The Death of Borders and My Book-Buying Practices

If you are at all a fan of books and reading, you’ve by now heard that Borders books will be liquidating their stock and closing their remaining stores. This has to be incredibly tough on the 10,000 or so employees who will be jobless at the end of this process. And yet, I felt like I saw this coming. People have argued that e-books are killing off traditional bookstores, and that may very well be true. In my own case, it has been an interesting evolution, and an example that even someone with strong opinions can change his mind.

As e-books became steadily more popular, I shied away from them. The reason, I told myself and others, was aesthetics: I liked the feel of a book in my hand. I liked the smell of a musty old book. I liked turning the pages. I felt that paper books were superior in many ways. A paper book’s batteries don’t run out for instance (although reader’s might). Every once in a rare while, I’d give an e-book a try and it simply didn’t feel right to me.

Then, in June 2009, I got a Kindle and everything changed. The Kindle managed to capture a lot of the aesthetics of a real book without some of the drawbacks. It was easy to read from and it felt like reading a book. It’s battery lasted long enough that I was never concerned about power. Sure, I didn’t have those rich book smells, but on the other hand, I could mark up the book to my hearts content without feeling that I was “damaging” the book. And of course, I could instantaneously purchase new books with a few clicks.

It was the latter, of course, that signaled the death knell to bookstores. That and that fact that e-books are generally cheaper than their paper counterparts. (Sure, there are people that will argue that they should be even cheaper, but I’m happy to pay the prices as listed because of the additional convenience offered.) Because of the Kindle (and the iPad which followed), my book-buying habits have changed dramatically since June 2009:

  • I prefer reading on the Kindle and even more on the Kindle App for my iPad. I am disappointed when a book is not available in e-book format.
  • When I am looking for a book, I check Amazon first to see if it is available. If I know I want it, I buy it right then and there, often pre-ordering books that have not yet been released so that they will be downloaded to my iPad the moment they become available.
  • When I do find myself in a major bookstore–a Barnes & Noble or a Borders–I will wander the stacks the way I have always done, browsing books, reading dust jackets, flipping through pages. But there is one significant difference: if I find something I like, I will pull out my iPad and see if it is available in e-book form on Amazon. And if it is, I will purchase it right there, or at the very least, download the sample.

In fact, there are only two classes of books that I buy in paper form anymore:

  1. Books that are not available in e-book form, for which there is no indicating of imminent e-book editions, that I feel I must read at once.
  2. Books that I am adding to my collection.

And in each of these cases, the major bookstores are at a disadvantage. For the former, I will seek out the book in my local library. For the latter, I haunt, almost exclusively, independent bookstore, online or otherwise.

Since June 2009, I have acquired nearly 100 Kindle-compatible books. In that same period of time, I’ve acquired maybe 20 paper books–but in nearly every case, those paper books were purchased because I wanted to get them signed by a friend or a fellow writer. This is a dramatic change from when I used to buy as many as 100 paper books in a year.

I am likely not a typical American book-buyer. I suspect overall, I buy and read substantially more books (regardless of their form) in a given year than the average person. But if you look at me in the context of American readers, I am probably fairly typical. And if other readers are changing their behavior in the same way that I am, then it is clear that major booksellers course is set, and that they are not long for this world.

I have struggled with this. I love books and bookstores have been the traditional home of books for centuries. That they are disappearing is sad. But ask yourself: what is a bookstore? In its simplest form, a bookstore is a place that sells books. Amazon, therefore, is a bookstore. Apple’s iBooks is a bookstore. Fictionwise is a bookstore. In this sense, the landscape is changing, evolving, but bookstores are still around in their new form. And I have to say in the big picture, I don’t see anything wrong with this. People lose jobs when bookstores shut down and that is sad, but it is also a fact of life in evolving industry. People lost jobs when travelers shifted from trains to planes. At the same time, new jobs were created. And there are new jobs to be had in this e-book world. Anyone who has dealt with the aesthetics of e-books knows that improvements are needed and people are needed to make those improvement. We are in a difficult transitional period but in the long run, I think it will be good.

