SYNDICATED COLUMN: Pirate This Book

Borders Goes Bankrupt. Will Books Survive?

Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, analysts say, Borders is probably doomed.

The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?

Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).

The key word, of course, is the one in front of the word “word”: “printed.” We are reading more than ever. Just not in print.

According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.

The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.

Why does this matter? Quality. The Huffington Post, recently sold to America Online for $315 million, points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We’re getting exactly what they pay for: crap.

If you think journalism is bad now, it’s going to get even worse. The message is as loud and brassy as Arianna: real journalism doesn’t pay. Inevitably the best and brightest are gravitating to other fields.

Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention. I recall significantly more of what I read in print than online; I’ve found the same to be true of my friends.

Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.

“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads— take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone,” argues Mangen. “Materiality matters…One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.”

My personal experience convinces me that there is a difference. On the Kindle, everything looks and feels the same. When I read the Times on newsprint, part of what helps me remember a story is the ad that ran next to it and the photo underneath. Sure, Kindle readers remember much of what they read. But not as much as old-fashioned bookworms.

It is hard to quantify the value of a country’s intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.

So what’s the solution? European booksellers, publishers and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.

In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to learn the lesson of Borders: middle of the road equals mediocre.

Beginning at least ten years ago Borders buyers began eschewing risks. Buying into the “blockbuster mentality” of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors—profitable, but not bestselling, titles. Browsers found fewer surprises at Borders. As for top-selling books, they’re cheaper at Costco and on Amazon.

Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders. B&N’s inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel “curated,” the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity. If consumers want something obscure, odds are there’s a copy or two in the back, spine out.

It’s a frightening thought: America’s intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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11 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Pirate This Book

  1. This is probably one of your best written pieces Ted. Good call and lets hope books and bookshops survive.

    And the question about post-literate society is a necessary one to ask. More likely is the question about whether we are becoming a society where the attention span is dying or dead, and whether we are becoming an attention span murdered society.

    I would love to hear from Bruce Coulson about these boutique bookstores.

    Libraries though, need to be supported by the government and expanded. These are treasures troves of humanity.

    Memory retention and bad quality journalism are certainly two of the problems that this society will face. To get around them, books are likely necessary, and from the history during the Bush administration, I get the feeling that good quality journalism will migrate to books.

    I always end up at the politics section of my local bookstore and am surprised by how small it is compared to other parts of the bookstore, eg the cooking or fantasy section. Being better than middlebrow/bestseller/middle-of-the-road is much better, with books that are a bit edgier and challenge some of the reigning wisdom. If B&N does that, that’s great. And more boutique bookstores could follow through on it.

  2. The untimely death of books is highly overrated! Enough people will continue to read books for the very reasons you cite, Ted. I swore I’d never have an ereader, but asked for a Kindle for Christmas. I love it. But mostly, I use it to download samples so I can decide if I want to buy the books, LOL! Wisely, publishers are leveling the playing field between the prices of their books v. ebooks. Ironically enough, it’s said that the reason Borders is in trouble is bcz it was very late in getting into the ebook market, already cornered by Amazon.

  3. Good column. I’m one of those putting all my chips on the internet, but I think that Twitter valuation is something like 100x their revenue. Facebook is valued at $25 bn. I believe this is what they call a “bubble”…

  4. I have to read off of paper. I can’t concentrate reading off a computer screen unless its a short blog post or short news story. I cannot imagine reading something like T.S. Eliot’s ‘ The Wasteland’ off an electronic screen. I REFUSE TO DO IT!

  5. Any words that exist only in cyberspace are at risk of being stored in an outmoded format and lost that way. Also, according to some of the Peak Oil scenarios play out fully, our electronic infrastructure is due for a massive contraction sometime in the next 50 years, this also would likely result in a lot of e-literature lost forever. Meanwhile, there’s a couple used bookstores I regularly visit, and I frequently pick up interesting books that are out of print. It is interesting to contemplate the future of literature.

  6. Our sound-byte culture doesn’t help. I am glad I have a small used bookstore in my area. Those kinds of stores are few and far between. I still would like to have Borders and B&N, but I prefer the mom and pop style bookstore.

  7. Newsweek had a short article about Barnes & Noble considering bankruptcy and asking opinions on E-books from a few people- the Librarian of Congress, Joyce Carol Oates. What I thought of as the best answer (which doesn’t address the bankruptcy issue) said how you read is not as important as will you read? And will you read a sustained train of thought?

  8. Bruce Coulson is right. Financial armageddon has already hit and destroyed the music market. Look at who survived: Boutiquey specialty music shops. Look in Manhattan: Virgin Music is dead and Other Music is still there. It’s time for big block bookstores to die.

    As for the rest of your article, I suspect that the poorer memory retention is a side-effect of the illuminated screen. E-paper screens, such as the one found in a Kindle, are probably not a part of the study you cited. From my personal experience, the LCD monitor may be the root of the problem.

    If you are right, however, look to the rural areas of America to become even more illiterate than ever before. Those big blocks and Amazon have killed off all the little used bookstores that used to dot the landscape.

  9. The future is not super-stores.

    The future (which is already here) are specialty stores; bookstores that stock one particular genre (mysteries, romances, science-fiction) or cater to a group (Young Adult, Childrens). These stores can carry the small press books, the obscure titles, and have a generous stock of the popular titles as well. Customers are encouraged to browse; clerks are usually knowledgeable about the genre and stock. Such stores exist and are doing well, albeit on a small scale (so far).

  10. Forget about the precious relationship between old-fashioned bookworms and printed material! What about the precious relationship between old-fashioned scribes and vellum manuscripts! That bastard Gutemberg surely screwed things up.
    Anyway, I thought this was a typical curmudgeonly screed by our digitally challenged cartoonist host, until I got to this part:

    “So what’s the solution? [sure, cause we all agree it’s a problem…] European booksellers, publishers and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.”

    Sheesh… Sure what the world needs now is more government subsidies for outdated businesses. Is this sour grapes about the commercial failure of your atempt to channel the Old Man’s ghost? I know, it’s got to to be difficult to bear seeing Tom Woods and Matt Taibbi a lot more successful with their manifestos, especially when they just released them…

  11. “Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.”

    Could it be also that when people actually pay for something, they subconsciously feel like they have to remember it better than something they read for free?

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