A World Without Borders: One Author's Fear

Borders bookstore
Borders bookstore

Owning and operating an independent bookstore has never been easy. Since the rise of the big chains and online booksellers, independent bookstores have been under considerable financial pressure. Almost daily, Shelf Awareness, an industry newsletter for the book trade, reports that yet another independent bookstore has closed.

One of the most recent, the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles, has been a fixture of the thriller and mystery community since 1987. In an e-mailed announcement, the owners explained: "We simply cannot compete with the Amazons of the world and the impact of the economy."

Now it's not just independent bookstores that are threatened. In December, Borders Group (BGP) -- the nation's second-largest bookstore chain -- shocked the publishing industry when it announced it was halting payments to publishers and distributors. Reports put the amount owed to publishers at $444.9 million. In response, several publishers and one distributor have stopped further shipments until Borders' financial situation is resolved.

Who Will Be Hurt If Borders Closes?

As severe as Borders' problems are, the possible demise of one sales outlet – even a major one that commands roughly 10% of the bricks-and-mortar retail book market – won't put publishers out of business. Their catalogs comprise many titles, and throughout publishing's constant ebb and flow, the staggering number of copies sold by a handful of mega-bestsellers consistently helps offset any loss.

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The consequences to authors if Borders' 600 retail outlets were to close, however, would be severe. Unlike their publisher, an author's financial fortunes rest on the sales of one, or two or a handful of titles: their own. For authors, Borders' demise isn't just a matter of fewer stores carrying their books.

Aside from Barnes and Noble (BKS), which analysts predict would pick up 18% of the Borders market, most retail book chains carry a fraction of Borders' titles. To put it in numbers, a robust independent bookstore might stock as many as 10,000 titles, while the average Walmart (WMT) typically carries 1,400 to 1,700 titles. By contrast, a Borders' superstore has well over 100,000.

Many of those tens of thousands of titles stocked by Borders are written by midlist authors, the writers who are most reliant on browsing book buyers. Not yet elevated into the the rarefied ranks of authors with instant name recognition, members of the midlist may have a single title in print, or dozens. While their books may be selling briskly to a solid core of devoted fans, most midlisters haven't yet cracked a national bestseller list, which means their names aren't sufficiently recognizable to generate a sale.

Jockeying for Position. . .in Closing Stores

For these authors, the bulk of their sales depend heavily on impulse purchases made in retail outlets. For this reason, authors frequently fret over whether or not their publishers have purchased "co-op," or front-of-store placement for their titles. But the issue becomes moot if the bookstores themselves are no longer there.

Readers can and do judge a book by its cover. A recent survey commissioned by the writers organization Sisters In Crime indicates that bookstore browsing has a significant impact on sales: "'Face out' displays in some kinds of retail stores (Target, Walmart, etc.) cause buyers to be highly influenced by covers," the report noted, pointing out that readers are affected by more than just the cover art. According to the report, "elements such as title, author name, blurbs by other authors, and flap copy" can also prompt a buyer to pick up a book.

One bookstore employee notes that her store will order a title for the customer if the book isn't in stock, and the customer will then receive the copy at home in a few days with no cost for shipping. Even so, the employee admits, 90% of the customers who ask about a title the store doesn't carry decline to order it. According to her, the reason is that customers "like to hold the book in their hands, look it over and read a sample before they buy it."

A Hole in the Community

The demise of a bookstore – any bookstore – is a loss to the community. Visit any bookstore on a midweek morning, and you'll find customers reading the newspaper, working on their laptops, sitting at the community table enjoying a cup of coffee with friends they wouldn't have otherwise met. Bookstores host book groups, bridge clubs, knitting groups and story time for kids.

Bookstores are also where readers and writers connect. The Mystery Bookstore was known for hosting up to three author events a day on weekends. In a Publisher's Weekly story, Steven Jay Schwartz, author of Boulevard and Beat, put the community aspect of the famed bookstore into perspective: "My career began at the Mystery Bookstore," he noted. "I count the owners and booksellers as personal friends. There is a loyal community of authors and readers who will simply not recover from the loss of this iconic bookstore."

I happened to be in a bookstore when my agent called to tell me that we had an offer from Berkley to publish my first novel. Since that day, I've dreamed of having a book-signing in that same Borders bookstore.

Last Saturday, I did. It saddens me greatly to think that it may have been just in time.

Karen Dionne
Karen Dionne

Karen Dionneis the internationally published author of the environmental thrillers Freezing Pointand Boiling Point. The co-founder of online writers' community Backspace, she also serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Roomto find out more about her books and to read her blog.