Over on Facebook, I posted a link to an interesting short article on Quora by Mark Evans (Borders' former Director of Merchandise Planning & Analysis) in answer to the question, "Why is Barnes & Noble performing well as a business while Borders is near or has even reached bankruptcy?" [Everything on Quora is organized in terms of questions and answers.] You can read it here. The comments are worth reading too, since they raise some good additional points, and Evans responds to them.
This led to quite a long discussion thread in the course of which Steve Stiles asked me "How much of an impact will Borders' shrinkage have on publishers?"
Here's what I wrote in response:
It's going to depend on a number of factors we can't judge yet.
How smart are they going to be about which stores they choose to close? Will surviving stores nearby pick up none, some, or a lot of sales previously made at the closed stores? What revisions to their merchandising methods will be implemented in the surviving stores? What innovations or promotions can they develop to rebuild their brand identity and recover market share? And so on.
There's certainly no question that losing Borders completely would be a very bad thing. Depending on the author and category, sales there can represent anywhere from a quarter to a half of a title's sales at traditional retail outlets.
Beyond that, there's the even harder to calculate but very real importance of every physical outlet's role (not just bookstores, but newsstands, drugstores, variety stores, etc.) as a place for people to encounter books and get in the habit of being book consumers. That's an area where we've already been hurt on the mass market side because of the demise of the small independent distributors.
I'm not saying that reading for pleasure or literacy in general go away without bookstores to sustain them, but they almost certainly would suffer at least in the short and medium term.
In the long term, who knows, maybe the tables will turn again.
It wasn't so long ago that the self-appointed guardians of our cultural heritage were worrying about film and video displacing written literature and making old-fashioned literacy obsolete. Text itself was alleged to be in danger.
Today, when young people spend more time reading and writing online, and yes, texting, than their parents and grandparents ever spent reading books, magazines, and newspapers, or writing letters, the idea of text becoming obsolete looks pretty darn ridiculous.
No doubt the current generation, and the ones to come, will find new ways of engaging with the pleasures of text in all its long and short forms, that today's writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers can't even imagine.