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Bare Shelves and Bleak Futures at Borders

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I went into my local Borders bookstore this weekend because I heard that Pyr had just released the latest book by legendary science fiction author Mike Resnick. The book is called Flagship and it is the conclusion of a five-book series of classic space opera set in Resnick's Birthright universe. The first four books have been extraordinarily well written and a joy to read and I have been looking forward to this final volume for months. Amazon lists the release date as December 22 and I had heard from the author that it was available in bookstores before Christmas, so I expected to be able to cruise into my local Borders and pick up a copy.

Not so. Much to my chagrin they didn't have it on the shelves in Science Fiction or in the new releases section — which seemed to mostly be reprints. In fact, it was nowhere to be found. Nor did they have any of the previous volumes in the series, though they are still in print. When I went to ask a clerk whether they had copies on order and when they might be getting them, he didn't just tell me they were delayed by the holiday or backordered, he explained that for reasons which were above his level someone had made the decision not to carry Flagship in that store at all, despite the fact that I had bought all of the previous volumes in the series there and they had sold out of them.

Okay, so now I'm just bitching because they didn't have my book and I'm going to have to order it from Amazon and wait two days and be mildly inconvenienced, boo hoo. But there's more to it than that. As I wandered the stacks in dismay I noticed some changes at my local Borders. First off, there were far fewer actual books on the shelves. They've expanded the space for non-book products and reduced the space for actual books. Then there's a problem with what's actually on the shelves. Apparently there's no room for Flagship because the shelves are full-up with supernatural themed romance novels most of which verge on being pornographic, marketed not only under romance but in every other section of the bookstore, including taking up about half the shelf-space in the Science Fiction and Horror sections. For some reason, just under the letter K in Science Fiction there were five shelves of vampire romance novels with pale and glabrous male models on the cover, flashing unholy lust from their dark, sunken eyes.

When one type of book comes to dominate the market every other genre and preference in literature suffers, and I've never before seen the kind of market dominance which has been seized by supernatural romance novels, especially those involving vampires. Some of these novels are good. My wife and daughter read them and I've even read a few. But most are not. I suppose it's the Twilight effect, and like that series most of them are not terribly well written, imaginative or interesting. They're just the same old formulas dressed up with a little magic, fangs, and a cape. And it's not just that they're squeezing marginal or obscure works off of the shelves. Resnick's books have been performing well at Amazon by any standard, but if you look at the list of top-sellers in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, out of the top 100 books at least 65 fall into the sub-genre of supernatural romance. That's really an unprecedented share of the market. Like a lot of great science fiction authors, Mike Resnick used to make ends meet writing adult novels and romances. Maybe he'll have to don a pseudonym and purple pen again if he wants to stay on the shelves.

Of course, the key to the changes at my local Borders is that these novels are profitable. They sell regardless of the quality, on the strength of the cover and the name of the author and the popularity of the genre. It leaves us nerdy middle-aged guys grousing around the store muttering about the decline of literacy and ending up looking for solace in the non-fiction section or going home and thanking the Internet gods for the existence of Amazon where we can buy anything we want. I'm also thankful for print-on-demand which has let small, specialty publishers keep some excellent but less commercially viable authors in print in an unfriendly market. So for now I can still get my books, even if wandering the stacks and reading the flyleaves has become obsolete.

Clearly Internet shopping also plays a role in this. Publishers aren't working quite as hard to sell second-tier writers to the bookstores when they know they can sell to the established fan base through online outlets. Some publishers like Tor and Baen have become really masterful at this, building online communities and essentially mentoring new writers in the process.

We're also on the verge of seeing substantial market impact from electronic books which are now available from Apple and Amazon and other sources to be viewed on your Amazon Kindle or Sony Book Reader or even your iPhone. I think this is a great boon to optometry and the sale of reading glasses to younger and younger audiences, but the things actually seem to be popular. Someone has been working on this for a while and there's already a huge back-catalog of classic literature and everything new also comes out in this format when it is released. The growth of this technology is getting a big boost from Amazon which is offering scads of new releases for free if you download the Kindle version, which helps offset the somewhat inflated cost of the readers.

