My “too sense” regarding Borders and the book biz

I grew up around bookstores. They were and still are my favorite store to visit. My family even owned a bookstore for a while when I was a kid. Explains a lot, huh? My point is, the closing of Borders across the nation should be of great concern as bookstores are cultural centers of most communities. Even the loss of brick and mortar bookstores that contributed to the deaths of so many smaller independent bookstores should be mourned and seen as a dire warning.Really, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. The first thing I look for when visiting a new place is the bookstore. Vacationing in Orlando? Where are the bookstores? Alabama? Gotta find me the bookstores. Cape Cod? Ditto. Mexico? Si.

The recent news has given a lot of us pause for thought. We all have opinions, answers, and woulda-shoulda-couldas. I don’t propose to have all of the answers or even the best ones… but this is a big part of my world, so I can’t not say anything.

Here we go…

Barnes & Noble… you can diversify your stock all you want, but you do so at your peril. Lately, we’ve seen the books we want harder or impossible to find on shelves, but instead see games we’ve no interest in (if we want games, we know where to buy them), and music and DVDs that are priced higher than your competitors. I go to Barnes & Noble to buy books, and when you don’t have a book I’m asking for, offering to order it for me will get you scorn because I can order it myself–usually for less cost and hassle. When I’m looking to buy a certain title at B&N, I want it then and there. That’s how you get me. Instant gratification. And I’ll tell ya… the past few months, I walk out of the store without even having picked up something via browsing. Want me to buy books? Start carrying more books and less crap.

Book distributors… stop pretending you know what people want. Bookscan is not the whole picture. People want what they want and you’re making it harder and harder for them to find it on the bookshelves. And please, work with smaller publishers to get new and interesting titles on shelves, but let them do so with some kind of minimal profit.

Independent bookstores… you want to take advantage of the hole left behind following Borders’ upcoming disappearance? Improve your hours. Any bookstore that closes before 8pm is asking to go out of business. 9pm would be better. I know that’s a long day, so do some research about who is shopping for what in your area and at what time. Maybe you can get away with not opening until 11am. Maybe you’ve got to suck it up and run two shifts. Also, do you offer the reading community anything? Book clubs or discussion groups. Do you host a writers group? Do you have a back room where gamers can meet? And yeah, the whole cafe thing is a pain in the ass, but it was a good idea in the 80s when I first saw them crop up and it’s a good idea now. Books and coffee just go together. Deal with it. If you can’t do the cafe thing, we understand, but find something to offer the customers to keep them coming back. Be a part of the community.

Customers… okay… we can’t fairly be part of the blame game here. Times are tough and we have to go where our wallet tells us. If we can’t afford the full prices, then it’s totally understandable why we look for more inexpensive options. Supporting your local bookstore is fine and dandy, but one must eat.

Publishers and authors… hang in there. Ebooks will save some of you, but not all of you. Direct marketing and sales will play a large role in your future. Make it easy and affordable and customer-friendly. There are some great avenues for small publishing, but try not to sacrifice quality o’ermuch.

The closing of Borders is not the end of the world, but it should be seen as something of a warning. The book business is changing. This is nothing new. I’ve been watching it change considerably over the past ten years. No one can say that all of this change happened overnight and without warning.

Right now the two most valuable strategies for the various facets of the book business to employ right now, and in the future, are flexibility and customer friendliness. Note… I do not say customer service, but customer friendliness. Customer service should be a given in any sort of business and if they don’t have that, then they’re pretty well screwed. No, customer friendliness is building a relationship with the customer that goes deeper than the pocket.

Be part of a community. Give back sometimes. Host a few parties. Show up at some conventions. Have some giveaways. Find out what customers are excited about and get excited too. Give customers a reason to make visiting your bookstore a regular part of their life.

Sacrifice the bottom line in the name of long-term good will and loyalty.

It might save you from the chopping block.

*    *    *

I’ve been working on a book layout that has had some interesting challenges associated with it. The big one is the wrangling of over 500 footnotes. Other challenges include numerous blockquoted sections, and frequent use of tags to denote section headers. In a 400-page book, this seems like a hugely tedious task.

Turns out I’m exactly as good at my job as I say I am. Heh. That is, I’ve managed to find some shortcuts that have taken a ten-hour task down to less than two.

Once upon a time, I met a group of students who were looking at careers in layout and graphic design. I was part of the tour, actually, in that they pushed a bunch of them into my office and someone poked me with a stick saying, “This here is a typesetter, the lowest of the low, but most of you will have to start here. Don’t put your hands too close to his mouth when feeding him.”

At some point, someone asked me what I thought would be the best advice to give someone looking into this business to which I replied. “Be lazy.”

After being whacked with the stick a couple of times, I elaborated. “Be lazy. Think creatively. Try to find the most efficient way to do things rather than the textbook way, and try to avoid having to re-invent the wheel with every new project. With computers, there are all sorts of shortcuts that aren’t in the books and that aren’t taught in classes. Sure, I can show you some of the tricks, but what really gets it into your head is when you’re faced with a hugely tedious, meticulous task and a ridiculous deadline. A self-preservation instinct takes over and your brain finds creative ways to make your life easier. Be lazy, but don’t think lazy.”

And that’s me giving advice. After that day, I was no longer part of the tour and a note was passed down from management that I was no longer allowed to talk with visitors.

Crazy like a fox.

Cheers!

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One Response to My “too sense” regarding Borders and the book biz

  1. Brian Taves says:

    You expressed it all perfectly, John. B&N has such a pitiful selection and categories that I simply don’t bother. And they don’t carry the film magazines that interest me, which was always an incentive to check out Borders, and they were conveniently located back when I lived in downtown DC for 17 yrs. On the other hand, since my job moved me to a small town four years ago, I’ve simply not been able to get to Borders. As well, when I know I want a book, I simply order it on amazon; it is the books I might want that Borders helped, for instance with a nice couple of shelves on Egyptology (try finding that in B&N!)

    It is the ability to browse that physical bookstores offer that online ones simply cannot. I’d like to say that in an ideal world that independents combined with second hand are the way to go, and when I come across them in recent years they are what I’ve most enjoyed and bought at; for instance there’s a thriving one in Solvang, a bunch in Charlottesville—tho the one in Fredericksburg expired, so it may be location and clientele.

    Still, one of the fondest memories over forty years of my life (visiting hundreds of times since I was a kid) was the bookstore aptly called Acres of Books in Long Beach—a landmark of the 20th century that sadly couldn’t endure in the 21st’s real estate climate, despite a huge clientele.

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