Thursday, July 21, 2011

Borders' Fall -- and Fallout for Authors and Publishers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch (whose discussions of the publishing business are invaluable) has just published a long post detailing the terrible ripple effects that the Borders Books closing will have on authors and publishers in the third quarter. Here's just a snippet:
...The remaining stores, all 399 of them, and the remaining employees, 10,700 of them, will be gone by September.... The main financial squeeze that Borders will cause to the publishers on already delivered material has already happened.... But the bigger problem with Borders’ liquidation is upcoming....

The problem is the decreased shelf space. Think it through, my reading friends. Suddenly 399 bookstores are vanishing, with no replacement in sight.... Here’s the problem beautifully stated on Twitter by Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist: “Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you’re an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don’t have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of the 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K.”

I found this quote in a good analysis piece on NPR’s book blog. As Rachel Syme, the author of the blog, added, “Granted the reduced print runs for books doesn’t mean fewer books will sell, but Borders closing does have a huge effect on how many physical copies will be out in the world.... There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go. The most logical thing to do is to stop printing them”....

...Those things, however, would be a blip on the publishing radar if it weren’t for something that is happening this month that most people in traditional publishing don’t even know about.

Barnes & Noble issued an order from its corporate headquarters that it wants its stores to once again decrease the number of paper books the stores are going to carry.... What this means is that in the third quarter, just as traditional publishers are absorbing and dealing with the last of the Borders blow from the winter, they will get hit with a massive number of returns from Barnes & Noble.

Add to this the ailing economy, and the confluence of these events means that the third and fourth quarters are likely to be disastrous for traditional publishers and their authors. They rely heavily on chain bookstores as their main public showcases. But a huge portion of the shelf space for books in those stores will vanish, almost overnight -- right in the middle of the economy's non-recovery.

As always, read the whole thing as Rusch -- one of the best-informed people in the book business -- looks ahead at the far-reaching implications and consequences for all of us who have an interest in the printed word.


Hannah Shaw said...

I am worried about the future of authors in general. I am pretty upset about the whole situation. There is something magical, inspiring and empowering to physically hold a book in your hands. I don't like what the future holds, it is sad and terribly frustrating.

Robert Bidinotto said...

Hi, Hannah,

I think that physical books will continue, and that "print on demand" (POD) technology will be their salvation.

It makes little economic sense to continue the current publishing model, i.e., guess how many books will sell, print thousands of them in advance, then get stuck with a bunch of "returns" that must be either remaindered or pulped. This is the result of the need to fill bookstore shelves with books for browsing customers. But as bookstores decline in numbers and shelf space, there's far less need to fill shelves with books that won't sell.

Instead, a far better business model is to advertise the book, but then print only sufficient copies to fill current orders, that is, "print on demand." This lowers costs dramatically, while supplying print books that many customers continue to want.

So, don't be discouraged that print books will disappear. POD may even allow many out-of-print titles to have a new lease on life.

Ernest said...

"So, don't be discouraged that print books will disappear. POD may even allow many out-of-print titles to have a new lease on life."

I can avow that for a fact. The bookstore I work at has an Espresso Book Machine (TM) and I have been able to get out-of-print titles like M.D. Post's Randolph Mason series printed out for myself, in addition to having obscure monographs printed out for scholars and self-published books for aspiring writers printed up.

As a believer in economic liberty, it has been somewhat hard to face being the buggy-whip manufacturer.