Tag Archive for Borders

NYT on Amazon’s Prices

Just a quick post to direct your attention to an article by David Streitfeld, published on Friday, July 5th in the physical edition of the New York Times (and published online a day earlier).  It concerns Amazon.com’s prices, specifically with respect to independent and university press books.

I’m calling attention to the piece for several reasons.  First, it raises important questions about Amazon’s role as a cultural intermediary in the wake of Borders’ demise,  Barnes & Noble’s slide, and the ongoing shakeout of independent bookstores.  Second, I happen to be quoted in the story.  Here’s what I had to say, echoing some of my points in Chapters 2 and 3 of Late Age, in addition to the Preface to the paperback edition:

“Amazon is doing something vitally important for book culture by making books readily available in places they might not otherwise exist,” said Ted Striphas, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But culture is best when it is robust and decentralized, not when there is a single authority that controls the bulk of every transaction.”

When Mr. Striphas’s book, “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control,” first appeared in paperback in 2011, Amazon sold it for $17.50, the author said. Now it is $19.

“There’s not much competition to sell my book,” Mr. Striphas said. “The conspiracy theorist would say Amazon understands this.”

Needless to say, the rest of the piece is worth the read, too.  My thanks to David for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important issue.

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Two Interviews

My blogging got interrupted as a result of my (very welcome) spring break travels, so apologies for not posting any new material last week.  But it wasn’t just travel that kept me from writing.  I’ve also been busy giving interviews about my past and current research projects, which, truth be told, were a real blast to do.  Here’s a bit about them.

The first is a two-part Q & A with the great Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006) and Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), among many other notable books and articles.  The interview with Henry was a great opportunity to sit down and revisit arguments and themes from The Late Age of Print, now three years on.  It also gave me a chance to reflect a bit on what Late Age might have looked like were I writing it today, e.g., in light of Borders’ recent liquidation, Amazon.com’s forays into social media-based e-reading, and more.  Part I of the interview, which focuses mostly on the first half of Late Age, is here;  part II, which focuses largely on material from the second half of the book, is here.

I was also interview recently by the good folks at “Future Tense,” a fantastic radio program produced for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  For those of you who may be unacquainted with the show, here’s a little information about it: “Future Tense explores the social, cultural, political and economic fault lines arising from rapid change. The weekly half-hour program/podcast takes a critical look at new technologies, new approaches and new ways of thinking. From politics to social media to urban agriculture, nothing is outside our brief.”  Great stuff, needless to say, and so I was thrilled when they approached me to talk about my recent work on algorithmic culture as part of their March 25th program, “The Algorithm.”  You can listen to the complete show here.  Mine is the first voice you’ll hear following host Antony Funnell’s introduction of the program.

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting.  And while you’re at it,  please don’t forget to like the new Late Age of Print Facebook page.

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Bye-Bye Borders (in Bloomington)

Just before Christmas I blogged here about the closing of the Borders Bookstore here in my home community of Bloomington, Indiana.  Friday, January 7, 2011 was the store’s final day of operation.  I visited it for the last time on Wednesday, January 5th and snapped a few pictures.  Even for those of you who may never have set foot in this particular Borders location, you can tell that it was barely a shell of what it once was.

The montage of pictures above should give you a sense of what I mean by a “shell.”  The image appearing there on the bottom-left is, incidentally, of what used to be the children’s section, which is a far cry from how it used to look.  In fact, I have a quite vivid memory from the time I was researching The Late Age of Print. I hung out there practically all night on the evening of June 20th, 2003 in anticipation of the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Back then it was teeming with books, kids, caregivers, and energy.  Not so much now.

These two close-ups illustrate the scope of the sell-off.  It’s definitely an “everything must go” situation but more, no doubt a result of the chain’s economic woes, which extend far beyond this particular branch.  The picture on the right shows a bookshelf that’s been transformed into a display for cleaning agents — yes, cleaning agents — that are being sold off along with the store’s remaining inventory of books, DVDs, etc.  (Another display nearby held items from the café, including the mixes the baristas would use to make fancy drinks.)  Speaking of books, the vast majority of titles left were either category fiction (romances, sci-fi, etc.) or books by/about celebrities.  Note the unusually large stock of biographies of American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar in the upper right-hand corner of the image at left.  It was, in other words, pretty much the bottom of the barrel by the time I got there.  Based on the uniformity of the inventory, I ‘d guess that most of the really desirable books had been carted off and redistributed to other Borders stores.