With this new techology, those of us who don't want to read about busty vampire hunters and their dark and forbidden lovers are going to be even farther out in the cold, as books that aren't at the top of the sales lists are going to be harder and harder to find in printed form. A printed book is so much more expensive to produce than an electronic edition that there has to be an enormous pull for financially strapped publishers to move in that direction. It won't be long before I have to read the books I want to read in that format, but I'm going to miss holding a printed work in my hands and feeling the rough paper on my fingers and the solidity of the boards and binding. Hey, that gives me an idea. I can hollow out obsolete printed books and turn them into holders for Kindles. You'll still have the feel of your real book and women who like vampire romances will think you're all antique and literary in a dark and sexy way. We can hope, anyway.

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About Dave Nalle

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks for the unfortunate report

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    exact same thing is happening to borders around here.

    don’t you have a pile of independent bookstores in austin?

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    As someone who lives out in the boonies – and only gets to visit a Borders about once a year – I find this story pretty darn depressing. . .

  • http://eclecticlibrarian.net/blog/ Anna Creech

    I spent three years in a small town with no bookstore (the biggest collection of books for sale was at the Goodwill) and a pitiful public library, so I got used to leveraging the power of the internet via Amazon and book trading websites. When three bookstores opened in my last year there, I went to browse their shelves, but was regularly disappointed by what I found on them. I think the only book I bought at any of them was a gift for my sister, and I had to order a copy. I figured it was because these were small and slightly specialized establishments, but lately every time I go to a big box store, I have similar trouble finding something I want to read. The science fiction and fantasy shelves are most difficult in that I am looking for something newly released that isn’t in the middle of a series or featuring members of the undead. I’ve pretty much given up on that quest, too.

  • http://corp-minamiji.typepad.com Christy Corp-Minamiji

    I have the same problem with the Borders stores in our area; even in Davis (a university town), Borders appears to be a bookstore for people who don’t read. Fortunately, Davis has a terrific independent bookstore (The Avid Reader)staffed by knowledgeable bibliophiles. It is sad to watch the book industry tumbling toward the lowest common denominator when so much wonderful literature is being created.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’ve never had a problem with any of the Border stores in the Bay Area – of course, this was two years ago and things may have changed since. And I’d go there just to see what’s new on the shelves in my areas of interest. So I’m kind of surprised about the Davis store. It’s still California. And Austin, the university town.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Mark, we do have quite a few independent bookstores in Austin, but they have taken to marketing to specialized markets. They are either kids bookstores (which are fantastic), or political (mostly anarchist) or occult (the big one just closed) or gay/lesbian (and again, a major one just closed). We used to have one of the best Science Fiction and Fantasy bookstores around, but it also closed several years back.

    I probably also ought to write an article on the demise of the rare book store. The internet has killed them as well, and it’s an area where being able to leaf through your rare books before committing to spend a great deal of money on them is very helpful. ABEBooks and some of the other sites are fantastic, but they don’t even include any kind of picture, so unless you know exactly what you’re looking for they aren’t much help.

    I actually have a dream of opening my own bookstore which would be a combination coffeehouse, rare book store and SF/Fantasy bookstore. I have enough books to stock it myself if I want to clear out the garage. I even have a domain name set aside – Rare and Strange Books.

    But it’s quite clear that the only way to make a bookstore profitable is to also use it as your office for internet sales and offer other services as well, like coffee and letting people hang out and play on the internet.

    Dave

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That does sound like a good idea, Dave, especially when combined with providing internet services and sales.

    Of course, so much on the net is already public access – like through the Scribd site, for instance.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Dave, save a spot in the corner for people to rent out and sell their LPs

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Great idea – a one-stop place for the intellectual and cultural elite.
    And provide a public forum for airing out your far-right libertarian views to the Austin progressives.

    Could you handle that, Dave?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    It should have been “far out libertarian views.” It’s got a better sound to it.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    Rare and Strange Books.

    i think that’s a fine idea, sorta goes with austin’s penchant for weirdness.

    maybe if you mixed new and old books you’d have a better chance. that’s what my local place does. they also have a small cafe and a cd/lp room as well.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    The key enabling fact is that it would give me an Austin address to use to move my kids (or kid) into the AISD instead of our less good school district out here in the burbs. So if I’m going to do it, the point at which Katie (who is now 7) would go to 7th grade would be the time to consider it.

    I even have the neighborhood I want to put it in picked out.

    Dave

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    This, of course, assumes the utter failure of my political career.

