Some book-related news I’ve come across since last week’s update:
B&N — THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BOOKSTORE: We all know about the tragic demise of Borders in 2011. Readers just aren’t buying as many books from brick-and-mortar stores as they used to, Borders failed to capitalize on the growing eBook trend until it was far too late, and by all accounts, it was mismanaged. Borders’ failure obviously took a little pressure off its competitors like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million (BAM!). But fast-forward eighteen months, and it’s clear that at least Barnes & Noble isn’t doing so hot either. According to this recent news article, in 2008 B&N had 726 stores. It now has 689. In ten years, it plans to have only 450-500 stores. That’s a huge shrinkage, and frankly, I’ll be surprised if there are still 450 B&N stores around the country. (Just as an aside, BAM! has about 250 stores currently; no idea if they plan a similar downsizing.)
STEPHEN KING INTERVIEW ON HIS NEW BOOK: By now, you’ve probably already heard that King plans to release a sequel to one of his best-known and most beloved books, THE SHINING. I never thought this would happen, and am just the teensiest bit skeptical of the project — THE SHINING is one of my favorite horror novels and one of the very few books I’ve ever read that genuinely scared me — but I’m looking forward to the sequel, DOCTOR SLEEP. Here is a nice long interview that focuses on the question of why King has decided to write this sequel now, 36 years after the original.
Some book-related news I’ve come across since last week’s update:
BARNES & NOBLE ISN’T DOING SO HOT: Probably not exactly the news of the century, and frankly, it’s not a huge surprise. We all know that Borders’ collapse gave its competitors Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million some breathing room, but that’s probably not enough in the long-term. Stores that sell consumable media — like Best Buy and B&N — as well as brick-and-mortar stores that sell stuff that’s available cheaper online aren’t doing so hot these days. Apparently B&N’s Christmas sales weren’t great and its Nook business is slowly being overtaken by a combination of Kindles and iPads. Dedicated eReaders, I’ve read, are slowly but surely being squeezed out by various kinds of tablets. I only have a Kindle 3 myself, enjoy it very much, and have no plans to purchase a tablet PC any time soon, but I’m apparently in the minority. We’ll see where this goes, but expect a round of B&N store closures by next spring at the latest if this year’s sales continue their decline. Of course, all this begs the question: where exactly do people go to browse for books and discover new ones if they can’t examine store shelves full of them? This is a problem that Amazon has not yet figured out how to solve.
INTERVIEWS WITH IAIN M. BANKS: If you enjoy space opera and/or transhumanist SF, then you really should give Iain M. Banks’ Culture series a try. It’s been a long-time favorite of mine, though it does require some careful thought, as these aren’t what I typically think of as ‘easy” reads. Imagine a kind of post-scarcity interplanetary utopian society run by a coalition of extremely powerful artificial intelligences and you’ll picture something close to the eponymous Culture (that quick description glosses over all the most fun elements of the setting, but it’s a start. Last year, Banks came out with a new Culture novel, THE HYDROGEN SONATA, and has been interviewed about that novel, his views on utopia, technology, and many other issues. Here is one very recent interview with Banks, and here’s a second from last November that I just happened upon.
20 HEROIC (FICTIONAL) LIBRARIANS: It’s probably no surprise that I love libraries almost as much as I love books. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in various libraries, after all, and I regularly consult with librarians for my academic research. But as much as I like real-life librarians, I love the fictional heroic, super-heroic, and magical kind of librarian even more. Here’s a great list with illustrations and descriptions of twenty fictional badass librarians.
Business Week has just posted a long, interesting post-mortem of the Borders book chain. The article also includes a nice history of the company. I haven’t posted about Borders in a good while — since it went out of business and all — and this may well be my final post on the topic. Some points I found interesting in the linked article:
* “When Borders declared bankruptcy in February, more than 200 of its 400 outlets were still ‘highly profitable,’ says its final chief executive officer, Mike Edwards.” Location, location, location. Some were good, others not so good. It’s really too bad that Borders’ overall debt picture was sufficiently poor that it was unable to restructure itself, close the unprofitable locations, focus on the ones that were working, and rebuild itself a leaner, meaner company.
