I feel there has never been so much written about this subject as this week, when independently, Borders in the US and Borders/Angus & Robertson in Australia went into receivership.
People are wailing. OMG, the publishing industry is dying! OMG, the evil internet! John Birmingham has much to say about it here.
Truth is, in Australia at least, the writing was on the wall for quite some time. In the 90’s I used to love visiting the famous basement flagship Angus & Roberston store in Pitt Street mall. They used to have lots of interesting stuff. I often write in a book where and when I bought it, and even now I come across some real gems I bought back then. It’s been a long time since any Angus & Roberston store carried anywhere near that kind of variation in stock.
When I published non-fiction, I tried to get my book into local A & R stores, only to be told to deal with some nebulous headquarters who didn’t deal with small publishers. As a result, their material was cookie-cutter, bland stuff. I did eventually sell some material to individual A & R stores, but only on order, and they were often stores in small towns which were probably the only bookshop in town.
My experience with Borders is similar. Once I got over the OMG-what-is-that-yank-place-doing-over-here sentiment, and Borders opened a huge shopfront in Chatswood, where there were some bookshops, but none I found outstanding, I discovered that they had an amazing range of SFF. The change came last Christmas, I think, when I received a Borders book voucher and wanted to buy a newly published fantasy book by an Australian author, published in Australia. They didn’t have it. I asked the assistant, who told me that none of their stores in Australia had ordered a copy. I was flabbergasted. What? A major bookshop chain orders no copies of an Australian author with decent sales, published by a major Australian publisher? Something has to be wrong there.
On the publishing front, Borders was also hard to deal with. All their orders go through a central point, take ages to be processed, and ages to be paid. I did sell books to Borders (and had the satisfaction of seeing my books there) but the number of hoops I had to jump were incredible.
One thing I think both Borders and A & R failed to realise was that readers value diversity and choice. It is not possible to run a successful bookshop with only the bestsellers. If readers come into the store and don’t find what they want, they will vote with their feet, or more accurately, their mouses. Books are a product that is exquisitely suited to internet selling, more so than any product on the planet. A book doesn’t need to be tried on. It’s not extremely heavy. When you know what the book is about, you don’t need to physically see it. Readers will gravitate towards those places that can offer the most choice, and have the best percentage of being able to deliver the book a reader wants.
The internet does that. There is no way a bookshop is going to be able to compete. The cat is out of the bag. It won’t go back in.
What does this all mean for publishing? Nothing, really. Books are still being published, and people still want them. They method of delivery will change. ‘That’s all’.