Are you wondering why Borders are on their knees and slipping into receivership? The answer is very simple; their books are too bloody expensive. Any discerning book buyer has been steering clear of them for a while. I even reached the point that I was going to tell family and friends not to give me Borders gift vouchers anymore because they just weren’t worth it. What might cover one and a half books at Borders would get me more like two or three at any other book store. In a world where you can track down anything you want on the net and get it cheaper than from a local shop, jacking up prices was a very dumb idea.
The stench of a dying business has been discernible for some time. At my local Borders the first thing to go was the music section. Then my favourite weird, fringe-book section disappeared. Then more and more tables appeared with froufrou collectibles, knick-knacks and other assorted crap. It stopped feeling like a bookshop and became more like a high end variety shop. It became more apparent that this chain was not run by book lovers but people obsessed by shifting ‘units’. Books as commodities, not sources of knowledge and entertainment. Few of the perky young sales staff seemed to really know anything about books. If it wasn’t in the database they didn’t have a clue. All of which is a guaranteed turn-off for genuine book lovers.
I know this sounds stupidly romantic and sentimental and that booksellers and publishers have to make hard, practical decisions in an increasingly difficult marketplace, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there is still a place for good bookshops. Shrinking your stock down to guaranteed mass market crowd pleasers, movie tie-ins and Top 100 titles and then churning through them quickly because some marketing genius has decided that books have a shelf life only marginally longer than fruit is completely counter-productive. You’re just sending more people to the net to find what they want.
It’s fashionable to think that bookshops and books themselves are a dying art form, doomed to fade away in an e-book, digital media tidal wave, but that’s a load of nonsense. No media has ever killed another media and books will never die. However convenient and useful computer technology is for transferring loads of information, people will still want to grab a reassuring physical object from their bookshelf and be able to flick through it at random. The feel, touch and smell of books will always be more seductive than data on a screen. Besides, computers are still so stupid and susceptible to crashing or mangling files ( I almost lost a complete draft of a book once when my computer had a nervous breakdown) so why on earth would I entrust my personal library to such a machine?
The irony in all this is that computer technology is about to rescue books from the dustbin of history and drag them into the twenty-first century. The technology is quite literally just around the corner. It’s called print-on-demand. It’s basically a machine that can print, bind and spit out any book in its database in about an hour. It’s still a bit slow and clunky but like all technology it’s going to get faster, smaller and cheaper. It will bring the world of books up to speed with the modern world and make it more compatible with the internet. Instead of a six to twelve month turnaround from manuscript to finished book, you’ll be able to upload a manuscript to the computer system and make it instantly accessible anywhere in the world. Books will be able to become viral. A machine like that in every bookshop will free the publishing industry from expensive overheads like industrial printing, having to determine the size of a print run and having to physically box and ship books all over the country. Not only should it be a whole lot cheaper, but with a bit of luck, we as consumers will also be able to nominate the size, format and print size of the books we want. Being able to break down huge books into a more manageable number of volumes and with larger print will be a godsend to many older and disabled readers. So my advice to Borders and all the other booksellers and publishers worried about their future would be this: get together and throw some money at the development of print-on-demand machines. It will transform all your old-fashioned business models, guarantee your future profitability and make your readers very, very happy.