Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Survival Of The Book Is Our Survival

There once was an amazing place that had existed for centuries.  Inside of it one could get lost in countless worlds, where alternate universes existed in one’s hands.  The history of life, as we know it, could be found there. It was like a theater, museum, and dreamland all rolled into one.  It was a place that could be found in every neighborhood of the country. 

It was a special temple, for the aged and the young, for the rich and the poor, for people of all sexes, faiths, creeds, colors, and nationalities.  Whatever one’s political bent, social hierarchy, family status, or any other statistical divider was not relevant here.  All were welcome to this fantastic home for ideas, information, facts, theories, stories, photos, illustrations, and fantasized events.  It was the local bookstore, the backbone of our society. 

Sometime in the not-so-distant future we will call upon a reflection to the bookstore of today.  Society will lament its passing but will have moved on.  A new generation will come to be and it will place little significance or even an understanding of what the bookstore was or could have been. It’ll be a thing of the past.  I’m all for the natural evolution of things, of society, of my own life, but something seems wrong in a world without bookstores.

I’ve always liked books, really, ever since I have any memories of anything.  I recall my mom reading to me and with me – Dr. Seuss, Curious George, and a bunch of Golden Books.  I remember my dad’s book case, filled with books that seemed to be filled with more words than I’d ever get to speak in my life.  And I remember walking into stores that sold books, looking at the covers and imagining the stories behind them.

In school, I learned the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for homework.  For many years I read Monarch or Cliff Notes, rather than the assigned books. Although I think it’s a great idea to expose our youth to classics (however one defines that), too many books were really beyond what a 13 or 14-year-old can understand and appreciate.

Books can give us so much.  They can show us possibilities and exercise our values, our emotions, and our intellect by posing new worlds to us.  In the world of fiction exists limitless dimensions.  Our fiction can entertain us, but it can also engage us in a way that compensates for what our lives lack. For where the world falls short, for where reality needs to be contested and recreated, there is fiction.

I don’t believe books will disappear, but they will change.  When bookstores go missing I believe our reading habits will change and the way books are experienced will change.  Communities will change.  Bookstores offer a unifying presence, a physical home to people who enjoy and value reading.  What will replace the book store?

If the bookstore exists it means we’ll still have paper books, author presentations, and trained staff to make recommendations or assist in reading choices.  Literacy won’t be run by computers and algorithms and sales formulas – it’ll be led by people and the human touch.

The battle for the book store is the battle for society itself. Bookstores are the intellectual highways, delivering nutrients to towns across the world.  I don’t want my entire life to be ruled by and filtered though a hand-held device.  The advance of technology is not the advance of humanity.  The robots are winning and seizing control of our minds, our jobs, our pocketbooks.  I don’t want a tech-less world but I want order restored.  Humans first, nature second, technology third.  Technology should assist, not consume us.

We must do everything possible to support bookstores and the thriving community they create and serve.  Without them we are just a bunch of soul-less computers linked together but not really united.

Interview With Former Borders Senior Buyer Susan Aikens
This interview was conducted on her last day with Borders.  Below are her insightful answers to my questions.   

1.      Susan, You have two decades of experience in retail publishing. What will you do once your stint as a senior buyer for Borders concludes? I'm one of about 10,700 Borders employees who are losing their jobs in the next few weeks.  Each of us will be evaluating what comes after Borders.  This is a very personal question that each individual & family will have to answer based on their own situation & needs. 