And what about the mystique of bookstores? I think there will be bookstores (in the physical sense) for the foreseeable future because there will still be print books. Their customer base will change from the casual reader to the collector, but again like the transition from trains to airplanes, there are still trains around–some people like the mystique and convenience of the railways.

The advantages I have found in e-books outweigh, in my mind, the gradual disappearance of the physical bookstore. This is something I wouldn’t have imagined stating four years ago, but that is how it is for me today. The text of The Count of Monte Cristo is the same in paper form or e-book form. It is the reading experience and the cost that vary, and in my case both the experience and cost have been better in electronic form than in paper form. And I suspect it will continue to get better.

12 thoughts on “The Death of Borders and My Book-Buying Practices

  1. “When I do find myself in a major bookstore–a Barnes & Noble or a Borders–I will wander the stacks the way I have always done, browsing books, reading dust jackets, flipping through pages. But there is one significant difference: if I find something I like, I will pull out my iPad and see if it is available in e-book form on Amazon. And if it is, I will purchase it right there, or at the very least, download the sample.”

    When did this get acceptable to say, or to do? Don’t you feel chintsy doing this? Don’t you feel cheap? Is it only big stores where the staff have been told the customer is always right, no matter how boorishly you behave? Do you also go into little bookstores, soak up their fine ambiance and air conditioning and then buy the book from Amazon right in front of them?

    Keep your ebooks. But have some class about it, and stop using bookstores if you aren’t going to support them. Stop using bookstores as your show room.

    Two final thoughts:

    1. I hope you don’t expect bookstores to promote your writing when you so clearly disrespect them.

    2. I trust you won’t reverse course if digital piracy takes away all your customers. They’ll be taking away your business, but at least they won’t do it while standing in your living room.

  2. Tim, you raise some good points. But I’m not sure the practice is uncommon, it’s just evolving. There are people who, I’m sure, go into a major bookstore, browse, leave and then eventually buy the book someplace else cheaper, Costco or instance. The difference is in the immediacy. I don’t buy the book or the sample then and there to “stick it” to the bookstore, but so that I don’t forget to do it. Would it be any better if I jotted down the title, went home and bought the book from Amazon there? Even before e-books hit their stride it was possible to browse books in a bookstore and then go home and order the book from Amazon and have it shipped to you. I never thought of this as disrespecting a bookstore, it seemed to be a natural emergence of how the market works.

    As I mentioned in the post, I generally don’t do this at independent bookshops because at these small bookshops, I am generally looking for something that can’t be had in e-book form, or that I am looking to add to my collection.

    Your comparison to piracy is a little sketchy. Both the publisher and author get paid when I buy a book on my iPad. Of course, the bookstore doesn’t, but this is the point: if they provided a mechanism that would allow me to buy an e-book edition, they too would get paid. Barnes & Noble does this, if you are a Nook owner. And I doubt B&N complains when people browse their store and then purchase something on a Nook–because they get paid.

    My main point was that I can’t be the only one doing this, or Borders would be in a better position than it is in. I love bookstores, but the form and model for buying and reading books is changing and the bookstores need to catch up or die.

  3. The closest book store to my house besides Borders in an hour away.
    I don’t have a Kindle, nor do I ever want a Kindle.
    I NEED borders!

  4. In a way, Leslie, this is my point. If Border’s made it as easy as, say, Barnes & Noble, to get e-book editions from them (from which they would get a cut of the profits) then their situation might be different. They bet on the wrong horse and it is bad for everyone, whether your read e-books or not.

  5. For what it’s worth, Jamie, I’m sorry to have gone off on you so severely, and grateful you did not return the favor. That isn’t to say my sentiment is unchanged—this practice bugs me and I know from experience it bugs booksellers as much or more—but the level of hostility was uncalled for.

