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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"What Went Wrong at Borders"

That's the name of a column by my friend Peter Osnos (link available here) that offers a concise overview of the story behind the financial troubles of America's second-largest bookstore chain--troubles that threaten the economic status of many publishers as well.  The crucial graf is the final one:
Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse. Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real bookselling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.
I've worked on a lot of books about business strategy, and an unresolved tension in that world surrounds the question of whether a great leader can run any kind of business.  On the one hand, it seems simplistic to say that selling books is exactly the same as selling soap, cars, or cement.  But on the other hand, I am skeptical of publishing people who say "Our industry is so unique that we have nothing to learn from other companies."

I think in the end the right answer for book companies (whether publishers, retailers, distributors, or what have you) in these challenging times is to seek a tricky balance: Hire "book people" with a deep knowledge and love of the things readers value, but make sure they are willing to study and learn from the most creative minds in other businesses.  It sounds as though Borders had difficulty finding that balance.  Here's hoping they can find a way to survive.

1 comment:

  1. Part of the problem in these discussions, which often boil down to the question of the desirable ratio of "book" to "Business" in the publishing industry, is how you define "book." As a writer of literary fiction, the fact that my work is sold via the same systems, and must generate profit according to the same criteria, as, say, a bound set of publicity photos of Justin Bieber, presents obvious difficulties: these two products are comparable only in that they take the form of pages between covers. In most other realms of business, barring ethical considerations, the choice of which to devote corporate resources to would be absolutely clear: the product that sells the most is the one to produce and promote. I suspect Borders' financial problems stem more from their continued devotion of shelf space and advertising resources to literary books than their (and the major publishers') focus on celebrity and sports bios, self-help books, TV spin-offs, etc. Perhaps a healthier future for book publishing would result from recognition that all printed matter is not alike, and can't effectively be marketed as if it is. LIterary work has never been a reliable high-volume profit center as compared to straightforward entertainment media, electronic and otherwise, and I suspect the substantial profit it does offer would be much more effectively and constructively realized if that distinction were acknowledged in the industry, and incorporated into sales models.