Whether or not Borders survives closing some 200 stores, the "superstore" boom of the past two decades has busted, authors and publishers face a market minus millions of square feet of physical shelf space and communities once crowded with booksellers may find themselves with none.
"I think Borders' fall will cause a lot of publishers to realize they can't just count on a few giant entities to sell their products," said Simba Information senior trade analyst Michael Norris.
Borders, the second largest chain behind Barnes & Noble, Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Wednesday, and will close nearly a third of its 642 stores, from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. About 6,000 of the company's 19,500 employees will lose their jobs. Borders owes millions of dollars to publishers, who must decide whether they should continue doing business with a bookseller that has been unable to pay its bills.
"Penguin hopes that Borders will emerge from this process as a smaller but stronger book retailer, and will work closely with Borders management to support this transition," Penguin Group (USA), which is owed $41.1 million, said in a statement. "Penguin has been following developments at Borders very closely for many months and has taken appropriate steps to mitigate the financial impact of the company's bankruptcy on Penguin."
Borders' bankruptcy should accelerate at least a few trends: E-books now are an estimated 10 percent of the market, 10 times the share of three years ago, and readers no longer close to a Borders may instead download a book or buy a physical one online; author book tours will continue to evolve, as more events — if held at all — will take place at libraries, lecture halls and other settings outside a store; and the era when Barnes & Noble and Borders opened multiple stores within driving, or even walking distance of each other, is truly over.
Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., a college town, Borders Group Inc. began as an offbeat, likeable underdog, grew into a powerhouse that helped shut down many independent sellers and now must compete in a tight, increasingly online economy, in an ever-hurried world. Publishers are skeptical that Borders can rebound but very much wish it would. Although earnings have dropped sharply in recent years, Borders is still a billion-dollar entity which can make a book a hit. Superstores have a reputation for mechanically favoring commercial releases, but Borders has long had an affinity for literary fiction, especially paperbacks. In recent years, Chris Cleave's "Little Bee" and David Benioff's "City of Thieves" are among the books publishers credit Borders with helping to make best-sellers.
"They've always been great champions of the trade paperback format," says Carrie Kania, who heads HarperCollins' paperback imprint, Harper Perennial.
"Borders has, from their beginnings, been a consistent supporter of literary and first fiction," says literary agent Ira Silverberg. "Their loss will absolutely be felt in lower projections for first print runs by publishers."
Not everyone minds watching a giant stumble. Publisher Bruce McPherson of McPherson & Co. said he had long stopped dealing directly with Borders, preferring to work through the wholesaler Ingram. McPherson, who released Jaimy Gordon's National Book Award-winning novel "Lord of Misrule," said the superstore chain had put many valued smaller stores out of business and that he was "not going to mourn Borders if it disappears."
Independent sellers, meanwhile, believe they have a chance to step back in, even as industry observers wonder whether physical stores of all sizes are in decline. In a statement issued Wednesday by the American Booksellers Association, the ABA said it was indeed "saddened when any bookstore closes. The industry — whether independent bookstores, publishers, or readers — does not benefit from the diminishment of places to browse, discover, and buy books.
"However, despite the doom and gloom expressed by some about the future of full-service bricks-and-mortar bookstores — and, while we don't underestimate the challenges that lie ahead — the ABA believes that the indie bookstore model is well positioned for the future," said the ABA, the trade association for independents.
"In time, I'm sure, communities which can support an independent store will find literary entrepreneurs taking up the slack," Silverberg says. "At least we can hope so. While this is all a part of a rapid evolution of the retail landscape for books, and we could have seen this coming, it doesn't take away the fear that fewer new books will get the high street retail opportunities they deserve."
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