The Borders and A&R collapse

Everyone is blogging about the collapse of REDgroup, the company that owns the bookshop chains of Borders and Angus & Robertson (and Whitcoulls in New Zealand). I was going to write a big long ranty post all about it, but the truth is it’s all been done. A quick web search will yield more opinions than you can fit on a ballot sheet. But I will add, very briefly, my perception of the whole thing. (Which probably means I’m about to write a big long ranty post!)

Lots of people are trying to establish exactly what this collapse is and what caused it. I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not the great ebook revolution; it’s not shitty management by REDgroup; it’s not the global financial crisis; it’s not the rising cost of physical shop rents; it’s not the massive surge in online shopping and stores like Amazon stealing business. At least, it’s not any one of these things. It’s all of these things.

It’s the progress of industry. Sure, the management of the whole group was blindly stupid and greedy, but without the other factors they’d probably have survived. Sure, Amazon, Book Depository and stores like them are having a massive impact on brick and mortar bookstores, but without the other factors they’d probably have survived. When you combine all the factors at once, this stuff is inevitable. Pretty much every major bookstore chain will suffer. The nature of the industry is changing. It’s a terrible shame for all those people that are going to lose their jobs, but that’s a part of life. It’s like the shipbuilders on the Tyne, the coalminers in the Welsh hills, the dudes that used to run photo processing shops specialising in dark room development. The world moves on, things change, technology develops and old methods and jobs slowly disappear. But new ones also emerge. The smart and the rich are the ones that stay ahead of the curve.

Putting shitty American coffee chains in shitty American book store chains wasn’t going to suddenly make Borders a going business concern. Turning Angus & Robertson into cheap remainder bins with plate glass windows was never going to ensure their survival. High street and mall book stores, just like paper books, are going to be disappearing. There will still be paper books (I’ve talked about this a lot before) but they’ll be specialty books, or Print On Demand books from online stores. Just the same, there will still be book shops, but they’ll be specialty stores, catering to a particular niche of collectors or genre and they’ll have to diversify – comic books, trading cards, games, collectibles – all the stuff that fits the niche.

Whether we like it or not, the world is constantly changing. With change comes death and rebirth. Some things crumble to dust while others are born from the ashes of their predecessor’s demise. There were once people that were skilled at many things that no longer have a place in the world. You can’t blame any one thing except progress. The same is true of the recent book store collapse. There are many mitigating factors that contributed to the stores going under at this particular time, but that’s the small stuff. The changing face of publishing, reading and book selling is going to keep changing.

Within the next decade, I predict, we’ll see very few, if any, big chain book stores. Mass market stuff will be in all the department stores and K-Marts and places like that, but mainly online. Eventually you’ll only get your mass market release in hard copy at a POD booth or ordered that way online. There’ll be specialist stores dealing with specialist buyers and collectible books, while pretty much everyone else buys their stuff online. And the vast majority of it will be ebooks, with a small chunk held by POD releases. There’ll be a rise in collectible, beautiful, probably limited edition hardback releases. Kids starting school now will look at print books the same way we look at vinyl and tape cassettes. If you compare books to albums, you can look at the ebook as the CD and the print book as the vinyl release. The ratios will be pretty similar soon enough, I expect. And before long the CD and will disappear unless you order one, POD style. There’ll be a rise in small press releases with short print runs, and more small press will utilise online bookstores and ebooks for their distribution. Eventually the small press print run will be a thing of the past.

It’s all going to happen, so trying to find a particular reason for the demise of Borders is like trying to look for a particular reason for the demise of the Victorian era. It didn’t die because Victoria did – it ended because we all moved on, in a slow and incremental way with all kinds of contributing factors. That’s life.

Told you I wasn’t going to write a big long ranty post.

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24 thoughts on “The Borders and A&R collapse

  1. It is a shame though – I would much rather scan a shelf in a bookshop with my head sideways and flip through things that take my interest and actually enjoy browsing and buying than sifting through link after link online – I feel you would miss out on so many titles than if you stood back and looked at a shelf where things pop out at you. Going online, to me at least, means you pretty much have to have an idea of the book you want before you go to Amazon – ‘books others have bought’ is a helpful link but theres a certain charm to hanging in a book store…

  2. Most definitely, and that’s why bookstores will survive, but it’ll be the indie stores. You can’t recreate that browsing experience, so those stores that appeal to the right demographic will survive on that. Thank fuck!

