As Borders Regroups, So Should the Entire Industry—In Ten “Practical” Steps

All Right. The worst happened. Borders filed for bankruptcy. I predicted that, sure, but I also said that I hoped I was wrong about that one–I hoped that somehow they were going to listen to the consultant who gave them that sage piece of advice (as reported by Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal): whatever you do, stay out of Bankruptcy Court. That’s good advice, because most companies don’t recover from that. Sure they might stick around a while; maybe even last a decade or two—but in such an enfeebled, pathetic state, that you end up wondering if it  wouldn’t have been kinder, more merciful to just have put them out of their misery.

The reports already estimate—optimistically, if you ask me—that 200 to 250 of the 650 Borders stores are going to have to close down. I’ll be surprised if there are 300 left open by the Fall. And the reports think the publishers they owe money to will have to settle for 25-cents on the dollar. That’s totally unrealistic. Publishers are last in line in the chain of creditors: there are the landlords; the service contracts; the employees; the wholesalers; the suppliers of all that junk they filled the stores with instead of books—and you can bet the terms on that merchandise was tougher than it was on the books (everything on this planet is). So 25-cents on the dollar might be what preferred creditors can hope for–publishers will be lucky—lucky!—if they walk away with 10-cents. And there will be some who will get much less than that—so much less, that they may well go under themselves.

I reported last time (a month ago) that I thought the real number of trade bookstores in the US hovered around 1500. Well, now it looks like we’re heading for 1000 bookstores for the entire country (gevalt!), which is what I would predict by the end of the year, unless…

…Unless the entire industry can regroup. Here’s what I mean. The entire book industry is going to have to rethink its basic operational assumptions and start doing things differently. It now becomes a matter of survival. Here are my Ten Modest Proposals For the Survival of Books and the Book Industry. Some of these measure are going to hurt—no question about it. But these are necessary if the Book Culture is going to survive.

I’ve divided these ten proposals into three categories: three things I think the publishers are going to have to do; two things that authors and editors are going to have to do; and five things that bookstores are going to have to do. None of them are going to be easy. All of them are going to cost—time, money, effort… and not a little “face”—people are going to have to lower themselves and get out there among the people and mix it up with the rabble. That’s okay, it won’t hurt—you might even like it. (Did you see those photos of Morgan Entrekin talking to the independent bookstore people? He’s never looked so happy!)

1. Publishers: Eliminate the return policy. Somebody should have taken Max Schuster out back and beaten the snot out of him when he came up with this idea in the first place. Here’s what this means: publishers should price books the way all other commodities are priced: have the stores pay for them and then…they’re theirs! They are not given to the stores on consignment, so don’t take them back. Price them accordingly, which means, price them to move. But that also means that the publishers have greater responsibilities as producers to test-market their product, to prepare the reader for it, to do all the things manufacturers are expected to do when they bring things to market. I can hear the groans all the way in the Bronx—but, yes, it means that the way things are done will have to change. Publishers will have to work with authors to produce quality product. Remember? Quality product? Which brings us to…

2. Publishers: Publish Better Books. I know that’s sounds like nutty advice, but it isn’t in the current environment. Publishers have forgotten their mission and the reason they got into this business in the first place, which was to publish what they thought the public wanted and needed to read. Get back to that! Which means: let your editors do their work and not spend all their time clawing at each other for their survival or choking under impossible workloads that force them to pick titles they wouldn’t be caught dead reading themselves.  

3. Publishers: triple your graphic novel and graphic non-fiction production each year for the next five years! Of course, for some of you, that means you’ll have to start by producing some in the coming year for the first time. It’s about time. That’s what the rest of the world reads—that’s what America’s deteriorating eyesight demands—and that’s what the younger generation is hip to: it combines text and image, it allows design and content to dance  on the page and convey information faster and with less effort and engagement from the multi-tasked reader. There isn’t an area of publishing that couldn’t benefit from graphic treatment—and this is an area of publishing that is going to see innovation that is going to knock people’s socks off year after year. So hop to it people!

4. Authors and Editors: Shower, shave (you too, ladies)… sober up (you too, guys)… and get out there! Every author should take it as a given that when you’ve done a book, you are obliged—obliged!—to go out and promote it. Not promote the book…promote the cause that the book promotes. Because every book should have a cause that it promotes. That was how I approached book publishing—how I approach it now. What is different today is: (a) it’s not enough to simply write the book and let the publisher do the promoting (the publisher—Ha!); (b) the internet allows the author to do a lot of promoting right from one’s desk; and (c) the hunger on the part of the public to hear from the author and source of the idea is greater than ever—so only a fool would deny that public access to that source and what that author has to say. I do it in story because I find that more satisfying personally and more effective, but other authors can do it any way they feel best. But do it!

5. Authors and Editors: Stand for something! If you’re the kind of author who just writes for the fun of it, then have fun, read your work to you friends and family (like Kafka did) and leave it at that. If you write because you have dreams of signing books for admiring fans, keep dreaming and have pity on the trees. But if you write because you want people to know something: the plight of migrant workers; the possibility that Jews and Arabs can live together (maybe even fall in love); that children can be heroes; that children can be evil; that people can do terrible things to each other; that people can do heroic things to each other… things like that, then there is a good reason for you to write books and for those books to be published. Of course, it would be a good idea for you to practice and perhaps learn something about writing, from, say, a teacher of some kind, but most of the time, it will really depend on you having native talent anyway. And there’s only one way to find that out, and that is by sitting down and trying to do it. What will not depend on native talent, and which is open to everyone (really everyone) is having something to say. So when people ask me for advice about writing, I say to them, first, ask yourself, what is it that you have to say? When you’re clear about that, then put it on paper (or on screen). Don’t worry about how good it is. Look, even Glenn Beck can write a book, so how hard can it be?

