I’ve always liked traveling into the state of Michigan. I like the people, the cities and I like the area. Last Monday, I packed up some gear and left the office for a quick trip into the Detroit Metro area. I called on some small secondary wholesalers that are managing to sell a fair number of magazines in that market. From there I went on to my annual meeting with Borders to discuss their magazine programs for the coming year.
Just before I put some away messages on my email accounts, I checked out some industry news and came away with the odd update that one of Borders main backers was putting up an offer to purchase the embattled Barnes & Noble chain . I say odd because of the two troubled chains, Borders is certainly in more precarious shape.
Several other articles pointed out that the consolidation of Barnes and Noble and Borders could be a good thing. The reasons given were typical to the business pages of any national newspaper or business magazine: Removal of inefficiencies, consolidation of offices and purchasing, closing stores that were too close to each other, leveraging market share. The market can no longer support two national bookstore chains. That sort of thing. You could fill in the blanks for any other series of national chain store competitors.
Among the “crowd” that gets a lot of press crowing about the demise of paper books, magazines, bookstores and newsstands, and the death of the “middleman” – in this case the bookstore, consider for a moment, the unintended consequences of the closing of Borders on our industry and readers in general:
1) Borders employs approximately 16,000 people. These people live in our neighborhoods pay rent, mortgages, car payments, eat at restaurants shop at other national and local retailers, run for local offices, volunteer at schools, churches and other service organizations.
If they don’t have paychecks…
2) Bookstores have long been a traditional “leg” for distribution of single copies. And a pretty solid one at that. For most magazines Borders is the number two chain in that category. For many titles, it is the number two or three chain in terms of overall sales. That sort of volume is difficult, if not impossible to replace. For smaller, independent publishers (and some big ones too), the loss of Borders will be devastating.
3) I’ve always looked at bookstores (and libraries for that matter) as our first line of defense for the first amendment. It’s a place where free speech makes sense because people go into bookstores to get things to read. Bookstores, by nature, are very oriented towards serving their customers. You could make the case, and I think it would be valid, that part of Borders problems in the last few years (aside from some incredibly classic bad management by some former CEO’s) was that they stopped listening to their customers and listened too much to the accounting department.
If we loose our physical bookstores, and nothing takes their place (and that’s my chief concern), then we loose a meeting place, a place where the threshold of entry, at least for magazines, becomes more difficult.
Here’s another example: Where do you go to get foreign magazines? How many newsstands are near your home anymore? None, right? Now chances are there’s a B&N or Borders nearby. What happens to those magazines when Borders closes? Sure there’s Google and virtual and tablet versions. I like digital editions. I read a lot both online and through my smart phone. I’ve got several e-reader packages downloaded and I’ve used them. But they’re not real. I really don’t own them. The device is still in my way. Maybe the next generation will be a little less cumbersome.
In her blog post on December 10, consultant Linda Ruth points to some of the things that Borders is doing to stay afloat, and those were reiterated to me during my recent meeting with Borders. More importantly, to me, Ruth also noted that the chain is a pleasure to work with. She’s right. In an industry that is fraught with cross purposes, and counter purposes, I’d personally hate like heck to lose the ability to have a pleasant phone or email exchange with a colleague who’s primary interest is in marketing and selling and getting things done.
So for a change, let’s stow the snark. Yeah, it’s cool to talk about dead trees and saving the world from evil publishers and, my heavens, get me the fainting couch, look at all that horrid magazine waste. But there’s 16,000 people out there and a host of people who do business with those 16,000 people who might feel otherwise.