On Border's closing

Since, as a writer, I’ve been to a LOT of bookstores, people have been asking me my opinion on Border’s closing. I’ve mentioned my feelings about Borders a few times on this blog, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

My opinion is Borders did it to themselves.

All of the business editorials I’ve seen are making it out that they were killed by the eBook revolution. Maybe that was a big loss on one revenue stream, but having visited fifty+ Borders over the last couple of years, and having been a businessman/salesman/entrepreneur myself, I can say they were sucking wind in their regular stores too.

Let me give you a few examples. When I do a book signing at Barnes & Noble (the other big box book store), their managers are universally helpful, the staff is normally very knowledgeable. I’ve never had an event at a B&N where they forgot to get books. I’ve never had an event at a B&N where they didn’t seem glad to have me and my fans there. Event at Borders? I’d have a fifty-fifty chance of having management give a damn. Maybe fifty-fifty on the employees, who were usually just listlessly serving time. And only Borders (and one particular Indy store that shall remain nameless) have actually scheduled me to have a book signing, and then forgotten to order any extra books. This has happened to me twice at two separate Borders.

When I go on book tour, I will map out the route, and map out every single book store within a city. Between scheduled events I will travel from store to store, so that I can sign my books that are in stock (signed copies sell better) but mostly in order to meet the staff. I’ve found that if I have fans on staff at a bookstore, I will literally sell ten times as many copies at that store compared to one down the street where nobody knows me.

My reception at Borders usually ranged between negative to blah… It got to the point that if I had to choose between stopping at an Indy, a B&N, or a Borders, I would hit the Indy first, then the B&N, then the other B&N, then every other B&N within 20 miles, and then maybe the Borders… Unless I was hungry, tired, bored, or maybe just wanted to go back to the hotel in case there was something more important to do, like watch reruns of Walker Texas Ranger.

Here is how a drive by would go at an average B&N the week one of my books comes out. Introduce myself to the person at the service counter. Usually they’d grab a manager. Then I’d sign the 5-12 copies of my books that they have. I’d usually end up having a conversation. About half the time, one or more of the staff members would purchase one of my books. (normally I would try to find out who their biggest contemporary fantasy fan was, or just cheat and find out who their Jim Butcher fan was).  If I already had fans on staff, I’d make sure they got an MHI patch.

Here is how the average Border’s drive by on release week would go. Stand forever at the customer service counter… Get one employee who goes, er, huh? You want to what? You write books? Oh… Okay… Whatever. Then I would go and sign my 0-2 copies. (right next to the forty thousand copies of various True Blood tie-ins) Nobody would care. Then I would ask myself why I bothered stopping at Borders and drive to the next B&N.

Some were better than others. Some were downright pathetic. I’ve worked at crappy companies, where the morale is low because the employees know they are just waiting to get screwed by management. You can see it in their eyes. You can feel it in the air. Borders had that feeling.

During one signing tour with Super Author John Brown, we stopped in a Borders that was so dark inside that at first we thought that they were still closed and we’d walked in on accident. Though our personal best Borders experience was when the two of us stopped at a “flagship” store, and several members of senior-upper-Border’s Corporate management were visiting. One of the manager said, and I kid you not, “Yes, you can sign your store-stock, but don’t sign all of them, because then we can’t return them.

No, seriously. Okay… So let me get this straight as a businessman, your strategy, going in, is how to best manage your inevitable defeat? If I call your nearest competitor a couple of weeks in advance and tell them I’m swinging by, they order a bunch of extra copies for me to sign, and they’ll even put out a display of them, BECAUSE SIGNED COPIES SELL BETTER.  

John and I were shocked when the upper-grand-poobah told us that.  I think I said, “I’m sorry, you must think we’re a couple of nobody self-published wannabes or something… I write for Baen, 5th biggest publisher of sci-fi, and he writes for Tor, which is the biggest. And we’re both relatively successful midlist authors.” (this was pre-NYT bestseller list for me, but trust me, that doesn’t make a lick of difference at Borders either). Same thing, don’t sign all of them ‘cause we can’t send them back… Except it didn’t matter, because this flagship store had one copy of John’s book and zero of mine… Next to two thousand copies of Twilight.