* Suggested factors for Borders’ demise:
— The downturn in the economy.
— Tough competition from Amazon.
— Extremely late (and poor) embrace of online book retailing.
— Too much in investment in CDs and DVDs, just as customers were switching to digital downloads.
— Too much expansion of brick-and-mortar locations. Good locations are the key for bookstores, and a larger physical footprint may not be better.
* Brick-and-mortar stores can’t really compete based on having a large in-house inventory. No matter how large the store’s inventory is, it’s nothing compared to Amazon, which essentially stocks all in-print books, among other items.
* Barnes & Noble may have to start trimming its own less-than-profitable locations. We’ve seen just a few hints that this may indeed be going on, so perhaps there is some traction to the idea of an upcoming B&N downsizing. keep your eyes peeled for more indications that this is happening.
Haven’t talked much about the book industry in the past month (here was my last update on the subject at the end of July, so here’s a brief, but interesting update. With the (untimely?) demise of Borders, Books-A-Million (BAM) is now the United States’ second-largest book retailer. And now that the first quarter 2011 report is available (here’s a good summary of it), it’s clear that BAM isn’t in terribly good shape.
BAM currently has about 200 stores, and it’s opening six new ones. It’s also still trying to acquire 14 more in bankruptcy court from Borders. So that’s all to the good, but its overall and same-store sales are down. BAM blames that on customers’ transition to ebooks. And BAM has no ebook division of note (they make up 0% of overall sales because of rounding). Uh-oh. Plus, let’s face it, BAM is tiny, making up just 2% of the total book retail market, as compared with 11% for Borders and 17% for B&N. I should also note that books make up just 76% of BAM’s sales, with the rest made up of games, toys, coffee, and — oddly — yogurt, which they apparently sell at 30 Yogurt Mountain stores they own.
I also found it interesting that the demographics of typical BAM customers are different from that of Borders and B&N (less household affluence and education). This piece mentions that BAM also has much more of a focus on Christian books and merchandise, which is the second time I’ve read that, though I can’t say that it’s leaped out at me whenever I’ve been in a BAM.
I don’t have a convenient BAM location near me, though I often hit one up in the DC area when I’m there visiting or doing research, and I’ve always enjoyed their large remainder selection. I hope they do well and continue to survive, but I’m concerned that they’re following down Borders’ path. Declining store sales, no ebook division, etc. Should be interesting to see where they end up a year or two from now.
A couple updates to the recent collapse of Borders (as I mentioned previously). First, there is one small bright spot thus far — it looks like Books-A-Million is interested in acquiring around 30 of the 399 Borders locations. If that deal goes through, it would save somewhere on the order of 10% of the jobs expected to be lost with Borders’ closure, so that would indeed be good news for those employees and the communities those locations serve. Note though that Books-A-Million, like Barnes & Noble, is not doing all that well this past year (the article linked above provides details), but hey, any port in a storm I guess.
And second, the obvious question is, so what happens now to book retail? What can we say about the market as a whole? Well, it’s not a particularly rosy picture. The physical book market is expected to fall 11% this year, with a 21% decline since 2008. The eBook market is compensating for some, but not all, of this decline, and the eBook market is expected to more than double this year, with 111% growth expected. That’s huge, and we certainly can’t ignore it, but as the UK case study shows us, when physical bookstores go away, customers don’t automatically just buy books elsewhere. In a significant number of cases, folks use their disposable income for other non-book purchases altogether. That’s bad for all of us, as it means that Borders’ closure may have a ripple effect on the industry as a whole.
As we all suspected, Borders will be liquidating. All the 399 remaining stores will be shutting down by the end of September, and the liquidations likely begin at the end of this week. Kind of sad. That leaves us with B&N, Books-a-Million, a dwindling supply of small regional chains and mom & pop stores, and the Internet. It won’t be much harder to actually acquire books (Amazon is still your friend, after all), but it does mean that an important piece of bookish “culture” and community will be gone. Alas.
