The Borders And A&R Collapse

Everyone is blogging about the collapse of REDgroup, the company that owns the bookshop chains of Borders and Angus & Robertson (and Whitcoulls in New Zealand). I was going to write a big long ranty post all about it, but the truth is it’s all been done. A quick web search will yield more opinions than you can fit on a ballot sheet. But I will add, very briefly, my perception of the whole thing. (Which probably means I’m about to write a big long ranty post!)

Lots of people are trying to establish exactly what this collapse is and what caused it. I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not the great ebook revolution; it’s not shitty management by REDgroup; it’s not the global financial crisis; it’s not the rising cost of physical shop rents; it’s not the massive surge in online shopping and stores like Amazon stealing business. At least, it’s not any one of these things. It’s all of these things.

It’s the progress of industry. Sure, the management of the whole group was blindly stupid and greedy, but without the other factors they’d probably have survived. Sure, Amazon, Book Depository and stores like them are having a massive impact on brick and mortar bookstores, but without the other factors they’d probably have survived. When you combine all the factors at once, this stuff is inevitable. Pretty much every major bookstore chain will suffer. The nature of the industry is changing. It’s a terrible shame for all those people that are going to lose their jobs, but that’s a part of life. It’s like the shipbuilders on the Tyne, the coalminers in the Welsh hills, the dudes that used to run photo processing shops specialising in dark room development. The world moves on, things change, technology develops and old methods and jobs slowly disappear. But new ones also emerge. The smart and the rich are the ones that stay ahead of the curve.

Putting shitty American coffee chains in shitty American book store chains wasn’t going to suddenly make Borders a going business concern. Turning Angus & Robertson into cheap remainder bins with plate glass windows was never going to ensure their survival. High street and mall book stores, just like paper books, are going to be disappearing. There will still be paper books (I’ve talked about this a lot before) but they’ll be specialty books, or Print On Demand books from online stores. Just the same, there will still be book shops, but they’ll be specialty stores, catering to a particular niche of collectors or genre and they’ll have to diversify – comic books, trading cards, games, collectibles – all the stuff that fits the niche.

Whether we like it or not, the world is constantly changing. With change comes death and rebirth. Some things crumble to dust while others are born from the ashes of their predecessor’s demise. There were once people that were skilled at many things that no longer have a place in the world. You can’t blame any one thing except progress. The same is true of the recent book store collapse. There are many mitigating factors that contributed to the stores going under at this particular time, but that’s the small stuff. The changing face of publishing, reading and book selling is going to keep changing.

Within the next decade, I predict, we’ll see very few, if any, big chain book stores. Mass market stuff will be in all the department stores and K-Marts and places like that, but mainly online. Eventually you’ll only get your mass market release in hard copy at a POD booth or ordered that way online. There’ll be specialist stores dealing with specialist buyers and collectible books, while pretty much everyone else buys their stuff online. And the vast majority of it will be ebooks, with a small chunk held by POD releases. There’ll be a rise in collectible, beautiful, probably limited edition hardback releases. Kids starting school now will look at print books the same way we look at vinyl and tape cassettes. If you compare books to albums, you can look at the ebook as the CD and the print book as the vinyl release. The ratios will be pretty similar soon enough, I expect. And before long the CD and will disappear unless you order one, POD style. There’ll be a rise in small press releases with short print runs, and more small press will utilise online bookstores and ebooks for their distribution. Eventually the small press print run will be a thing of the past.

It’s all going to happen, so trying to find a particular reason for the demise of Borders is like trying to look for a particular reason for the demise of the Victorian era. It didn’t die because Victoria did – it ended because we all moved on, in a slow and incremental way with all kinds of contributing factors. That’s life.

Told you I wasn’t going to write a big long ranty post.


This is a reprint from Alan Baxter‘s The Word.