  6. The practice of browsing in a retail store and buying elsewhere has been a longstanding controversial issue in the economics of antitrust regulation. Producers/manufacturers often want to make exclusive arrangements with particular retailers to sell their products (e.g., a publisher only selling their books through Borders, and not making them available to Amazon or other retailers) in order to prevent this very thing. The jargon for the practice is “exclusive dealing.” Say you’re shopping for a new stereo. You’re likely to spend time shopping around, collecting information, listening to different systems, etc., at retail stores. Providing this information is a major cost for the stores. If you can then, after finding the stereo you want, go buy it a discount outlet or online retailer who does not have these costs, and can thus charge a lower price, the retailer with the display/sales costs goes under, and now there is nowhere to listen to audio equipment before deciding what to buy. On the one hand, this seems like a reasonable argument–manufacturers want to make exclusive deals with retailers in order to ensure that consumers have access to products in a way that helps the manufacturer to present and sell them in the best light at quality retail outlets. Tim’s response to Jamie’s “confession” is a good example of this attitude. It’s always galling to retailers to find that customers are using their services to browse and ask questions, then go off and buy elsewhere at a lower price. The retailer, meanwhile, can’t charge the lower price because they have costs associated with providing good service! On the other hand, if there is no exclusive dealing, competition is greater at the retail level, and prices fall for consumers. I don’t know that there’s a “right” answer to this, but in the end, we will get what we pay for… Barnes and Noble is still around because of the Nook, but will their “brick and mortar” stores still be around in the long run? Will enough readers continue to be willing to buy enough books at physical stores (at higher prices than they could pay elsewhere) to allow them to stay in business? Some smaller individual stores in larger cities will probably survive by focusing on dedicated/specialist clientele, but I wouldn’t count on any of the “big boxes” making it. The losers are readers like Leslie and the publishers who no longer have a way to sell books to people who prefer to buy in bookstores but no longer have access to one…

  7. Scott, I’m beginning to wonder if the result of all this will be a kind of fusion: some years down the road, coffee shops and bookstores will merge into a kind of coffee shop with book browsing service. Copies of books will be available for browsing, but the purchasing will actually be done via e-books. The publishers will pay to have their books “advertised” in the shop and the retailer gets a cut from that. Of course, I still think there will be a market for some brick and mortar stores for the very reason you cite: some people don’t want e-books, or can’t use e-books, whatever the reason. And of course as I pointed out, there will be collectors for the foreseeable future.

  8. Google either already have or are developing an app whereby you scan the bar code of the book you like and buy the book on the spot. The bookshop you are in gets a percentage of the sale.

  9. B&N already get it. You can scan the stacks there and order it for the Nook from the B&N website. How is that cheating the bookseller? Amazon is even looking at brick and mortar stores. Why would they do that unless they felt there was still some inherent value in bringing the customer into a real store.

    As for the Luddites, eventually you are going to be out of luck. Already more and more books are NEVER being published as physical books. This will only accelerate. This has also allowed budding writers to get into the business without a big publishing deal. Good for us all (there IS a lot of crap being self-published as well, but in a free society you get the good with the bad). Music has already passed the phase of reliance on a physical object by the consumer.

    Despite what some Luddite authors like Audrey Niffenegger try to do, by not offering their bestsellers in ebook format, is just fuel the pirates and damage their own (and their publisher’s) wallets. I have seen perfectly made ebooks, downloadable, of both of Ms. Niffenegger’s tomes.

    I love physical books too and specialty publishers like Subterranean and Tartarus and Night Shade and Ash Tree are still making money by creating beautiful physical books that people want to collect. They are also embracing ebooks w/o any evidence of hindered sales of their quality physical books. Unfortunately the big publishers have gone the opposite route still charging you $25.00 for a “hardcover” that isn’t anymore than a cardboard backed book, and $10.00 for a MM paperback. I don’t want these cheap books cluttering up my collection.

    People who refuse to acknowledge the digital revolution, like Leslie, will be the losers, not the rest of us that embrace, or at least face, the inevitable and get on board.

    Borders RIP

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