Wither Borders, Part II

Sometime in the next 12 to 48 hours, Borders Bookstores is expected to enter some form of bankruptcy protection. Conventional wisdom says that 200 or more stores will close. It’s possible that even more employees from their Ann Arbor corporate headquarters will lose their jobs.

You can read some reasonably well written stories here:

From the LA Times

From MSNBC

From Reuters

From The Christian Science Monitor

From Wikipedia, here\’s a history of Borders Group

I predict that we will see that more articles and a fair number of cable TV news analysts blaming the fall of this chain on the shift of the public’s reading habit and the inevitable rise of digital books and magazines.

That’s certainly one of many, many reasons for this company’s run of bad luck.

It doesn’t take much to predict that most of the coverage may either neglect, or give very cursory coverage to the spectacularly bad management that the employees of Borders were saddled with over the past ten to fifteen years. Nor will they cover the nuclear fall out that could hit the book and magazine publishing and distribution industries from the bankruptcy and the loss of retail outlets. Especially if the chain eventually shuts completely down.

It’s very easy to glibly tweet away that book publishers and sellers and their employees are “dinosaurs”. Or they’re going the way the record store. It’s fun to write emails and blog posts about the extinction of the “middle man” who’s ripping off the consumer. Especially when you get your facts wrong. But that’s only if you don’t know the people who were just laid off. And only if you don’t know that many of those now unemployed people were quite good at what they did. And only if you don’t think about how a store closure can have a ripple effect throughout the community that it services.

Contemporary business practices make a big deal about “accountability”. In my last corporate job, we had a shift in management a year before my exit and in my preliminary discussions with the new senior executives at that first meeting, I heard that word tossed my way at least twenty times in the first hour.

We were gone a year later. Six months after that, the new “accountable” managers were gone. We’re working. They’re not. Schadenfreude? No, thank you. I’m full, and it’s not healthy for the psyche.

Accountability.

We know that that when former CEO George Jones walked away from Borders, he took $2 million with him. What could have been with that $2 million instead of paying off a failed CEO? Their next CEO could have had book selling and marketing experience. But instead, he was Ron Marshall. A year after he was hired, Ron Marshall exited the executive suite in Ann Arbor and walked into a job as the CEO at A&P.

Aficionados of  Schadenfreude can take a certain pleasure in the fact that Mr. Marshall was dismissed from A&P’s top job after six months.

My point in all of this is that it is easy to be glib and dismissive. It’s easy to snap your fingers and exclaim “This is what it all means!” But what it all means depends on where you stand, what your perspective is, and how close you really are to the event.

I’m painfully aware that I am very close to what is going on in today’s publishing business. Stepping back occasionally is an important part of the day. Not today, I think.

If you’re convinced that the end result of what will happen this week is an era of massively cheap downloadable books and magazines that are easy to work with, will never blow up into billions of tiny little bytes of unrecognizable data, that big corporate conglomerates won’t do their level best to track every single thing you download and then sell you stuff you didn’t know you wanted, that they won’t try to lock you contractually into their and only their way of reading, that everyone will have the same standards, that “devices” won’t have precedence over the actual reading material, that you’re cool new device won’t look like and work like junk six months after you buy it, that you’ll be in a nirvana of easily passed along reading material amongst you and all your friends… well, OK.

I’ll put myself in your shoes if you put yourself in mine.

And, while you’re enjoying your poorly researched articles that confirm today’s fresh snark, maybe you could take a few minutes to put yourself in the shoes of these +16,000 people.

Just a suggestion.

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