Borders — The Inevitable?

The seemingly inevitable collapse of Borders has occurred, and according to news reports, sales of various individual stores could begin within a week. This unfortunate event, and it is unfortunate for the 11,000 employees who will lose their jobs, for the authors, the publishers, and the entire book and publishing industry, not to mention millions of readers, is the result of years of bad management, mismanagement, and, at times, apparently no real management.  And had anyone at Borders listened ten years ago, it wouldn’t have had to happen.


There are two aspects to the bookselling business that Borders repeatedly ignored, despite advice to the contrary from professionals at all levels in the field [including my comments in the past here, for all the good they did].  The first maxim applies to most retailing, and that is that to be successful, you have to expand or at least maintain sales levels at every outlet – not necessarily in every line of merchandise, but at each and every store. Sales drive success.  Period.  That also means you can’t sell what you don’t have, yet for the past five years or so, Borders has continued to reduce the range and the inventory of books carried, while expanding or maintaining non-book items [and taking a huge bath in recorded music].  For a bookseller, that’s idiocy.


Second, you have to understand your product and your customers. Yet, so far as I can determine, every CEO Borders has had over at least the past ten years has either been an accounting type or an executive from a field totally unrelated to bookselling.  At one time, according to my industry contacts, the head buyer at Borders for F&SF had been a hardware buyer specializing in hammers, with no experience in books.  By comparison, one of the most successful book publishing firms in the past generation has been Tor/Forge, which grew from a start-up to an industry giant in two decades – and it was founded and remains controlled by Tom Doherty, who began as a junior book salesman.  Although Tom is a highly literate man who can also line edit a book with the best, he understood sales… and it’s more than clear that the Borders CEOs didn’t.


Unlike almost any other commodity sold in large numbers in the industrialized world, books are unique in that each novel, even novels in a series by best-selling novelists, is different from any other novel.  The differences may range from rather minor to enormous, and the range between different books by the same author also differs greatly from author to author.  Successful booksellers know this.  Successful chain booksellers design systems that at least try to take this into account.  Borders’ systems were never as successful in this regard, and they often underbought, and then had to re-order, losing sales in the process because, simple as it sounds, they didn’t seem to understand that basic point that you can’t sell what you don’t have… or the fact that, on average for most authors, more than 50% of a new hardcover’s sales occur in something like the first eight weeks.


Borders also acquired Waldenbooks, at the time a successful and profitable mall store operation of some 1,800 outlets… and promptly began to try to run Waldenbooks on the big-box model.  When that didn’t work, they cut inventory, and did so in ways that were counter-productive.  For example, because a large percentage of mall store customers are impulse buyers, someone who enters the fiction section will generally look for the latest release by a favorite author or the first book in a series [or a stand-alone novel] if that reader doesn’t see the latest “favorite” book.  The “new” policy at Waldenbooks, forced by the accountants, was to carry the latest novel in a series and not much else, leaving the impulse buyers, particularly in romance, thrillers, and F&SF even more limited choices… and reducing sales.


Now… why should you believe my observations?  Because over the last fifteen years, I’ve physically visited almost 40% of all the B&N stores, more than 35% of the Borders stores [based on their largest number], and over 20% of the initial number of Waldenbooks.  I’ve walked the aisles and talked to the booksellers and customers… and still do… and I’d be astonished if any member of senior management at Borders has been in as many stores over as many years as I have been – and it was their business. There was essentially no difference between the store personnel in Borders stores and those in B&N stores, at least until the end, but there were enormous differences in corporate management.


It’s also fair to say that Borders was hampered from the beginning by a number of very bad policies.  First, although this changed somewhat in the last five to ten years, when it was a case of too little, too late, the initial store layouts of the Border’s stores resembled larger versions of small cozy bookstores.  That is fine for small cozy bookstores, but the larger the early Borders stores got, the harder it became to find books [and wayward children].  Then the initial Borders policy of separating hardcovers and paperbacks effectively depressed sales and irritated many readers. Borders locations were, generally, somewhat harder to find – and I know, because I was trying to find many of them with a rental car, a map, and telephone directions in city after city.


For all of that, I’ll miss Borders, and so will millions of readers, because there are all too many places in the United States where the Borders was the only bookstore with a wide selection, and the loss of such stores will become another factor chipping away at American literacy.  The loss of sales will likely cut short the careers of a number of low midlist authors whose sales were borderline, and it will certainly hurt the revenues of traditional publishers, but in the short run it will impact most all those hard-working booksellers who loved books and will now face a far grimmer economic future.




7 thoughts on “Borders — The Inevitable?”

  1. Frank says:

    The fate of Borders seems somehow tied to the fate of paper (hardcopy) books…and that is troubling. I’m over 60 years old, and I love books. I love reading, but, moreover, I love books. I don’t want a computer screen or a kindle or an I-pad to read for fun…I want a book. (And, yes, I see the irony that I’ve said that and am currently replying to an online comment, but, this is the Modesitt site, so forgive me.)