2.      Where is the book market heading? Borders represented about 10% of the total kids market & that business has evaporated. The next few quarters will be impacted by Borders liquidating $700 million in inventory.  Shoppers will be glutted with books; I expect that Q3 & Q4 sales will suffer everywhere. Publishers are losing another 400 outlets for their products so fewer readers will see their books.   Amazon will probably pick up pre-order & e-book business for big name authors like Riordan & Jeff Kinney & in YA where teens have adapted to e-reading, but the backlist, new authors, & midlist will suffer.  Amazon & mass retailers aren't very good at "making" a new book, series or author.  They are better at capitalizing on existing trends.  When Abrams published the first Jeff Kinney book, Borders took a big stand on it. I bought 5000 copies out of the 15k initial print run.  Eventually, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid" won the Borders Original Voices award.  We owned about 60-70% of the market share for the first book.  We did almost as well with the 2nd book. It wasn't until the 3rd book came out that Amazon & mass retailers started to gain share. I bought about 270k copies of the 5th book.   I've seen kids & parents shopping Borders stores, using Borders booksellers to recommend titles,  & then writing down the ISBN so they can buy the books on Amazon. 

3.      What do you love about being part of book publishing?  I've always felt part of a noble enterprise by putting good books into the hands of as many kids as possible.  This is more than just a job to me & to the other Borders kids book buyers.  We all loved knowing what was being published & having an impact on the final product.  I am often consulted by publishers on the cover, price, format & content of new books.  Even after all these years, I still got excited on Monday morning when I checked the weekend sales.  Having a big title sell better than I expected was utterly thrilling.  I was the buyer for the last 2 Harry Potter books.  When Harry Potter 7 released, I attended the midnight release party at my local store in Arborland Mall. I was there until 2:30am.  I remember sitting on the curb outside that store waiting for my ride & watching about a dozen pre-teens, in full Gryffindor regalia, try to read their copies by the lights in the parking lot as they waited for their parents. That has to be the proudest moment of my entire career. 

4.      Your specialty was the genre of children's books. What did you look for when deciding which books to order for Borders? I bought fiction for ages 6-teen & non-fiction.  Kids books need good stories or content & compelling characters; they aren't just dumbed-down adult books.  I look for kid appeal. Kids are smart; they won't wait 200 pages for the story to take off & they judge EVERY book by its cover.   

There are several basic questions that I ask myself when assessing a book –

1. Who is the audience? What age is this title intended for & is its appeal more suited for boys, girls, or both? I hate it when publishers say the book is intended for "all ages".  No book is intended for everyone & publishers & authors have to make up their minds about who they're trying to reach.

 2. Does the author or series have a track record?  Is the genre growing or is it down-trending? Is it part of a series or a stand-alone novel?  Funny series about school like Wimpy KId & Big Nate are on the upswing, but kids historical fiction is down-trending. Buying a new Goosebumps title is very different from buying a new series or author; I had sale history on every Goosebumps title ever published. 

3.  Is the author's acclaim growing? One of the most difficult parts of being a buyer is assessing whether an author's new book will be a better seller than his/her last book.  If demand is growing, how high is high?  I bought 5k of the first Wimpy Kid book & I bought 270k of the 5th one.  Planning the sales & inventory of that volatile a series is a bit tricky.  Typically, the 3rd book in a series is the one that will make or break it.  
4. Is the format & the price appropriate for this title & for the audience?  Some books are not suited for the jacketed cloth format; they'll sell better in either a digest or paper over board format.  This is a constant struggle with publishers since they want to publish books in cloth so they garner review attention & library sales. 

5.  Is the content & reading level appropriate for the target audience? 

6.  Is interest being driven by a movie or other media?  Movies based on kids books have a HUGE impact on demand.  Even if the movie flops at the box office, the increased awareness will drive book sales.  Even though City of Ember & Guardians of Gahoole were poor box office performers, Borders sold many, many thousands of copies of the books for years after the movie released.
5.      Will Barnes and Noble survive or even expand? Whether or not BN survives is entirely up to them & how they can adapt to this new reality.  35% of the adult trade book market has moved to on-line or to e-readers.  It’s tough to fill a 20,000+ sq ft store when a huge chunk of the business is going away.  Without Borders, I don't know where I'll get my books; I haven't yet reconciled myself to shopping at BN, my major brick & mortar competitor for so many years.

What should stores do to partner more with publishers and authors?  Independent bookstores need to focus on the needs of their customer base & their communities. Book stores offer an experience that can't be duplicated on-line.  They need to be more than showrooms for Amazon. 

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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