Big Box Bookstores are in the news this week.
Most of you will have heard that Borders is closing all its remaining stores, not only leaving a Huge Freaking Hole (henceforthly “HFH”) as well as a Big Empty Building (BEB) in the center of some towns where Borders had successfully driven out the indies and small chains to become the only bookstore. Bangor, Maine is gonna be hurting — it lost Walden a couple years ago, and now Borders is going. There’s Mr. Paperback, of course — an instate chain that’s survived by being small, and by altering its business model so that it sells more plushies, greeting cards and “gift items” than books — BookMarc’s, downtown, a “general” bookstore with a heavy slant toward mystery
and Maine books, and another all-Maine-all-the-time store — Betty’s, I think? (Mr. Hetley informs me that Betts Bookstore went digital some years back and only handles books written by the estimable Mr. King.) Not a lot of bookstores to serve what passes for a biggish city up this way.
Not only is the folding of Borders bad for towns, readers, and lovers of bookstores, it’s also bad for publishers and writers. What a surprise, right? Less shelf space means less books sold on impulse to those browsing the shelves, and to that population that still exists — though we here on the so-called World Wide Web tend to discount them — who Don’t Do The Internet, and the majority of readers (the last number I heard was 70%) who Don’t Do Ebooks. This means less revenue — and even less revenue, since Borders didn’t exactly pay its honorable debts before it cocked up its toes.
Now, bad as all the above is, it was a longish time in coming. There were red lights and warning signs. Publishers had time to make contingency plans, to cut their fulfillments to Borders, to sit back and wait. There certainly was still loss, but there was a certain amount of control in latter days in regard to how much loss.
If the economy were in better shape, I might say, well, look! A chance for indy bookstores to rise and fill the newly created hole in the market.
The economy, however, sucks, and all the critters on all sides of the aisles in DC seem determined not to fix that, so forgive me for not being sanguine about the imminent rise of a bookstore indy class.
So, anyhow, Borders.
But, wait, there’s more!
Kris Rusch reports this, received from a BN employee: “We were notified at our B&N location this week that in the next couple of weeks we will be receiving a ‘massive returns download.’ To coincide with this outflux of books we will be adding 3 more of the massive toys and games displays, as well as expanding gift and the digital presence.” (here’s the rest)
Yes, that’s right, not only did Borders go out of business owing publishers money, now these same publishers are going to get hit with Massive Returns from BN. That means, instead of cash inflowing to publishers, so that publishers can do things like, oh, pay authors among those other, universally familiar necessities such as keeping the lights on, making payroll, and continuing business operations — the publishers will owe BN for the stock returned (“stock” in this case meaning books); stock that, with the demise of Borders, has no other sales venue to which it might go. Stock that will sit in the publishers’ warehouses until it must, for tax-saving purposes, be remaindered or pulped.
Pop quiz: Who benefits from books pulped en masse?
Yes, that’s right — nobody.
A word about that “owing BN.” The antiquated and terrifying so-called “system” of bookselling runs to a large degree on counters. Therefore, the Massive Return doesn’t necessarily mean that BN will expect a check in the mail, though it might have some deal where a percentage of the Return must be made in cash. However, it will by this action gain a sizeable Tab, which means that all new books shipped for Some Time will be provided for free — and accepted at full return rate when they come back in a couple months.
…which means that the future cashflow of publishers is borked fifteen ways from Thursday, and therefore their ability to pay authors, keep the lights on, make payroll, and continuing to produce books.
Well, then. . .interesting times for the next while, eh? Kris Rusch’s estimate is that everything will be comfy again (insofar as &c, the Usual Rules Apply) by, oh, 2015. Unless, of course, something else Interesting Happens before.