    Dave

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    But it might make a better person out of you.
    Just kidding.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    This, of course, assumes the utter failure of my political career.

    Not necessarily.

    You could call it ‘Nalle’s Specialist Books and World Domination HQ’.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Dave you don’t mention Half Price Books which is in all the major cities in Texas. When I first started blogging ten years ago one of the first big conversations the group had was about bookstores. A bunch of nerds who love books were stoked by books. We found that North Carolina had the most bookstores, I think in the used category than any other state in the country. I forget the details and the city in North Carolina. But hell that don’t matter bcz I think of Texas as “book heaven” in terms of getting any damn book I want at HPBooks.

    I wanted a book by Robert Thurman for example. Just called them and they had a hard copy for like 7 dollars in perfect condition. My whole damn house is a library. I get books from HPB and Amazon.

    Our library is good. But there are so many stinky homeless people who use it that I can hardly stand to be inside for more than a few minutes.

    But to your point about the type of books. As an occulist and watching the rise of Harry Potter I could have predicted this. This is an unfortunate trend that I see continuing into the decade. People will get tired of the low level of writing eventually. But the taste for vampire blood and black magic will not have been slated.

    Hopefully this will open the door for white magicians.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    HPB is based out of San Antonio and is well represented here in Austin. But the problem with HPB — even the big ones — is that they don’t get new books, and at this point I’m caught up with the authors I want to read and am looking for new books by old authors or entirely new authors to read, and HPB doesn’t fill that need at all well. They’re also mediocre as a rare book store, though every once in a while I find something.

    As for Harry Potter, it was at least fairly well written. Have to give Rowling credit for that. And the early vampire stuff like Anne Rice and Hamilton’s Anita Blake series were well written (until it turned into porn). But once those genres spawned a second and third generation, quality gave way to formula and we ended up with lots of crap instead of a few really good examples of the genre.

    Dave

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Hey Dave, a few weeks ago I went to our local Borders to find a particular (an recently popular) book. And lo and behold…NOT there. Hmmmmmm…..

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Going to Borders should be an experience, Christine – like being exposed to strange and foreign philosophies. In your case, of the liberal ilk.

    In any case, it’s not like going to 7-11.

  • http://www.andrewpmayer.com Andrew Mayer

    I actually went looking for the Starship books over at Powell’s last week, and they have none of the series on the shelf in the main store.

  • Martin Wagner

    Within short driving distance of any Borders in Austin is a Barnes & Noble, which usually will have a much better variety of books actually on the shelves.

    Borders as a whole has been in freefall for ages. Their decision to eliminate not only CD’s but almost all DVD’s from their store (the former I can understand, the latter seemed really short-sighted, considering how diverse their movie section used to be) is an indicator of how badly the economy has pounded them, and how they haven’t been able to keep up with Amazon and B&N.

  • http://johnpeltier.com/blog JP

    As a recent transplant to Austin, I’m a fan of BookPeople. Not quite as wide a selection as I’d like to see, but well worth supporting as a local alternative.

    Borders and Barnes-and-Noble both have their weaknesses. There’s not really room for both national chains, so I expect a buyout in the next couple of years.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    The Borders in North Austin still has a pretty strong DVD section, but I’m sure that will change. I’ve never been a big fan of B&N because they seem not to carry certain authors or lines of books and I don’t like the way they put their horror books in with the mainstream fiction. Picky, I know.

    And it’s a good point to bring up BookPeople. If they had better locations they could grow to fill the gap as the big corporate stores become les satisfactory. The problem is that their main location downtown is just hell to get to and a pain to park at.

    Dave

  • http://inannaarthen.com Vyrdolak

    Very interesting piece! I’ve been running my small press since 2006 and a major issue I see in the industry is the huge disconnect between publishers and authors, and the people who buy and read books. Opinions from readers are invaluable–and all too rare, it seems. Thanks for writing this!

  • Borders Bookseller

    As an employee of Borders, all I can say is I feel your pain. Current management is horrible. The only decisions that are made are bad ones.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Vyrdolak, interesting site. Shameful plug, but you should check out my font design site. Our fonts are very popular with occult publishers – http://www.fontcraft.com.

    BB, there’s a strong rumor going around that B&N is going to buy you guys out. That would be a real shame, but not undeserved.

    Dave