pretty much the same as winning a lottery, I’d guess.
Libraries are another critical area.  There is talk (perhaps it is already reality in some places) of lending Kindles rather than books.  Yes, they are more expensive, but the libraries will get bulk discounts and, of course, can store multiple books on each device.  Much space, and perhaps even some cost, is saved.  But I think this is trying to fit the new technology into the old thinking.  Isn’t the reality in the days of cost cutting and budget deficit shrinking, that we will be told one only needs a single electronic copy sitting, say, at the Library of Congress.  Everyone can download it from there.  Of course, delete after two weeks, don’t copy, don’t lend on...   

As Jeff pointed out last week the music industry is at 10% of the revenues they might have had in the bad old hard copy days.  We haven't even mentioned the pirate sites where you can download for free or almost nothing.  No solution to this one.  If the CIA can’t keep their stuff off the net, what hope have the rest of us?
Certainly someone will be making lots more money in the e-book world, but I rather doubt it will be the authors!

Michael – Thursday.


  1. I promised that my next post would be fun. So I shall refrain from piling on, raining down, or creeking in (editor needed) on your likely prescient (editor definitely needed) observations.

    Let me instead just add this bit of possible optimism to the Borders situation. Chapter 11 can actually work, for it gives the debtor time and opportunity to restructure its debt and get moving again, e.g., General Motors.

    And it should be noted that Borders has not thrown in the towel, for yesterday I received an email from Borders president, Mike Edwards, assuring Borders' customers that its stores are "open for business" and its website was "operating as usual"--to the extent one finds that assuring.

    So, time will tell, but even if the Chapter ll proceedings are successful, and I hope they are, it's likely to be a very reduced operation facing all the challenges your post describes...and lines of writers outside each store (virtually and, for those not above holding a tin cup, in the flesh) pitching Borders' customers to cut out the middleman and buy ebooks directly from the source.

    That, my friends, I'm afraid is happening in far more than just the entertainment/book industry. Enough with the fun stuff. Bah Humbug.


  2. The situation regarding bookstores, authors, and the reading public is getting more complicated.

    Realistically, the majority of us turned to Amazon because they are so convenient, their prices are lower, there is free shipping for orders over 25.00, and there is no tax. Before Amazon, my kids would give me their Christmas wish lists which were heavy on books, music, and movies. All their requests were esoteric or just plain weird. I would go to Borders and Barnes & Noble and a local chain and would get some of what they wanted. On Amazon, I can get everything and get it delivered with no hassle.

    When my kids were in college and when my niece was living in Virginia, I could send things through Amazon, again without any problems and without waiting in line at the post office.

    Was I lazy? Yeah, but I got what I needed.

    As I have mentioned before, I could not afford to buy or have the space to house all the books I read. Libraries have been important to me since I was in grade 1. With the interlibrary loan system I can get all but a very few books that I want. Libraries and books from trees are a necessity because the majority of readers today are senior citizens. It isn't that we aren't capable of dealing with the new technology; there is comfort in books and, for those on fixed incomes, e-books purchased for e-readers are in a difficult class than that free library card.

    I now know about the plight of authors. Readers have no idea that published authors don't make millions with every book.

    So, what should readers do to keep tactile books coming and authors paid justly? Are e-books a better deal in the long run for authors? What is the best way for fans to support their favorite authors?


  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for your comments and the small ray of sunshine. I certainly hope that Borders keeps going - I hope every bookstore keeps going, especially the mystery ones. But, as you pointed out in your post, the market will decide in the final analysis.


    I think Amazon is great, and I used to order lots of stuff through them - mostly stuff you couldn't get in South Africa. Unfortunately our mail system got to the stage where it lost too many parcels and they stopped shipping here.

    I'm also really in favour of e-books - great convenience and just maybe we can get the younger generation interested in reading again. As you say, the question is how to maintain both media - and the libraries. I don't have any answers. I'm sure we'd love to hear suggestions...


  4. I think whatever happens - and a new model may emerge from the wreckage, things will pootle along as they are or turn full circle and the old model will return - authors are going to have to become experts at self-promotion and marketing. Many already are, but more of us will have to follow suit, or accept out books will be read by a few...


  5. Dan, how does one do the kind of self-promotion that doesn't take over the author's life? If the time spent promoting a book takes away from the writing of another book, it is self-defeating.

    Do authors have fan clubs?

    Would it make any sense for the seven (or eight) writers on this blog to set up a Murder Is Everywhere Facebook page?