Borders Publishes A Book, Will It Change The World?

June 26th, 2007 · 14 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

So Borders has seen Barnes & Noble and raised the stakes: rather than ad nauseum reprints of classic, public domain cash cows, novels, Borders has gone ahead and published an original novel by a living, breathing author. Living, breathing authors are useful because they can do things like publicity. You don’t see Charles Dickens out flogging his work, do you?

Publishers could invest the outlandish sums they spend on co-op advertising in other forms of marketing.

It is only a matter of time before Amazon takes this step. In fact, if Amazon hasn’t been actively (or casually) discussing this very move over the past few years, I will be disappointed in their business acumen.

While I have issues with Borders strategy — oh, do issues abound! — the bottom line is that owning a chain of bookstores is a good way to work through the pesky issues of distribution and co-op displays. Nick Santora’s novels, Slip & Fall, has apparently debuted at number 15 on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list in addition to being one of the top ten titles on the Borders list.

Since no actual numbers or selection criteria appear next to these claims, it’s hard to tell how “bestseller” is being defined. We all know that making the top of the New York Times list is not so much a matter of moving units as it is knowing the right bookstores. Bestseller, unless it truly is sales based, is a marketing term.

But that’s neither here nor there: the advantage that publishing houses great and small hold over their competition (competition being self-distributed works) is the marketing and distribution strength. Borders, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even Starbucks — proof of concept if ever one existed — have the financial resources to offer authors marketing muscles and limited distribution.

In fact, as part of the overall Borders strategy to make sure that it takes good ideas and doesn’t wholly execute, their new publishing program is “proprietary and exclusive”. This means you can only purchase the book at Borders-owned stores and websites. You’ll recall that Borders is also the parent of Waldenbooks, quite the possibly the fastest-closing mall chain in the universe.

Naturally, Borders sees this as a good thing. CEO George Jones says, “The success of ‘Slip & Fall’ is an indication that we are on the right track with this initiative and we look forward to releasing future titles such as a 50th Anniversary of the GRAMMY Awards book and a John Legend Tour book.”

Okay, so they’re not going for the mass commercial market. In fact, despite releasing a thriller — always a crowd-pleaser — the next two titles in the catalog aren’t likely to generate a lot of heat or buzz. One can imagine that the costs associated with licensing content for the Grammy book are astronomical, bookishly speaking, and the Grammys, if they ever did have a heyday, are long past their prime. Did you even know that they awarded Grammy’s already this year?

Limited distribution is rarely, if ever, a good idea. The Borders strategy seems to be “if you publish it, they will come”. That is, you can imagine, a risky approach. It depends largely on the word-of-mouth for this book being so incredible that customers who shop at B&N and ask for Santora’s book, only to be told that they can only purchase it at Borders, are willing to do the heavy lifting associated with hitting another retail outlet (be it bricks and mortar or virtual).

Customers are big on the instant satisfaction thing.

Despite this, the Borders (etc) option will prove attractive to authors. If Borders wants to succeed with this program, it will need a good, solid list of interesting (non-Grammy related) titles that draw in frequent shoppers (women, again, tend to buy more books than men). This means that the deals Borders offers authors must exceed those of publishing houses. Probably not that hard to do. The deals must compensate for the limited distribution. Strong marketing, for example, might help.

Publishers, rightly, are going to bite their nails over the fact that, in Borders stores, titles published under the “State Street Press” imprint are scoring better shelf positions. And maybe this is a good thing — rather than fighting the power, publishers could invest the outlandish sums they spend on co-op advertising in other forms of marketing. For example, creative campaigns that actually reach out and touch readers.

The Borders model is sure to spur copycats, even as it copies the Starbucks model. As with all opening salvos, it seems to be less than it is. If the company can execute in a way that actually reaches a wide range of readers, it’s a success. Of course, it takes more than a press release and one title…

[tags]amazon, barnes & noble, borders, waldenbooks, state street press, publishing, writing, marketing, distribution, starbucks[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

14 responses so far ↓

  • mwb // Jun 26, 2007 at 9:03 am

    “You don’t see Charles Dickens out flogging his work, do you?”

    Well, he does. But sadly, “Tasty Human Brains” was not one of his better works. ;-)

    More seriously – wasn’t B&N flirting with that when they did “Stones of Summer.” Yeah it was an out of print book but the author was still alive.

  • Joe Wikert // Jun 26, 2007 at 9:34 am

    As a publisher it’s fair to say that my view on this heavily biased. But let me put my publishing hat aside and just speak (as best I can) as a consumer. I’m skeptical about this sort of proprietary publishing. Don’t get me wrong…there’s money to be made for publisher and bookseller, but will it really move the needle in the long run for the bookseller? That’s what I question.