Okay, I worked at a bookstore during college. That isn’t even how returns work!

This isn’t just me, ask most normal authors and you’ll get a similar response. Borders, if they care enough to actually stock something you wrote, does not give a shit about you. And this is writers… If they so didn’t give a shit about us, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they didn’t care much more about their customer base or their employees either.

For example, the following is from a friend of mine, Steve Diamond, of Elitist Book Reviews who was lucky enough to work for Borders corporation: http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/

Here’s the thing about Borders:

They’ve been screwing themselves for years.  This whole “Borders shutting down” thing and the store closures earlier this year that were supposedly a stop-gap?  Yeah, it didn’t just pop up over night.  Every article you read out there has someone at Borders talking about how ebook sales doomed them.  How convenient.  No, the real genesis of Borders’ complete implosion is due to an idiotic state of mind in upper-management.

Once upon a time I worked at Waldenbooks.  For those of you who don’t remember Waldenbooks, Waldens ended up under the umbrella company of Borders.  They were the same team, though you wouldn’t know it by how they cannibalized that trusted brand.  Waldens was known for being a smaller bookstore that had employees who actually, you know, knew their stuff.  I know right?  Booksellers at a national chain that weren’t complete tools?  When I worked at Waldens, my store was the #1 ranked store in the company.  Why?  Because we ignored all the mandates that came down from Borders’ upper management.  As the saying goes, however, no good deed goes unpunished.  Auditors would come by and slam my store because we didn’t have things in the places “mandated” by Corporate HQ. 

True story:  When working at Waldens/Borders my two favorite authors were Steven Erikson and Brandon Sanderson (before he was big).  At my store, Erikson’s novels out sold every other author.  He was a moneymaker for my store.  Soon my store was restricted from mass ordering his novels because we weren’t conforming to other stores in different states who would only sell a dozen of Erikson’s novels in a year (we sold hundreds of just his first book.  Repeat customers baby!).  With Brandon Sanderson?  My store was essentially in his home-town of Provo, Utah.  To all you authors out there, the average signing may net you 10 or so hardback sales if you’re lucky.  My store?  We sold 80 copies of Brandon’s first novel that had zero marketing push behind it.  His second novel?  Oh just 200.  Borders’ response?  “How dare you have all these extra copies of his books on hand.  You’ll never sell that many books at a signing.  in fact, maybe you should stop doing signings altogether.”

You see, Borders’ had the mentality of telling you what you were NOT allowed to do rather than giving bookstores the freedom to, oh I don’t know, make money.  By breaking the rules we were raking in the cash.  Unfortunately that wasn’t good enough.  After all, the corporate goons OBVIOUSLY knew more about out local client base than the staff at my store did.  That’s why they kept sending us African American porn…in Provo.

The issue here is that employees of Borders saw this crap on the wall back in 2005 and 2006.  Even earlier really.  The upper management (which was like a proverbial revolving door) were so intent on saving a penny here and there (What? You don’t need raises! I don’t care if your store is #1 in the company!), that they skipped over the dollars just waiting for them.  They were so focused on making these stores run like a little Borg collective that they lost sight of actually helping customers.  The Walden name?  Screw that.  We’ll just rape their book stock and make them all carry the exact same thing as every other Borders in the country.  Variety is overrated.

With that mind set, the must have thought profitability was overrated too.

I understand that book selling is a business, but it’s a business that relies on customer loyalty.  It’s hard to really help customers when all of the originality is constantly squeezed out of the store staff.  So now they are closing the rest of their stores.  Hopefully they told their remaining 11,000 employees this before it hit the news…unlike last time.  How awesome was that when the employees of the stores in the first round of closures didn’t know their store was closing until the Wall Street Journal published the list of stores being shut down?  Yeah.  That happen to some good friends of mine.

So what does all this say?  If a company is so shallow and self-centered that they don’t even have the integrity to personally tell their employees the bad news, how can customers trust them?  How can anyone trust them?

No, ebooks didn’t ruin Borders’ business.  Borders screwed themselves.

11,000 employees are screwed.  Customers are screwed.  Authors?  Yeah.  Screwed.

They didn’t even buy us a drink first.

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