Borders Closure is Green Light for Bookstore Innovation

Borders Books and Music was a place of pilgrimage for book lovers, music lovers and people who loved to sit with coffee and read, chat or peruse magazines they might or might not buy. It has played a vital role in the distribution of books of both wide and narrow market interest, and has driven the cathedral-warehouse paradigm of big bookstore chains. Its failure, however, opens the field for more innovative, more reader-friendly experiments in book selling.

Some have argued that Barnes and Noble was changed by its competition with Borders. Barnes and Noble has long been a leader in the big bookstore sector. But Borders, in many places, went bigger. It stocked everything that might fit into the mainstream book, magazine and music market, and was aggressive in putting full-size cafes in its bookstores, where patrons could sit and read books, whether they bought them or not.

But Barnes and Noble made two crucial decisions whose value Borders seemed not to understand. First, it built its own site for online sales, and built the brand to sustain it. Second, it saw the power of the Kindle reader and made sure not to cede mass-market e-book distribution to its online rival. By making its Nook and Nook Color readers available in its stores, Barnes and Noble successfully merged electronic and print media in a way that appealed to bricks-and-mortar bookstore browsers. 

Borders could have done the same, but instead of building its own website early on, it made a deal with Amazon, and avoided—or so it seems to outside observers—learning too much about how to sustain its overall business through online sales and marketing. When it made the switch, serious book readers had already figured out it was better to just use BN or Amazon. They forfeited their leadership position and radically increased the costs of getting to parity, when they finally decided to make a run for it.

Borders also lagged in the e-book revolution. Though in 2001, small publishers—like the publisher of this publication, Casavaria—were experimenting with independent e-books and early global distribution formats, Borders treated e-books as a question of stocking electronics that might be of interest to readers.

They did not—again, as it would seem to outside observers—understand that e-books were about the direct text-to-eyeball relationship publishers, and booksellers, could develop with readers. They did not understand—though in fairness, few major industry players did—what Amazon figured out early on: an optimal e-book platform required a screen that would feel more like print on paper than a screen.

Though Joseph Epstein, and many other publishing luminaries, had said the book was a technology that was almost impossible to improve upon, Amazon and e-Ink figured out that the convenience of digital technology with the feel of a book, would be the next step. Borders did not see this crucial moment coming.

Its Kobo e-book reader is not actually a Borders product. Kobo is its own enterprise, and Borders’ plan was to piggyback on Kobo’s innovation. Like its Amazon deal, Borders’ Kobo deal clearly showed that Borders did not understand that the Kindle and the Nook are not books; they are bookstores and libraries, personalized for the convenience of the reader. Kobo is now having to defend its reputation and advertise its independence and its survival.

This may be good for Kobo, because it will no longer be linked with the big bookstore chain, and that may give it some cachet among bibliophiles. But it will have to compete for quality, and Borders may not have done Kobo a great service by channeling its development through a failing chain bookstore.

Kobo, to its credit, figured out that e-Ink was the right way to make electronic text enjoyable. While a very cogent, and legitimate, analysis suggests print publishers may now commit to lower print runs for many, if not most, of their titles, the collapse of Borders may be, for writers, readers and publishers, something more of an opportunity than a calamity.

A massive economy of scale is not always best for quality innovation. In Borders’ case, it appears to have been an obstacle. The size of the giant enterprise blinded its directors to the most meaningful developments swirling around them. Small bookstores survive not because of the scalability of a global business plan. They survive when their bottom line, and their ability to fund their operations, reflect three things: discipline, sensitivity and good fortune.

This last comes from clients, location and other hard-to-manage variables that cannot easily be planned for. What is most important about small bookstores is that they cannot survive by just hawking gold-print embossed bestsellers and books that have been made into movies. They cannot even survive just by stocking the headier titles on the New York Times bestseller list or which have been reviewed in the major publications.

They have to know their readers, and treat their clients as readers, not as cash machines. It is this knowledge element that may now gain more traction. Knowledge… sensitivity to the lay of the land, and to reader interest… and innovation. What might some innovations be?

The true cafe/bookstore: A more balanced relationship between the bookstore and cafe sections of a retail space, with high quality coffee, with events and music, gatherings and opportunities to sit down with authors, and a bookstore that echoes this quality with content.

The information oasis: Bookstores can reposition themselves as trusted sources of information, a more robust 21st century newsstand, stocking quality publications, some new to newcomers, and unique titles with real depth and scope, understood by intelligent, engaged buyers and salespeople. Mainstream media may be an echo-chamber, but bookstores can be places where the individual is free to think for herself.

The genius bar: One of the reasons Apple’s stores are popular with Mac lovers is that they provide information and knowledge that is useful; customers can learn from staff. Bookstores could make sure to be a source of guidance to the reading public, taking back that role from distributors and advertisers and being more pro-active about deciding what they stock.

The cyber-paper crossover: Barnes and Noble, and the Nook, have made for an impressive collaboration. Small bookstores can take Borders’ market share, collectively, if they learn the lesson Borders missed: assist your readers in all media, and they will stand by you. Wifi is useful, but dedicated new-fangle web access, whatever that looks like, could help bricks-and-mortar independents sell print books.

These are just a few ideas, but there is no mistaking the fact that as we enter the age of hyper-convergence, oversized enterprises won’t make it if they don’t innovate, and independent bookstores can do what microbreweries and coffee houses have done: become creative micro-distributors invested in the knowledge and emotion that naturally flow from, and to, the products they love.

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Originally published July 20, 2011, at

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