(underlying image courtesy Unwitting Wit)
Teleread featured an interesting article today from Laura Dawson, a publishing consultant. She believes that Borders is going to die, and the loss of a major bookstore chain will trigger more ebook adoption.
It’s an interesting theory and it has merits, but I also think there are some reasons why it isn’t perfect. For starters, here’s a sample conversation from when I helped close the Framingham, MA Borders store back in 2005:
Customer: Wow, I am so upset you guys are closing! I shop here all the time!
(In my head): If you shopped here all the time, this store wouldn’t be closing.
Me: Oh, yes, we’re all sad. It’s ok, though, there are stores in Chestnut Hill and Shrewsbury.
Customer: Oh, but that’s too far to drive. It’s SO CONVENIENT here. This is so sad.
Me: Yes, it is. Are you all set to check out? I can take your books to the register for you.
Customer: Yes, and I have a gift card! (Holds up Barnes and Noble gift card)
Me: Uh…that’s for Barnes and Noble.
Customer: Oh, no, I’m in the wrong store! So sorry. But at least Barnes and Noble isn’t closing!
While I boiled that conversation down, that was basically what it was like. So issue one with believing the death of Borders means the rise of ebooks is that, well, most people don’t notice the difference between Borders and Barnes and Noble. If there’s a B&N nearby they’ll just head there for books. And if they really love books so much that they can’t wait 24 hours for Amazon prime they probably already own a Kindle.
Borders disappearing would be a blow, but it’s not nearly as big of a presence as Barnes and Noble. Borders operated 517 stores in 2009 and another 400+ Waldenbooks. Realistically they’re probably down below 500 superstores and well below 400 Waldenbooks/Borders Express since there was a spat of store closings earlier in the year. On the other hand, Barnes and Noble operates 777 superstores and another 680 college bookstores. The odds are far more in your favor that if you live near a bookstore there’s a B&N there than a Borders.
Besides that, there’s a practical aspect to Borders situation. Currently, they’ve borrowed large sums of money from people that would like to see that money returned at some point. While I have no doubts that Borders is dying a long and slow death, there’s a good chance the zombified corpse of Borders will remain alive long after it should have, simply because those loans aren’t going to pay themselves back.
I am all for ebooks taking off and becoming as mainstream and ubiquitous as smartphones and laptops. But the reality is that Borders isn’t dead quite yet, and even when they do there’s still B&N to serve as physical stores. Plus, if there were that much pent-up demand for books that mail-order and libraries couldn’t possibly handle it, then Borders wouldn’t be in the position to be near-death…bookstores would be hopping.
Personally, I think it’s far better for ebooks to be featured in-store, like the nook and Kobo Reader are, than to drive people to them sight unseen. Being able to walk into their local store and handle an ebook reader, learn about the stores, etc., is more valuable and more likely to further ebooks. Eventually, that will pare down physical bookstores, but the death of physical bookstores won’t create that ebook mass tipping point.