  3. YEah A&R just turned into a Top 20 and crap store – Borders at Bondi Westfields is great though – huge range. Cant recreate the browsing experience of a record shop either but I dont think anyone cares about that anymore…

  4. Ah, now you see that’s a good example. The indie bookstores were similarly crushed out by the Borders behemoths. The collapse of Borders will allow the indies to come back up and fill the gaps again.

    JB is a good example of a diversified chain. They stock super cheap music and a massive range, but they also have cheap DVDs and electronic goods etc. They use their large corporate buying power to get goods at cheap wholesale and therefore offer cheap retail, thereby crushing the small independent competition. But they’re not tied to a single product and can weather shifts in consumer habits.

  5. and JB also tell supplies what they will pay for items, screwing people like us in the process – Big bullies in every way!

  6. why go to a pub or a coffee shop to catch up with your friends when you can Tweet them? – Technology has turned everyone into hermits who are addicted to online shopping…

  7. Thanks Alan for writing the post I was planning to.
    I don’t thinks that books are going to fade away quite as fast as you are predicting. In the same way that the Segway has not replaced walking from place to place. A paper book requires no power read. It does not require a $200-$800 device to read and you don’t have to put it away when the plane takes off.

    I believe that the main reason that Borders has suffered is because it encouraged loitering with a coffee and turning a new book into a second hand one with out first selling it. This creates a great ambiance but not a profitable business.

    And A&R have been a disaster for a long time. They just felt like a discount shop without actually being one.

    I love books and I am beginning to love e-books too but there it a timelessness about the physical book that is going to be tough to beat.

  8. Sad though. I used to love leafing through the books in Borders, before buying them on Amazon for half the price.

    I wonder if there is a market for a ‘book browsing shop’, where you cant actually buy the books, but can leaf through them for a small fee (the price of a coffee perhaps). Or does Kindle make the need for this go away eventually?

  9. “I used to love leafing through the books in Borders, before buying them on Amazon for half the price.”

    Borders, here’s your problem, right here.

    Chris – that’s exactly right.

  10. Sorry, Nick – missed your comment. Yes, there is a timelessness to books for our generation. The next one, not so much. You don’t see many teenagers getting all excited about vinyl records, for example.

  11. The comparison with music breaks down a bit because the music replay format has always been power dependent. I believe that this aspect alone will keep books alive kicking for many generations to come. I look forward to a future where there is a tight integration between the sale of the physical book and it’s digital counterpart. ie buy the physical book and automatically get access to the digital version, through the device of my choice.

  12. I think that buying one and getting the other will become fairly normal before long. Also, the power thing is becoming less of an issue. The new Kindle, with 3G switched off, has a battery life of up to a month. That’s pretty impressive and will only get better. But you’re right – the publishing industry and the music industry, while having many paralells, are different beasts.

  13. I’m in agreement with you there Alan, and it does really feel like a lot of people still don’t get technological change (*ahem* Australian major retail chains). You can still get magazines, like you can still get vinyl, like you can still get radio, like you can still get paintings, etc. Just conservative fatcats making less money.

    @Chris: if you’re becoming a hermit, maybe do something about that. As for the rest of us, social media is actually increasing the amount we interact with people in meatspace.

  14. Gotta agree – I’ve been to a bunch of events through meeting people online that I would never have gone to otherwise.

  15. nah Im no hermit – I just notice the rise of the keyboard warrior, especially in music circles who just sit there and troll all day –

    I also know a lot of people who only leave the house to check the mail because of their tech addiction which has also turned them socially inwards in a physical sense

  16. There’s a great article here.

    Thanks to Kirstyn McDermott for that one.

    It reminded me of something that I meant to mention in the original post, which is Book Espresso machines. Another way to keep indie bookstores alive is to have in-house, instant Print On Demand machines, called Book Espressos, with a massive digital catalogue. That way, people will still use a store for that instant purchase. Buying a book POD online is good, but you still have to wait for delivery. If you want a book right now, to read or gift, go to a bookstore and, if they don’t have it, buy it POD and wait ten minutes while it’s made for you.

    Welcome to the future.

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