This final image shows a computer terminal located on what used to be the customer service counter.   Instead of facing the customer service agent, it had been turned around to face the customers, as if to greet us as we entered the store on its final days.  The display read, “Your Favorite Book Store.  Now Digital.”  I guess we know how Borders is imagining its future — assuming, of course, that it has one.

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A Blue Christmas at Borders

Three months ago I blogged here about the plight of the U.S.’s two major big-box bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, both of which have been struggling due to the combined effect of the economic downturn and intensifying competition online.  Of the two, Borders has been the hardest hit.  Thebookseller.com reports that the chain may run into a “liquidity shortfall” early next year.  In layperson’s terms that means Borders is practically out of cash, something that doesn’t bode well for its long term survival.  The news isn’t much of a surprise, however, coming as it does on the heels of several rounds of layoffs this year and major changes in the company’s top leadership.

Well, the situation at Borders is finally hitting home — and by home I mean my home, Bloomington, Indiana.  About a month ago the company announced that it would be closing our local Borders branch just after the first of the year because it has been under-performing, relatively speaking.  Here are some (quite depressing) photos of what the outside of the store looked like last week (the “B” got burned out in a recent fire):

Everything at the store is being sold off, including not only the books but also the displays, furniture, and fixtures.  Companies only do that when they’re in grave trouble.

I’ve been patronizing this particular Borders since 2002.  Back then the place was abuzz with people, energy, and, of course, merchandise.  Shelves brimming with books.  A crowded, non-stop cafe.  Much meeting and milling about.  I loved going there to shop, write, and even just hang out in the company of books — lots of them.

But sometime around 2007 or 2008 I started noticing a change.  The shelves were becoming emptier, the cafe was quieter, and there seemed to be less and less traffic in the store.  The whole ambiance had changed, and it was about then that I started seeking out other places in which to do my book shopping and writing.

In the end, I suppose I was part of the problem.  I feel awful about the remaining employees, who are about to lose their jobs.

Not long after the Bloomington Borders opened in our Eastland Plaza shopping mall, in 1996, a nearby independent bookstore called Morgenstern’s shut down.  I don’t know much about Morgenstern’s, admittedly, since I moved to Bloomington several years after it had closed. Having said that, I find that most of the non-chain bookstores here in town do a bad job of stocking books of interest to academics, which is surprising given all the Indiana University faculty who live here.  In any case, I don’t want to attribute the store’s closing strictly to Borders (or to Barnes & Noble, for that matter, which opened a Bloomington branch later the same year), even though it seems pretty clear that Borders had something to do with Morgenstern’s demise.

With the closing of our local Borders, Bloomington is about to become something of a one-horse town — and by one-horse I mean, Barnes & Noble.  There are other bookstores here, of course, including Boxcar Books (a non-profit), Howard’s Bookstore, and a great second-hand shop called Caveat Emptor.  But the disappearance of our 25,600 square-foot Borders will be a tremendous hit locally.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

A little over a decade ago the bookstore chains seemed almost invincible.  New branches of Borders and Barnes & Noble were opening practically by the day.  Lots of indies fell by the wayside in the meantime, but at least there were large, well-stocked bookstores cropping up in their stead.

Today, it seems as if we’re headed in the opposite direction.  Physical bookstores seem poised to become less a part of the experiential landscape of daily life.  Call me a dinosaur, but I doubt that bodes well for the future of books and reading.

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Bye Bye, Big-Box Bookstores

After more than a decade of dominance fueled by aggressive expansion, the leading big-box bookstore chains in the United States are hurting.

Borders is barely hanging on by a financial thread, with an almost $38 million loss near the end of 2009 sending the company into a tailspin. 2010 began with a round of layoffs, followed by restructuring and most recently the departure of its CFO, Mark Bierley. The cracks are beginning to show in its retail stores, too. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, the bookshelves at our local Borders are getting emptier by the month. It’s also now closed on Sunday, presumably as a way to cut operating costs.

