Borders end not a triumph of e-books over print

It is never fun to hear that a business that you have been a patron of is shutting its doors. Borders, a chain of stores where bibliophiles sip on java while turning the pages of meaty doorstopper novels, is seeking approval in bankruptcy court to liquidate. The equation behind its demise is more complicated than e-publishing = death to print but changes in the publishing industry surely played a role.

The end of Borders does not signal the extinction of bookstores. Barnes & Noble seems to be holding ground where Borders declined thanks in part to embracing e-book sales along with the printed word. Competition with online retailer, which sells print and electronic books, also took vital chunks of the market. Borders tried to adapt to this mixed landscape but to no avail.

We have arrived at a strange place in the world of media. While the public often demands to be entertained by new and fresh content, there is a not so subtle shrug of the shoulders when some are asked to sit down and read a book. Gadget lovers may gleefully show off e-readers and tablet devices that let them download scads of books in digital format but—call me old-fashioned—that makes stories feel highly disposable to me.

Print makes a story physical and permanent while an electronic-only world leaves the possibility for instant erasure. For example, I sold a short story, with much praise from the publisher, to an e-zine several years ago. It was billed as the feature story of the month and given a special place at the top of the website for all to see. Such pride filled my chest that day.

A few years later while working on a book-length manuscript, I gave that e-zine a look to get a feel for how my writing evolved over time. My short story was gone, deleted even from the archives. When I questioned the publisher, she said she had decided in the interim that my story did not fit the site regardless of the personal praise and payment she gave me. It was if she wanted to erase the fact that at one time my story was worth reading.

Yes, books go out of print and perhaps more bookstores will close but the stories shall endure unless you destroy all the print copies that have circulated. You cannot simply delete them.

What will not survive are antiquated business models. Publishers are still sorting out the best way to leverage the electronic market for books. Some people will tell you that authors don’t need publishers any more, that you can simply self-publish and trump the market. Such examples are the exception rather than the rule—at least for now.

Similar expectations surfaced when music downloads first became popular. The hype was that every record label would grovel at the feet of independents who connect directly with music fans. Music downloads have taken their place as a mainstream medium while music stores have dwindled yet the record companies have not vanished en masse. Revenue models have changed and companies must reach their audience in new ways, but the long-predicted demise of that industry has yet to come.

Borders found itself in fiscal trouble in the midst of a market shift but that does not necessarily mean publishers are fated to disappear.

Publishers, whether their chosen medium is music, news, books, or video, gather teams of professionals to hone the material they present to the public. They work to build broad awareness in a market that is quick to dismiss new and unknown artists and writers. E-publishing does not eliminate the need for such expertise.


About Joao-Pierre S. Ruth
New York tech correspondent for Xconomy, tech writer for Investor Uprising, and aspiring urban fantasy writer. I also make brownies and crème brulee.

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