Borders bankruptcy: 200 store closings point to the rise of e-books

Borders bankruptcy may not be a good sign for brick-and-mortar businesses, but the outlook for the written word is still good, some say. The Borders bankruptcy became official on Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Customers enter a Borders bookstore in Washington, DC on Feb. 14.

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The news of the Borders bankruptcy Wednesday may send a shiver up the spine of those who love the feel and smell of a “real” paper book in their hands. But to the pros who make a living from book sales, it’s just another sign of the new digital days that are transforming the industry of the printed word.

While the expected closing of some 200 Borders bookstores may indeed be a gloomy economic indicator for brick-and-mortar businesses, more than a few prognosticators say the outlook for the written word is still good.

People need to understand the role of bookstores in the book-business food chain, says Antoinette Kuritz, a literary development agent who directs the La Jolla Writers Conference of San Diego. “Bookstores are basically consignment shops. They put books on their shelves and only pay for those books when they actually sell through to a customer,” she says. When it comes to physical books, she adds, “publishers have been taking a beating for years.”

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The transition to e-books cannot happen fast enough for those looking to actually make money from publishing, she says. E-book sales jumped 164.4 percent in 2010, to $441.3 million, for the 14 publishers who report sales to the Association of American Publishers’ monthly sales program.

Brick-and-mortar stores that go to where their customers are will be the survivors, says Scott Spiewak, CEO of Fresh Impact Public Relations in Seattle. He has focused on the book market for 14 years and says the biggest change for booksellers is understanding where their customers are. These days, he says, that is online or on a mobile device, whether that is an iPad, an e-reader such as a Kindle or a Nook, or a cellphone.

In a restless, mobile society accustomed to consuming information electronically, the shift to e-books is a simple fact, says Mr. Spiewak. “Digital publishing is meeting consumers where they are at – on their devices, not in a store,” he says.

Writers must adapt as well, says Spiewak. “We have been advising our authors for the past year to adapt their book websites and marketing plans accordingly to sell more books. The days of going to a store and seeing 1,000 people turn out is quickly fading unless you have an extremely high-profile author who has the following to boot,” he says.

An online presence is now crucial for writers, who increasingly must rely on their digital connections to bring attention to their work. “We have authors who say they don’t want to Twitter or Facebook, and I just have to tell them if you want to make money in the 21st century, you have to go where your readers are,” Spiewak says.

Not all segments of the book market will move as fast toward e-books as the adult fiction and nonfiction, says book-marketing expert Albert Greco, a professor at Fordham University in New York. E-book penetration in that segment is about 9 percent, he says. The adult cohort is the one most likely to own the sorts of pricey devices required for e-book consumption.

Many have touted the value of e-books for the education market, where textbooks are increasingly both expensive and outdated by new information, Professor Greco says. But most school districts don’t have the money to provide the readers or laptops that children would need to read a digital textbook.

Another market segment unlikely to move quickly to e-books is the young children’s. “I don’t see parents rushing out to buy a $349 iPad or Kindle to put in the hands of their 5-year-old so they can read ‘Pat the Bunny,’ ” he adds.

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