I’m back blogging, folks. The travails of completing a dissertation have drained me of any interest I might have in blogging or doing much creative writing over the last couple months. I’m not done with the dissertation, not by a long shot, though I still hope to defend next Spring, but life goes on and I hope to resume regular blogging and book reviews. I have a few reviews lined up over the next few weeks, and some interesting book-related news pieces I’ll relate as well (been saving those up).
Let me start with a news item and the rest will follow in the days to come: Borders, as we all know (I last blogged about it at the end of April), has been in serious trouble for at least the last year, though it’s been in slow decline for the last few. It entered Chapter 11 a few months ago, and has not yet been able to produce a plan to bring it out of its apparent death spiral. Well, I suspect that it’s going to bite the dust, and sooner rather than later. The latest and greatest deal to save Borders fell through and it looks like it’s facing liquidation next week. This does not bode well for the remaining 399 Borders stores or their employees.
Keep in mind that Barnes & Noble, the only other big book retail chain in the U.S., is also not doing terribly well, though it’s managed to survive better than Borders because it jumped into online book retail on its own fairly early on, and its eBook/eReader business is still pretty viable as the biggest competitor to Amazon. A billionaire businessman (wouldn’t we all like to be described that way?) by the name of John C. Malone has expressed an interest in B&N, and is purportedly interested in taking the company private. There’s been a lot of discussion as to why Malone, a demonstrably smart guy, would want to spend $1 Billion on a company in a dying industry, with most speculating that he’s primarily interested in the eBook side of the company. Should be interesting to see if this deal ends up going through.
We all know that the book industry is in turmoil, with independent and used bookstores going under by the droves, the big chains have not been doing particularly well compared with Amazon, traditional publishers seem clueless about eBooks, and eBooks as a whole seem to represent a paradigm shift in how books’ content is delivered to readers. None of us really knows what the state of the book will be next year, much less five or ten years hence.
The good folks at isthebookdead.com now have the definitive answer to the question, “Is the book dead?”
As you know, I periodically like to wax philosophical on the possible futures of the book industry (see here and here for a couple examples of previous posts on the topic from the last few months), and obviously I’m not the only one to do so. Here’s a nice piece by John Steele Gordon on “the end of the book.” I agree with Gordon that it is far to premature to write the book (as we know it) off completely, though I see the eBook increasingly making inroads into the traditional book market. I think that indie bookstores are in real trouble — how many will survive the next decade? not many, I suspect — and while the partial collapse of Borders eases some of the pressure on Barnes & Noble, I think that B&N will ultimately focus most of their business on selling digital products.
The situation is, I think, a parallel to what we’ve seen in the video rental industry. In the early and mid-’80s, there were lots of little independent VHS rental places and small chains. Then Blockbuster became huge and pushed most of these indies out of business (how could they compete?). Fast forward a few more years, and Blockbuster has entered bankruptcy and is in real trouble because of Netflix, cable companies’ digital provider services and the like. Heck, even Netflix wants to move to an all-streaming service as fast as possible. No one wants to actually operate brick-and-mortar locations to sell/rent media if they can provide media digitally.
I’m not the first to make this analogy, but I think we’re seeing something like it play out in the book industry.
Well, we’re all aware of Borders’ very public bankruptcy and partial meltdown — I’m still waiting for word of additional store closures later this year — but there have also been some interesting recent developments with Borders’ biggest brick-and-mortar competitor, Barnes & Noble.
Liberty Media, a big firm that owns QVC and is heavily invested in Sirius XM, among other companies, has offered to buy Barnes & Noble for about $969 million, a decent premium over what the stock was trading at when the offer as made. That would actually be an interesting partnership though as this analysis points out, Liberty Media is probably much more interested in BN.com and especially the Nook than in operating brick-and-mortar bookstores.
As a follow-up, here’s an interesting little potted history of Barnes & Noble, from its origins in the 1970s to the present. No deep analysis here, but it’s a nice little overview.