Barnes & Noble seems to be faring better, but that’s a relative statement these days. For the better part of a year now it’s been fighting a takeover attempt led by billionaire corporate raider, Ron Burkle. But in some ways that’s not the worst of its worries. In an attempt to counter Burkle, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio recently went looking for someone else — someone friendlier — to buy the company. He was met with this grim response by the financial press:

Before news of Barnes & Noble’s plan to explore alternatives, shares had declined about a third this year in the face of concerns that the growing digital-books market and competition from Amazon.com Inc. would squeeze out its 720 bricks-and-mortar stores while also leaving it with little market share in the digital world, where its Nook e-book reader followed in the footsteps of Amazon’s Kindle.

“It’s difficult to envision a buyer of this company given the structural issues it continues to face,” said Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter.

Realistically, it’s probably an overstatement to say that nobody would want to buy Barnes & Noble. Someone with an interest in revamping the chain might well want to do so. Of course that would most likely mean, sayonara Barnes & Noble as we know it.

This isn’t a surprising development, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble should have seen it coming.

Remember Tower Records? Or all of those Virgin Mega-Stores? With the rise of digital music, most of the big-box music stores were forced to shut their doors. They just couldn’t compete with a business model premised on minimizing infrastructure and abandoning material goods. The same goes for Blockbuster and all of those other national video store chains, whose physical stores have been driven under by the double-whammy of Netflix and video on-demand.

E-books still have limited uptake, of course, which means that Borders and Barnes & Noble have yet to feel the digital squeeze to the degree that music and video stores have. Still, their lackluster forays into online bookselling have put both companies at a major disadvantage. Barnes & Noble used to have a fallback in the education market, with an exclusive lock on hundreds of college bookstores across the United States. Even that’s now being eroded by Amazon.com, however, which is actively courting students on its website.

There’s been some talk lately of how to retool the big-box bookstores to make them more competitive. Unfortunately, as a recent Publishers Weekly article noted, one plan would significantly involve “Taking the ‘Book’ Out of Bookstores.” In place of the physical volumes there would be an increase in what booksellers like to call “non-book product,” including journals, cards, fancy writing paper, reading lights, games, and that type of thing.

No doubt the profit margins on non-book product are attractive, and I suspect they help to create store traffic. But honestly, is this a viable long-term strategy? Does it make sense to save these bookstores by turning them into plus-sized stationery stores?

Here’s a different idea. Bowker, a leading book industry research and information firm, recently reported that women over the age of 40 comprise the largest segment of the US book buying market. Common sense would dictate that Borders and Barnes & Noble ought to pursue that aspect of the market even more actively than they do now, since that’s where the money is.

But it’s clear that now’s not the time for common sense; now’s the time for bold, unconventional thinking. What this means is that the bookstore chains ought to be courting those who aren’t your usual book buyers and working closely with publishers to develop titles that would appeal to them. That way they’d be broadening the market rather than simply reproducing it as it is.

I also wonder if now might be the right time to begin experimenting with smaller, shopping mall-based stores as well. Borders and Barnes & Noble closed most of their Waldenbooks and B. Dalton mall locations in the 1990s, in part to help finance the construction of their superstores. Nevertheless, people still love to shop at the mall, even in the internet age. The experience of being in pubic, hanging out, and poking around is something that online retailers can never hope to duplicate. And so here, again, is another untapped possibility. A suitable print-on-demand system could make mall stores even more attractive to book buyers, moreover, since then they wouldn’t have to wait for titles to be delivered from suppliers or sources online.

Maybe, in the end, it’s time to bid farewell to the big-box bookstore chains. Personally, though, I’d be sad to see them go, especially since they’ve been instrumental in making books available in places where, for the most part, they weren’t abundant — places like my hometown of Goshen, New York, for instance. I also think it’s important for printed books to remain a part of the experiential landscape of people’s everyday lives, both in the form of libraries and retail stores.

Indeed, what would it mean to live in a time when we couldn’t pluck a random volume off of a shelf and start reading, just for the sake of doing so? That’s the question we’re staring at now, not only because of the shakeout that’s been going on for the better part of 15 years in the retail sector, but also because of the cutbacks that are crippling US public libraries. But Instead of staring at this question, isn’t it about time folks started staring it down?

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