Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book Marketing Opportunity Rises From The Ashes Of Borders Closings

Prized treasures are being looted. Change is in the air. A new order is coming. What was will be no longer. Egypt? Libya? Certainly there is a life and death sea of change going on in the Middle East, but there is another kind of revolution sweeping across the land. The survival of the book and how it will be found and experienced has taken a new, significant turn with the recent closing of hundreds of Borders bookstore outlets. It may be up to the marketers and publicists to save the book world.

When Amazon started selling books online we knew that one day the physical bookstore would come under assault. The process has now been accelerated. Books are not being printed in the quantities they used to be.  A bigger percentage of all book sales—whether it’s an ebook or paper book –is drifting away from physical stores. 

Borders ran itself into the ground with one failed move after another. Further, other factors conspired against them. Blame it on the recession, technology, or the inevitable cycles of change, but whatever is driving this, it’s not like Borders goes under and someone else opens a bookstore. That won’t happen. Barnes and Noble already said they would likely open stores in no more than 10% of the Borders graveyards. Maybe a few independent stores will sprout up or at least the existing ones can buy themselves a little more life. Certainly the non-traditional stores – Target, Costco, K-mart – will bump sales up a little and certainly some would-be book sales will go to amazon and ebook vendors. but some sales will be lost.  Others took a loss when Borders collapsed – landlords on rent, government in taxes, store workers in jobs, printers, shipping companies…etc. But the biggest loser is the neighborhood.

On President’s Day I wandered into my local Borders outlet, as I have done for so many years. The store was located in a wealthy, educated neighborhood that should be able to support it – Scarsdale, New York. There are many book buyers in the area. I came from 10 minutes away, as I live in New Rochelle. Surprisingly, this is one of the several hundred stores that were closing as a result of a bankruptcy filing. I am guessing the real estate is more valuable to the creditors. There isn’t another chain bookstore for miles.

I was dismayed to see signs greeting me everywhere I looked, each screaming of a liquidation discount.  I paused and did a 360 and tried to drink up the moment. I realized I was witnessing a pivotal time in our society’s history – the end of an era.

There have been all kinds of signs this day would come. The ipad’s successful launch last year was significant. So was Kindle’s a few years prior to that.  Like the movie, Terminator, judgment day was coming but I always thought it could be averted. In the film, the battle between technology and humankind was predicted to be won by the machines.  I can see why. The bookstore is being folded up into an electronic tablet that can be taken anywhere.

At the same time Borders crumbled and filed for bankruptcy, Jeopardy was crowning a computer as its champ.  Technology, though it can enhance our lives greatly and provide many benefits, is also contributing to massive changes in book publishing that are impacting so many areas: how books are created, sold, and read. It is also impacting real estate, jobs, and what I think is the biggest issue of all: community. As the mighty bookstore disappears, with it vanishes one of our great modern-day cultural centers. I don’t believe we can replace this with a smart phone.

As I walk down the aisles of the store, it looks picked over the way stores look during the height of Christmas season. The lines to purchase discounted items were long. You wonder why they are going under if they are so busy, but this was an aberration. If they were profitable we wouldn’t be discussing this. Books were on the floor and out of place. Each book came to symbolize a brick that no longer holds the building together. Each book was like a junk bond making up the debt load that was crushing the chain. And each book symbolized a mind and a soul that will soon not be connected to the books we need to grow our lives. 

The superstore bookstore has become a fixture in neighborhoods across the country over the past several decades. It is the epicenter, bringing people of all ages and walks of life together. The stores provide a safe haven for the curious, the seeking, the thinking. Beyond bookstores and Starbucks, our gathering place is increasingly moving to the online world

I lament the loss we are now experiencing and will continue to experience. Just being around the books and magazines in a store make you feel you could see the world, for at your finger tips are books covering every topic imaginable or novels that could create whole new worlds. They collectively provided a physical feeling, giving a home to facts, figures, ideas, questions, fantasies, and experiences. If each book spoke, you would hear a crowd roar more deafening than at a concert.

