Wither Borders: The Elegy

Editors Note: This post was originally intended for Tuesday morning. However, as so often happens, other events bumped up against the best of intentions and I had a brief, unexpected meeting with mortality. Fortunately, mortality is on hold and I’ll be fine – so long as I stay out of the heat. Please enjoy this delayed post. Thank you,

In other circumstances, the final moments of an iconic retailer could seem shocking, surprising, unprecedented. Unfortunately none of that applies to the final moments of the Borders chain. Anyone who has paid attention to the publishing industry in the past few years could not have failed to see at least one headline announcing the contortions this chain went through to escape their fate. If you spend anytime at all at any of the numerous financial web sites like Motley Fool or The Street, they’ve been announcing Borders imminent demise for what seems like years.

What is both sad and reassuring about this latest chapter in the story of the birth of the digital age (to steal a phrase, thank you), is how human it is. Personally the thought that 10,000 people are about to lose their jobs, perhaps their careers, their homes and life savings is beyond tragic. I see red when I think about that. “Someone needs to pay for this mess up!” is my thought.

And of course, the people on the line at the bookstores, the people on the line in Ann Arbor: the buyers, merchandise managers, analysts and web developers will suffer. The CEO Mike Edwards will be fine. American industry is chock full of stories about failed CEO’s picking up the pieces and getting back into the swing of things in another company. And we all seem to accept that with a cynical shrug of the shoulders.

The story of Borders is familiar. But it’s not really the story of the dawning of a new era. It’s just another story of the end result of hubris.

There’s no need to rehash that here. The Borders saga is well documented all over the web. This is the story of how a small regional chain grew into an international chain. All of the opportunities missed. All of the attention spent on the stock price at the expense of the development of web. All of the money wasted on long term leases and huge, 35,000 square foot retail footprints. Could anyone have seen this coming? In hindsight, of course. But I remember walking into the Ann Arbor office at the dawn of the last decade and being thoroughly convinced that these folks were wrapped up tight and on their way to publishing nirvana.

If you really want to see how the people on the line feel, spend some time at the Live Journal employees site: I Work at Borders.

Hindsight is only useful if you can go back in time. You can’t. 

I saw an interesting message on Twitter yesterday. A book consultant was of the opinion that the final closing of the  stores, while sad for the remaining employees will make for a healthier marketplace. From the perspective of a magazine consultant, I see a lot of magazine publishers, a magazine wholesaler, several national distributors, and a lot of people about to get hurt by this. It’s called a ripple effect. My guess is it’s the same in the book industry. Can we replace these closed stores? No. More business for Amazon and Apple. Does anyone really believe a free or cheap e-reading nirvana is on the way? At the moment, Flipboard is free. For how long? Do you really believe that any of the other startups will remain free? Do you truly believe that any mildly interesting writer with a lot of time on his or her hands to self promote is on their way to a six figure income? Well, OK. I’d like to be convinced. So far, I’m not. But I’d like to be.

The only thing this may do for the magazine distribution industry is nudge it that much closer to finally coming to terms with the need for a new way to do business. What concerns me about that is the fact that the solution may be worse than the current illness. That’s because the people who will make those decisions will be the people who put us into this jackpot in the first place.

That’s how it goes.

There are people in the publishing industry who really do want to avoid the digital age. I am not one of them. But I am also not blinded by the coolness of  a Kindle nor dazzled by the iPad. They’re handy. They are cool and they are dazzling. But they’re gadgets. I like reading. I like the digital feel and I happen to agree with e-book consultant and proselytizer Mike Cane that the internet always wins. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

One last thought: There is a theory in vogue in this country that the government can not do anything right. That it fails at everything. That the people who lead it are useless. That private industry is superior.

Well…..For your consideration:

Borders – Blockbuster – Washington Mutual – Global Crossing – Enron  -The US Auto industry until recently (like after the government bailed two of the three actors out) – British Petroleum – the shrinking of Sears – the shrinking of Kmart – the current troubles of Wal-Mart – the current troubles of Barnes & Noble.

And in my industry alone:

Anderson News – Unimag – Select Magazines – and I will spare you the rest of our dirty underwear (You’ll thank me for this.)

Shall I go on?

People are flawed. They can be brilliant. Or muddle through. Or be fantastically incompetent. It doesn’t matter where they work. Let’s not be such ideologues. Let’s get to work, keep flying. And remember to have heart.

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