The deadline to save Borders passed yesterday, meaning that they will now proceed to a bankruptcy-court auction tomorrow.
It’s not quite over for America’s second-largest bookstore chain, and a bidder could still emerge in the next day-and-a-half to save the company – which employs nearly 11,000 people – from being liquidated.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported today that Books-A-Million were in talks late last night about a deal. However, it seems clear that even if this move comes off, which is doubtful, it will only rescue part of the company, and a large amount of (further) store closures and layoffs is unavoidable.
It seems likely now that the bones of Borders will be picked apart, and the remaining investors will only seek to purchase unencumbered assets such as the brand name, the website, and the customer lists, leaving the stores themselves facing oblivion.
There is a certain grim inevitability about this news, which will hit publishers and their authors, as well as the Borders staff and their families, particularly hard.
Even if a last-minute investor is able to prevent liquidation, Borders will never be the book buying force it once was.
Since I started this blog, I have argued that print is doomed, and its collapse will take most bookstores with it, but I take no pleasure in being proved right.
What we are seeing now are the “negative feedback loops” that LibraryThing’s Tim Spalding predicted nine months ago.
Each drop in print sales causes bookstore closures, which means less stores to sell books, which means lower print runs, which means higher printing costs, which means higher prices, which means another drop in print sales.
Each bookstore closure is another town forced to go online to buy books, which leads to an increase in Amazon’s market share, which means more readers exposed to their wall-to-wall urgings to switch to the Kindle and e-books, which means a further drop in print sales, and more bookstore closures.
Each publisher reducing print runs must increase the retail price of their books, which makes the price difference between print and digital versions even more dramatic, which encourages more people to switch to e-books, which reduces print runs and increases costs.
As printing costs become more expensive, more publishers will release more titles as digital-only or digital-first editions which will encourage even more to switch to e-books, causing further bookstore closures.
This is a series of vicious circles, all feeding into each other.
Most of the argument surrounding how much market share e-books will capture seems to center on the advantages and disadvantages of e-books, e-readers, and e-bookstores in their current form. This ignores how the format, devices, and book buying experiences will evolve.
More importantly, it ignores all the readers who will be forced to switch to e-books for one reason or another, whether that’s down to the restricted selection of print titles or the increased cost.
Joe Konrath wrote an excellent post yesterday, focusing on what this Borders news means for midlisters. He argues, persuasively, that burden to shift print books will pass to the boxstores who only stock bestsellers:
This will mean fewer books printed, fewer books sold, and fewer choices for readers until they’re forced to buy an ereading device if they want to read anything other than Stephen King and James Patterson.
The obvious corollary is that if you are not of the same ilk of King and Patterson, that most of your future sales will be digital. And if this is the case, why go with a publisher at all? After all, as Joe points out, a 70% royalty is a lot more than a 17.5% royalty.
A new writer, deciding whether to self-publish or to submit to agents, needs to consider not just what the market is like now. They need to look at where its going to be in two years.
That’s the absolute quickest any new writer could get through the query system, snag an agent, go on submission, receive an offer, go through the lengthy publication process, and finally hit the bookstore shelves.
For most, of course, it will take significantly longer than that (if they are one of the tiny percentage that is successful at all). So a new writer, being a little more realistic, needs to look at where the market is going to be in three years, or even five years.
Will there even be agents accepting queries from unpublished writers in five years? Will there even be agents in five years? I don’t think anyone can answer in the affirmative with any confidence.
This might seem like heresy to defenders of the status quo, but as Joe points out:
This message needs to be repeated, over and over and over, because there are still thousands of authors who spend their hard-earned $$$ on conventions that supposedly teach them how to write killer query letters.
Of course, it goes without saying that this is money that could be spent on hiring a professional editor, a professional cover designer, and publishing yourself.
And all that time spent researching agents, learning how to write query letters, personalizing each submission, sending off each partial, and waiting for responses that will never come could be spent building an audience or, you know, writing.
Writing stuff you can publish yourself.
Writers have more choices than ever before. And I firmly believe that this is a great time to be a writer. But only if writers seize the opportunity that is staring them in the face.
The choice is yours.