    For example, did you know that B&N has had plenty of books that are only available through their chain over the years? This Borders deal isn’t exactly breaking news. B&N has been involved in proprietary publishing in many categories, including the technology one my job focuses on. With that in mind, is B&N the first store that comes to mind when you’re wondering about where to get a “proprietary” product? Of course not. In fact, no consumer even *thinks* about proprietary publishing.

    Here’s the bigger problem, IMHO: What’s the difference between B&N and Borders? Do consumers really distinguish between the two when they’re thinking about “heading to the bookstore?” I would argue, “no”, and that it’s really all about convenience. Even the customer loyalty programs offered by each chain have significant differences but I don’t find myself heading to one over the other. It’s all about where I am and which direction I’m heading in.

    One proprietary title will not the needle move. I realize that was part of your point too, but I’m still not convinced that an entire line of proprietary titles will help distinguish Borders from B&N. In fact, it might just make them more similar!

  • Don Linn // Jun 26, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    I personally think this is a yawn as a standalong event, but as we’ve discussed, me when your favorite online book retailer starts signining authors, more than the needle will move.

  • Don Linn // Jun 26, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    I personally think this is a yawn as a standalong event, but as we’ve discussed, when your favorite online book retailer starts signining authors, more than the needle will move.

  • Don Linn // Jun 26, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    And when I can spell properly I’ll be a much better member of the Commentariat.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 26, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    Joe, you finished the thought I would have finished had I not realize I need to compress the entire shower, blow-dry, makeup, find shoes, etc thing into 20 minutes.

    I don’t believe that consumers realize the essential differences between (chain) bookstores just like I don’t believe consumers realize there are differences between publishers. There is so little effective brand differentiation — and really, when it’s about a chain bookstore, it’s largely about convenience. That is why I cringe when I see “proprietary”. If we were talking about software, we’d all agree that term was the kiss of death.

    That being said, I have to agree with Don (and not just because he’s super cool!). One title will not move the needle. Get the right player in the game and you’re going to see different strategies. I don’t believe that Borders has the right stuff. I could be wrong. I was wrong once before. Never buy pink shoes.

    Amazon is still the dark horse here. For better or worse, Starbucks has proven that traditional media can thrive outside traditional channels. It’s, I’m sorry to say, a matter of money and promotion. Authors feel less loyalty to their publishers than they once did — it’s because they feel their publishers see them as a commodity.

    I’ll save my thoughts on the viability of a serious book retailer venture for another time — there are other market pressures at play and I’m not entirely sure that retailers are designed to be publishers. Different mindsets.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 26, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    Don, much to my dismay, I have been forced to acknowledge that spelling is relative. I hate to admit this, but proof has presented in such a way that even I cannot ignore. I have tried. I did the whole hands over my ears, nah, nah, nah thing.

    Spelling should not be relative, but until the British agree to conform to correct spellings, it is a lost cause. Even I concede the sad truth. Reluctantly.

  • Brian Guerin // Jun 28, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    This is an interesting one. I would be intrigued to see whether a batch of “own brand” titles could make one book shop of particular personal interest to a niche market. Perhaps it is the intention of big bad Borders to become a more personal shopping experience to those not happy with the standard widely sold books. Is this a sign that booksellers are restructuring themselves for the Long Tail of book buyers?

  • David Thayer // Jun 28, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I’d be curious to know where the author and his manuscript came from. Maybe everyone already knows this but my inner Trotskyite imagines a Borders employee locked in a room keyboarding for dear life…
    No, I have to slap myself silly for even thinking that. Why doesn’t Les Schwab publish books? They
    have a captive audience.

  • Lorra Laven // Jun 29, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    When I go into a bookstore, I honestly have no concept whether it’s Borders or B&N. One is about 5 miles from my house, the other (or is it the same one?) 10 miles. I don’t know what store I am in and I don’t care. I just want to shop for a certain book as conveniently as possible. If that turns out to be Amazon or B&N online, or my local independent, so be it.

    But then, I’m shopping phobic, so perhaps I’m not the best example of Joe/Josephine Shopper.

  • The Writer Blogs » quick piece of intriguing news. // Jun 30, 2007 at 7:40 am

    […] found just now on Booksquare: […]

  • Roddy Reta // Jun 30, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    I believe the new CEO of Borders used to work for Warner Brothers, and did a meeting with all the LA talent agencies, looking for screenwriters/movie people who had a novel in the pipeline. That’s how Santora got discovered.

  • Jan Whitaker // Jul 2, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Er, isn’t this the resurrection of an old and, I thought, abandoned idea? Remember Crown, Doubleday?

  • Deana Riddle // Jul 2, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Actually, Amazon owns and operates Booksurge, so even they are now in the book publishing business, albeit “self-publishing.” They are definitely testing the waters for something along the line of what B&N and Borders is doing.