Now let’s address the bookstores—the ones that remain, those brave, lonely souls. Don’t think I haven’t said what I’m saying here in private to bookstore people—to bookstore chain magnates, in fact—who pretty much regarded me an annoyance. It needn’t have been that way: there were not mobs of townspeople with pitchforks banging on the castle doors demanding entrance and an audience with the lord of the manor. There was just me, a lowly packager, trying to help. If those magnates are at all honest with themselves, they will admit in their most private moments that it was nothing but arrogance that had them toss my proposals and suggestions into the round file. Yes, including the round file at Borders. So let’s try it again, folks. (‘Cause you’re all we’ve got):

6. Bookstores: Discount… something! Lure customers into the stores. Why even B&N stopped discounting widely is a mystery. Did I miss something in retailing class, or isn’t the key getting people through the door so they will buy something? And doesn’t that depend on the perception of value? So why aren’t bookstores dreaming up promotions that would make the men clothiers “buy-one-get-another-at-half-price” look like Scrooge? There’s a thrift shop in my neighborhood that gives a 25% discount every Monday, and on that day, the place is packed—packed! The lines are around the block. Booksellers, Hear me: Here’s a word that’s magic in the ears of every customer on the planet: FREE. Find a way to use it, lads and lassies, and you will be successful—my Uncle Jack told me that. He tried to tell people that they would get free bands with the cigars he sold in his cigar store, and when that didn’t work (and it didn’t—everything has its limits), he gave a free (imprinted) end-cutter (worth 10-cents, but priced at 50-cents) with every $20+ box purchase. There were five thriving Jack’s Cigars all over Brooklyn (and two on Long Island) when Jack passed away. 

7. Bookstores: Become centers for cultural enlightenment… and for God’s sake, provide the people who go there for it with a place to sit down! Would you ever consider buying a pair of shoes without trying them on? What would you say if a shoe store allowed you to put the shoe on, but wouldn’t let you walk a few steps in them.? Or would let you put on a pair of running shoes, but wouldn’t let you sprint a few yards to see if you could run in them? What would you think about a store that would let you try on a suit, but wouldn’t let you sit in a chair while wearing it to see if it was a comfortable fit? You wouldn’t patronize such a store. But that’s what’s happening with book stores. What they are forgetting is that people are not trained or prepared to go to bookstores to simply pick up the works of their favorite authors, because they don’t have favorite authors. They haven’t been given enough reading training or experience to have favorites or to know how to develop new favorites. The stores are going to have to fill in that gap. In times past, publishers provided things like sample chapters; magazines often contained excerpts of new novels or stories by writers of new books that allowed people to sample an interesting new style. Those avenues are not available today—though I think someone would do well to start an on-line magazine that offered (in addition to reviews), samples of writing that would give people a taste of what’s new out there. We believe the reading experience is still and will always be centered on the physical book, but the electronic medium can serve a useful purpose in this area. There may be other ways, but whatever those may be, it will be necessary to give people the opportunity to read in the store and to discover new writers and new forms…and that generally requires a place to sit!

8. Bookstores: Become “Temples of the Writer’s Art.” I may be pushing things too far, but I also believe bookstores are the logical, most sensible place where the art of writing should be promoted and even practiced. What I have in mind (I guess) are workshops involving local schools, libraries, and civic organizations. This brings up an idea I have had for a long time that perhaps deserves some serious consideration: a national day (yes, a holiday) devoted to a writer, or group of writers. Do we really believe that the quality of life—particularly the strength of democratic institutions—relies heavily on writers, and on the ability of citizens to appreciate and be informed by writers? I do. 

9. Bookstores: Become real bookstores again by staffing with knowledgable people. That charming little movie “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—written and directed by Nora Ephron—about rival bookstore owners who fall in love on the internet (is it just me or should the proper response by Meg when she discovers that it’s been Tom who has been e-mailing her all along should have been to call a cop!) does seem to have one clear and unassailable message: the real quality of a bookstore is directly dependent on the knowledge of its staff and their ability and willingness to share that knowledge with the customers. Most bookstores can’t afford to hire additional help, so perhaps this erudition can be provided electronically through a help line that is made available in the store itself. See the note after the next item.

10. Bookstores: Make the technology work for you. Let every bookstore have a social media presence. There is no reason why bookstores shouldn’t use the technology of the internet to their advantage. A local bookstore has everything to gain by establishing an on-line community with readers in its community–alerting them of special events; sales; appearances; workshops… or just chatting with people in the neighborhood interested in what’s happening in the book world. And there should be an internet presence in the bookstore itself. I have campaigned with both major chains (to deaf ears so far—but tomorrow is another day—though it could be organized to service bookstore of all affiliations) that authors who appear in one store should be webcast to all stores to maximize exposure. I think the same is true with live performances of chamber music, jazz, folk music, poetry, comedy, story-telling, etc. A bookstore should be a happenin’ place, especially on the weekends, and at night. It’s asking too much for a small neighborhood independent bookstore to do this every week all by itself, but with a little help…

…IF THERE IS ANYONE OUT THERE WHO WOULD LIKE TO JOIN ME IN WORKING TOWARD SETTING SOMETHING LIKE THIS UP FOR THE BENEFIT OF LOCAL BOOKSTORES, SIMPLY COMMENT ON THIS BLOG POST (WITH CONTACT INFO) AND I PROMISE, I’LL GET IN TOUCH WITH YOU. —   Harold


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