Bleating from Borders belies the boring truth

So, Borders has gone into administration in the UK after a dreadful trading period.  Apparently they have “cash flow” problems meaning they are potentially unable to meet their financial demands. According to several reports, it’s the Internet’s fault. But this simply is not true. Nine out of ten books bought in the UK are bought in physical stores – NOT online. People often like to find something else to blame – other than themselves.

Book shops still represent an "old fashioned" way of doing business

Book shops still represent an “old fashioned” way of doing business

Let’s take a look at Borders – and other book retailers. Back in 1971 when the Borders brothers opened their first store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it offered – well, er, books on shelves. Now, almost 40 years later Borders offers, er, books on shelves. OK, you might say they are a book store, what else are they supposed to do? Well, for a start they might have responded to the way people behave…!

For instance, the university students who set up Borders were aiming initially at an academic market. In this, people often know the name of the author they want; largely they are told by lecturers to get the set books by particular authors. The result is that students go into bookstores looking for a specific author. No surprise then that many bookshops arrange books alphabetically by author’s surname. But that only works if you already know the name of the person you want….! Academics might know, but the rest of us don’t.

Of course, until the advent of the Internet, that’s all we had – we knew no different. All bookshops worked in the same basic way – and many still do. The result is that we research what we need online and then go to the bookstore to get the specific author having found out who we want using Google or Amazon. Remember, many people will not buy online due to lack of trust in the financial systems on the Internet. They are happy to research online and then buy in physical stores where there is a greater degree of trust.

When you do go to a bookshop with your online research in mind, you probably find the book is out of stock. So, they can order it for you. Then you wait a week or two and then have to go back to the shop to collect it. What kind of madness is this when on-demand printing of books has been commercially viable for over a decade? And besides if you can’t find the book you want in a typical bookshop, you have to go to find someone at the “book orders” desk (frequently not staffed) and then wait patiently while they go through several options before eventually telling you it is out of stock. Argos has had machines that can check stock in seconds on tables around their stores for many, many years.

What the Borders situation tells us is the fact that the book industry is still operating with the attitudes of a Dickensian business. They really haven’t moved out of the 19th Century yet. They are slow to respond to consumer change and seem to spend more of their time complaining than getting on and doing anything about it. The book industry is full of people bleating on about the Internet. Borders themselves had an online store – but did they do what they needed? Probably not; they seemingly did little in response to Amazon. They set up shop and that was about it. Where was the online innovation (like Amazon’s)? Where was the online marketing push? Where was the focus on using the Internet to boost all aspects of their business?

The book industry has its head in the sand – not over the Internet, but over the way the world has changed. The demise of Borders is not a signal that the Internet is doing the industry harm. Instead it shows us that the industry’s own worst enemy are the people within it.

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