Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writers Sans Borders

Photo by Jessers25.
Borders is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its liquidation has been signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.

Old Borders is as dead as a door-nail.

A lot of pixels have been spilled over the demise of Borders (and Waldenbooks, its mall-friendly smaller sibling). Flat statements about how the time of the big box is now gone, and tumbleweeds will now drift through the parking lots of old Borders, Circuit Cities, and similar relics. Pointed irony about how the big boxes crushed the small independents and in turn are being kicked to the curb by the on-line purveyors. Nostalgia about how Borders was a smaller, friendly store before K-Mart bought them. Fist-shaking fury at the fickle market, including those heartless consumers who went to a store to window-shop the book and then order it online. And indignation that this would not have happened if Amazon had to pay sales tax (while ignoring that Amazon also doesn't have to pay for rent, lighting, or dedicated staff in 400 locations) (Oh, and its still a good idea for Amazon to pay sales tax - its not like they can't freaking keep track of where their books are going - they're using computers, after all).  

Hmm. This seems to be wandering a bit, which is not surprising. This is a crowd-sourced coroner's inquest, and everybody seems to be involved.

I seem to be coming to all this from two viewpoints, as a consumer and as a writer. As a consumer, litttle changes. My own habits are those of the independent and used bookstore patron. Bookshopping is a destination for me, as it is for comics and games. I will haunt the halls of the monstrous Half-Prices and the tiny local shops filled with paperback swap romances. I was a fan of Elliot Bay before it moved to a land-with-less-available-parking, and even so I still feel the siren call of its wooden shelves and employee recommendations. I make the trek up to Third Place and once upon a time made the long journey to Powell's in Portland (though my stopping may more be the result of age than anything else). Borders (and B&N, don't think I don't see trying to sneak out of this discussion) were for large holiday purchases and going out for books with nieces and nephews. The online world was more for when the usual suspects were exhausted, or delivery to a third party across the country.

Of course I visited the terminal patient, and found my own easy answers for their demise. Once the popular stuff was picked over, the shelves groaned heavy with left-behind Palin biographies and Beck political screeds. That kind of shows that you were missing your market just a tad, but covering it up in raw volume - there may have been unsold Noam Chomski essays on the shelves of the Borders in Birmingham.  I picked up a few  books that I would probably not pay full price for - books on Salt and Cod and another collection of Anthony Bourdain's essays. And an actual find - a book on the War of 1812 that I had window-shopped on Amazon, but purchased in a physical store.

Long term, it can't be a good thing for authors to ever see a venue shut down, large or small. And the big box of Borders is a major component for the easily-sold genre books that I have made up much of my career. The D&D ghetto (a subunit of the Fantasy ghetto) had a guaranteed shelf space in a store that was looking to fill its shelves with popular consumables. And as I have said before, Border's and its ilk also serviced areas that were not being covered by independents. There was a site set up pointing out where the closest independent bookstore was to a closing Borders. In the case of my local Borders in the South Hills, it was 12 miles to the nearest independent. Or you could go up the road another mile to the Barnes & Nobles. As a writer, I will be seeing more of my work showing up as vaporous threads in the ether, but in the longest of terms, I will still be able to find a twenty year old physical book than a twenty year old file in an a now-abandoned format.

There has been also a lot of moaning about how this is going to be tough for small book dealers. I am unconvinced. One of the big dinosaurs has dropped dead right at their feet, and there will be a bump of books looking for shelf space, publishers looking for accounts, and teenagers looking for placing to read manga. Yes, the power of Amazon still threatens like a asteroid from space, but there is still a strong component of the market that lives and shops in meatspace, so it is an opportunity.

Farewell Borders. You will be missed. Now we move on.