Stores take a highly individual experience – reading – and turn it into a group-supported activity. There is no place I feel safer in and more welcomed in than a bookstore. It is my home, my place to spend hours in. It provides a comfortable, inspiring environment in which I learn and write. Perhaps I am being overdramatic here. After all, books will still exist and people will still read, but I can’t help but feel that something big is being lost here. It’s not just something is different; something is less than before.

The bookstore is a sanctuary, even more so than a library. Libraries are stodgy and old and small. They look like nursing homes for books. Never try to hold a conversation in a library and don’t expect to buy coffee there. In a bookstore,  I can digest the nutrients of life with so many new books and magazines and scores of people seeking out knowledge.

Several decades ago many people lamented that superstore chains were dominating the book market and that mom and pop stores would be destroyed. Readers, as a result would suffer high prices and the corporatization of books. I thought, at the time, that this was a natural evolution or progression taking place, and that we should go with it rather than fight it. We had no choice, as consumers, anyway.  If an independent was to survive then the principles of capitalism would need to rule – the little stores would need to do things faster, cheaper, better, more innovatively.  Otherwise they would perish and it was meant to be that way. Superstores offer distinct advantages – places to congregate, greater title selection, more copies of each title, and a cafĂ©. They offer big discounts, many author  presentations, and helpful staff to recommend books.  What was bad about any of that?

With every Kindle or Nook sale the process to close stores is accelerated. I can understand the ebook appeal:  The e-device weighs less than a bunch of books; you can alter the font size to match your eyesight, you save trees, and e-books cost less. You have a virtual, mobile library in your hands, 24/7. But I also favor the physical book. You can touch it. Its colorful, textured cover and book jacket copy are a part of the reading experience. People can see what I am reading. The words have weight to them.  I can flip through a book to find information. I can see my progress with a bookmark. I can share it with someone else and not worry it will disappear from a screen.

I welcome a dual world, where the physical book and bookstore remain with us, while at the same time the convenient option to download books is available too. The physical-only world is gone, but let’s not swing all the way to a digital-only book world.

Bookstores are the people’s campuses. They bring us together in a unique, self-selecting way. Borders may be coming down, but let’s not tear apart the community with it. Long live the bookstore and the physical book…this should be our battle cry.

The world is shrinking physically, expanding digitally. The chains nearly killed the independents. Amazon is killing the bookstore...and e-books could kill traditional, big-house publishers. There is no lack of information out there...but we lack showcases (storefronts) and trained professionals to recommend books. The world will become a little less literate while it ends up reading more.

So, aside from the cultural and economic devastation bookstore closings leave us with, they leave today’s author to act as marketer, publicist, and advertiser. Even before the fall of the bookstore, self-published authors knew the secret: they have to be marketers to survive. And now all authors, whether published by a major New York house or published by Author Solutions as a print on demand book, must rely on beyond-the-store marketing.

And that is what this new blog will address: How to level the playing field and seek out opportunities to establish yourself in a marketplace that has ballooned with competition. As someone who has been promoting and marketing books for over 20 years, I will bring what I hope you find to be an authoritative but personable voice. I seek a new community, a place perhaps that exists mainly in my mind, but also one that exists in the way we connect with each other. As the bookstores shutter and shackle themselves, may this blog open a door to the digital dimension that I both am coming to love and loath. Together, we can shape our new society, a post-bookstore one.

What does this all mean for book marketing? It means book marketers are invaluable. More than ever, if a book is to sell and authors are to grow their writing careers and seek to convert book fame into other riches or consulting jobs, authors will need to hire a marketing pro to get the word out there. And this is where I come in and why this blog is being born.  I have seen many changes in the publishing industry but regardless of any change, it’s been a constant that one must seize hold of their book and take responsibility for its survival. You can’t depend on a bookstore to sell your book or a publisher to market it or any one thing to generate a ton of sales. You will need to do a number of things and get help in the process. 

As the book landscape continues to mature, you should alter your approach to marketing and promoting books beyond bookstores.  For now, a moment of silence for the expanding book cemetery, formerly known as Borders.

*** Brian Feinblum can be reached at brianfeinblum@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @theprexpert.

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