Business decisions made by Borders hurt more than readers

Borders Closing

I’d like to draw your attention to an analysis of what did in Borders—yes, yet another analysis. However, this article titled “Readers Without Borders” (with a better page title of “Borders bankruptcy: Done in by its own stupidity, not the Internet”) by Annie Lowrey provides translations of all the industry business-eze and buzzwords mouthed by Borders and industry analysts.

I’d like to add my own perspective and experiences. My first point is the obvious: we should remember industry analysts work with the benefit of hindsight. These decisions might not have seemed so stupid if certain events hadn’t happened or conditions hadn’t changed so swiftly. Second, the article doesn’t mention the kiosk experiment that Borders tried around 2009—the experiment where they independently decided to try a new model of bookselling, where they would have kiosks for ordering books in their store and reduce their stock. This is a decision that hurt more than readers; this sunk authors as well.

  • The kiosk model didn’t fit the way publishers used orders to calculate demand, because they calculated it via orders. I didn’t understand the impact until I went around to sign stock on the day Vigilante (Book #2 of The Major Ariane Kedros Novels) was put on the shelves (October 2009). CO Springs had two Borders. The first store had sold a minimum of twelve copies of Peacekeeper (Book #1), verified by purchasing friends. How many copies of Vigilante had they ordered? One. They were not ordering to net sales of the previous book—which is what my publisher expected. When I went across to the Barnes & Noble, I started signing the ten copies on the shelf and they obligingly wheeled 30 more copies out from the back. They had “ordered to net,” meaning they’d ordered according to past sales. Authors may grumble about ordering to net, but the kiosk method enacted by Borders was worse. It caused horrible dips in orders around the 2008 to 2011 period, resulting in new authors and new series getting cancelled by their publishers—who could only understand this drop in orders according to their sales models. To them, a drop in orders meant a drop in readership.
  • This model also changed the way Borders staff members sold books. In that first Borders, when I found an employee to ask about signing the paperback (a nicety so I don’t get arrested for defacing stock), I found someone who understood the sales of burgers (you want fries with that?) much more than books. First, he kept pushing me toward the kiosk to order copies of Vigilante—until I said, for the third time, that I was the author and I wanted to sign the stock. He was aghast until I explained that authors often signed stock, that signed stock sold better, and that paperbacks could still be “returned” to the publisher even if signed. Still, he had to get permission from his manager and he didn’t know where there were stickers. He promised he’d get to putting a sticker on it later, while he put it back on the bookshelf and waved me away (pesky author! why is she bothering me?) Now I understood why this Borders looked so deserted of customers, as well as books.
  • The kiosk model was integral to rearranging the physical store, which happened to specific Borders stores. The second Borders I went to on that fateful day was in the south part of CO Springs. I hadn’t been there since I’d signed Peacekeeper stock. I walked in and was confused: where were the books? I actually walked outside again and looked up at the sign—yes, I’d walked into a Borders. Previously, one walked into an obvious bookstore with shelves of books right past the line of cash registers. Now, there were racks and racks of merchandise ranging from candy, to stuffed animals, to calendars (ah! at least there were paper products here!) I finally found a “Popular Fiction” section at the back corner of the store, where it was tastefully hidden. It had half-height shelving in a square around some beanbags and chairs. The shorter shelving meant less books. Waaaay less books. Their entire fiction section could have fit inside one bookcase of the Barnes & Noble SF/Fantasy section. Heck, their entire fiction section could have fit in my basement; I had at least 5 times that amount of books in my collection. Scary. I found one copy of Vigilante, but a harried employee pushed me toward the kiosk to order more. Then I had to explain I was the author… and I went through the wringer again.

The article does mention Title Sleuth, “the innovative self-help computer stations in Borders stores,” which I think is probably the proper name for the kiosk, but there’s no mention of how this kiosk model changed their ordering and stocking procedures. Borders hoped that customers would look at a title (as an example), then order a copy of the book to be sent to their house. And, Borders did have some justification for trying this model, because people were buying less books in their stores (also, less people were buying books).

For example, I did a multi-author signing at the busy Borders in Denver’s Park Meadow Mall during the 2010 Christmas season. This Borders had not been physically changed; it still had quite a few books. The store was packed with customers and there were long lines for the cash registers. Our signing table was next to the cash register line and since customers were avoiding us authors, it seemed, I spend time observing what people were buying. Then I started counting: for every customer who bought a book, any book, there were 10 customers buying only non-book merchandise.

But… Borders lost sight of one thing. They were, foremost, a bookseller. Customers expect booksellers to have books on their shelves, so they can roam and look at spines. This allows for that random glimpse of a magical spine in a section you rarely visit. It lets you open up a book you’d never think of searching for, a book that would never come up under Amazon’s “customers who bought this book also bought…” list. And it lets you buy that book and take it home. Customers expect to walk out of booksellers with books. Sorry, Borders, but you went astray in more ways than one.

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