    Now, I understand that I’m somewhat of a dinosaur, and that the younger generation(s) are probably not burdened with this concern…but I think it goes a little further than my personal prejudice. As Mr. Modesitt expresses concern about the literacy of our Country relative to bookstores, I would add to this concern: “libraries.” As the budget pressures on governments mount, the libraries are at serious risk. I work for a local government and we are struggling with the idea of building new libraries and with the operating costs of our existing libraries.

    I don’t work for the library system, and am a happy consumer of various forms of media, but, historically I think that libraries are a measurement of our “civility” to a large degree. I hope that they can evolve successfully…faster than bookstores.

    1. Kathryn says:

      I’m 21 and I love nothing more than standing in front of the SF/F section in Waterstone’s (A nationwide book chain in the UK, which stocks very little Modesitt, sadly).

      We’re already losing libraries, book stores… It’s bad, here. Luckily there’s a number of discount book stores with book club and publisher clearance books (I picked up the hardcover of China Miéville’s Kraken for £3, for example), but they still haven’t got the range nor the ability to replace your standard book shop.

      I really hope that all of this won’t cause too much damage, but it feels like a false hope at the moment.

  2. G.Thomas says:

    B. Daltons, Waldenbooks, names I grew up with, and now Borders, I hate to see where it will all end up. Living in a town with a state government and two major universities we are lucky to have B&N and Books-A-Million here as well a number of small eclectic booksellers and used bookstores. Still, I hate to see the loss of any bookseller from town.

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    Once upon a time – the Waldenbooks in the Waterford CT mall had the largest SF/F selection in the state – as told to me by Hartford area employees of several bookstores including Waldenbooks, Borders, and B&N. It had also greatly expanded that section of the store at least twice in my memory (I grew up local). This was probably partially due to its proximity to the Groton Submarine Base (gee- military and SF/F – never would have guessed). AFTER the buyout – when the mall store closed and the Borders opened a few miles down the road (an inconvenience since many Submarine School students often do not own cars)the new store had drastically reduced its SF/F selection. In addition to the above mentioned practices of not selling BOOKS – a definate case of forgetting who their core customers were. And regarding the loss of bookstores in general – once you exclude the ‘adult’ stores labeled in the phone book as book stores, I can think if two used bookstores within a 20 minute drive of there – nothing else beyond the meager selections at big-box stores like walmart or at the grocery store.

  4. Bob Howard says:

    It really is depressing. We lost our local Borders in the first wave of closures, so we’ve been bereft for many months now. Our only alternative is B&N, but ours is a mall store more on the scale of a Waldenbooks and not very satisfying.

    I, too, watched the discouragingly steady decline of Borders over the years and management continued its bone-headed attempts to shift gears and adapt to trends and market factors they interpreted in exactly the wrong fashion. The only real choice we have now is to hope for quick turnover of new items at the used book stores. I do research authors and books online to find new stuff, but as one poster noted, there is no substitute for paging through a new book in person, scanning the shelves for new possibilities and really getting feel of a book before buying.

    That said, I’m also an enthusiastic Kindle user, though mostly for newspaper subscriptions, yet with a goodly selection of novels for the road, the beach, etc. I do find I’m buying lots of second copies of favorites as ebooks so I’ll have them for travelling (including most of Mr. Modesitt’s!). Some new authors offer some new novels at greatly reduced prices on Amazon for Kindle to get their foot in the door an reach more new readers. Don’t know how successful that’s been, but I know I’ve tried quite a few new authors that I may or may not have sampled at retail prices, so that side of it’s a mixed bag, I guess.

    As for the library, ours is still open, but their budget is so restricted they can hardly afford any new issues. Despite the popularity of F&SF, we seem to be on the lowest priority level for new stuff, so I’ve pretty much abandoned our local branch, except for the occasional non-fiction item of current interest they manage to buy.

  5. Rehcra says:

    I know local book stores are having a hard time but as bad as book stores are doing we shouldn’t forget its still better this way. I mean which is more irritating not having as nice a place to find a random book or not being able to find that specific book next in the series you are currently reading.

    Of Course if you don’t have any books stores around you that changes the equation completely.

    And as for libraries My local one is actually doing better with SF&F. More series actually seam complete instead of missing books. It’s nice not seeing the last 4 books in a 5 book series collecting dust on the library shelves. Although Jim Butchers Dresdon Files is still missing the first two but as much as I prefer Hard backs; I’ll probably end up just buying a couple paper backs which is a “win-win-win” for me, local book store and the author. And If I can’t find them then I can order the hard backs online.


  6. Mark Smith says:

    Based on a quick look at B & N finances I think they are in big trouble too. I personally preferred Borders to B & N, so I will miss them a lot. But I think the demise of Borders is much more do to Amazon than inept leadership. They couldn’t compete with Amazon’s price model. In my case, if I needed a technical manual, I could often get the manual at 40% off at Amazon vs. a brick and mortar store. It was no contest and at Amazon’s web site there were a lot of high quality reviews.

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