What is the loss of Borders going to mean for the publishing industry?

There are a number of prognoses, ranging from “probably not much” to “gloom, doom, and dogs and cats living together”. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but it’s interesting to look at all the predictions.

Former Borders UK chief Philip Downer wrote a piece that could be considered a “downer” in another sense for the publishing industry, pointing out that the Wall Street Journal expected the sale of print books to decline further in 2011, to a total loss of 21% since 2008—but the sale of e-books was not making up for this shortfall even in terms of units sold, and e-books have a smaller profit margin to boot, so the publishing industry is going to be losing a significant chunk of revenue. He adds:

Actually, I believe the WSJ’s premise is in danger of being optimistic.  After Borders closed in the UK, it’s estimated that 40-50% of the company’s book sales simply vanished.  The impulse purchases, the gift buys and the self-indulgences evaporated; customers who were spending millions of pounds a year at a big store in Ellesmere Port had nowhere local to transfer their purchases to – book-buying became inconvenient and, in recessionary times, an unjustifiable luxury.  (And Borders UK folded before there was any significant eBook market in this country.)

Philip Jones at FutureBook thinks Downer may be a bit too pessimistic, but reflects that the publishing industry will be in for some changes, and perhaps not the changes it expected.

And if [some publishers] don’t [survive the loss of Borders] I wonder how much they’ll lament the bookselling talent that is now being lost to the industry. I well remember the analyses around how much of Borders UK’s sales would be lost to the business when it went, but there was really very little thinking about the loss of the "matchmakers" and how much added value they brought to the system.

As Chris Walters points out, it’s really hard to tell anything vis a vis who’s being put up against the wall by the e-book revolution since Borders was hobbled by a legacy of financial mismanagement. Just because a sickly member of the herd got pulled down by wolves doesn’t mean the rest of the herd can’t outrun them for a lot longer. (Even if Barnes & Noble appears to be developing a pronounced limp itself…)

And the US may be in a different position than the UK, whose smaller population doesn’t allow it to support as many or as large bookstore chains as the US. Whereas in the UK apparently nothing replaced the closed Borders stores, in the US one of those chains appears ready to step in and pick up where Borders left off. With Books a Million ready to expand into at least 30 Borders stores, a good chunk of US Borders clientele may simply shift their allegiance to BAMM and carry on as if nothing had changed but the name.

On the other hand, even Books a Million has been seeing its stock drop lately. Who really knows how much longer the chain bookstores have?

One thing is certain: the publishing landscape will look very different without them.


  1. With the closing of Borders bookstore chain, it occurred to me that there is one bookstore type which is not suffering because of ebooks or online competition: used bookstores! Both half.com and amazon.com charge $3.50 or $3.99 for shipping charges per used book, and it would be relatively simple for used bookstores to beat that. Borders should have stopped selling new books and only traded used ones and let the online sellers deal with the new titles. Instead of claiming to carry “everything” or “almost everything,” a store like Borders could just advertise themselves as a physical place to rummage through random stacks of books and find that hidden gem. Ultimately ebooks will bring down the profit potential of even used bookstores, but I don’t expect that time to come for at least a decade. ROBERT NAGLE, http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer

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