But there is no doubt -- as I have written many times in recent months -- that the book business is in a period of change so dynamic that any outcome is possible, from an era of exciting expansion to a precipitous decline in sales at brick-and-mortar stores that undermines the revenue base of publishing. A year ago it would have seemed inconceivable that Broadway's biggest bookstores would be shuttered.
In fact, until last weekend, I couldn't really fathom that Borders, for all of its mismanagement and losses, would not find a way to continue, in the jargon of bankruptcy, as a "going concern." But once the last stores are closed in September, all that will remain of this once proud and sophisticated bookseller will be remnants: the brand name (for sale), the memberships in its customer loyalty program, a struggling website, and a minority interest in the Kobo reading device. Books-A-Million, a regional chain in the south and midwest, offered to take over the leases and contents of up to thirty-five venues across the country, from among Borders remaining 399 stores (at its peak Borders had almost 1,200 stores). But that deal fell through.
It would be wrong to assume that the demise of Borders is symbolic of publishing Armageddon. And yet, the disappearance of Borders and the uncertainties that Barnes & Noble doubtless faces as it is accommodates the pace of change to digital reading are extraordinary developments. In the first five months of 2011, e-readers sales are up by 160 percent over the previous year, but there has been a sharp drop in revenue from printed books, attributable in large part to the Borders collapse.
For the moment, even some of Borders' competitors are delivering eulogies. Rachel Weaver and Jason Smith at the Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois, told Publishers Weekly:
It's a sad day for reading when there are fewer communities with bookstores, a place where someone might stumble upon a book to read who otherwise might have gone home to their television or their Internet connection for entertainment and companionship. Frankly, speaking as two people who have each worked in the industry for close to two decades, it is just plain devastating.
PaidContent.org, one of the best media business blogs, took an especially gloomy view of Borders' downfall. In a FAQ feature, Laura Hazard Owen concluded that liquidation is "unequivocally bad news for publishers and authors. Bottom line: The closure of Borders means fewer places to sell books (and promote books and book discovery). Publishers will have to reduce their print runs and shipments." By contrast, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the independents trade group, the American Booksellers Association, commiserated with the thousands of Borders employees losing their jobs but added, "We do not believe that the Borders closing is a bellwether for the future of brick-and-mortar bookstores nationwide. Rather, it is, in part an unfortunate right-sizing of bookstore landscape that has suffered from expansion in certain markets . . . we see opportunities for our current members to expand and for new stores to open."