Running from Borders

The following essay by David Ash is reproduced with permission of Northwest Book Lovers:

There were several articles the other day saying that, after having been extended a line of credit of up to nearly a billion dollars last year, Borders Group Inc., the nation’s second largest bookstore chain, is bankruptcy bound.

It is not the first time we’ve seen a story like this.  Rumors abounded of the chain’s demise just last year. Shares of the stock sold for $25 five years ago; it is currently below $1. Time will tell whether Borders will successfully reorganize or begin a “going out of business” sale.

As a small press publisher, how does this news impact my business?   Frankly, it gives me a small, satisfied smile. I know, I know. We’ve seen too many beloved neighborhood bookstores pass on recently. The thought of losing 674 bookstores at once should fill a publisher with dread. So why am I content to let Borders die? Well, at the risk of sounding petty, because Borders had already declared me dead.

Three years ago, my series of humorous haiku gift books was starting to hit bookstore shelves. I sent copies to the Borders corporate headquarters for consideration and heard not a word of reply. But at least one could go to a Borders store and enter the words “David Ash” and “haiku” into their kiosks and see a picture of my book titles. They were listed as being unavailable–maybe they could order one for you–but at least they were in the system, somewhere. Last year, that changed. Typing “Haiku for Coffee Lovers” showed a status of “Out of Print.” My wife, who recently reorganized dozens of cases of haiku books in our basement, would beg to differ.

Today, if you go online to Borders.com, you won’t even find that. The search turns up nothing. You’ll find books by another guy if you type just my name, but you won’t find any proof that my books exist. The business decision behind this is so simple, even I understand it: We’re too small to bother with. But other businesses have at least some flexibility. Barnes & Noble may not yet want me on their shelves or invite me for events in their stores, but they’ll at least list my books on BN.com. IndieBound still hasn’t put my last four titles online despite twice sending the info more than a year ago, and, although my entire canon may not be represented, I at least appreciate the bone they’ve tossed with the first eight. Borders, however, took their bones back, padlocked the cupboard, and declared it empty.

But this poor dog is doing alright, thank you. Last year, Basho Press turned a profit. After two years of selling mostly out of the trunk of my car, independent bookstores have now sold more of my books than I have. And my 5,000th copy went out the door last year. I may be a Chihuahua, but I’m still barking. Though unlike a certain spokesdog of yore, I’m not urging you to make a run for the Borders. Let them go, I say. I take a morsel of comfort in knowing that being big and focusing primarily on all things big is not an automatic recipe for success. And unlike several major banks with a controversial bailout, Borders is not too big to fail.

My hope lies in small, independent bookstores. In H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (the book, of course) the invasion of the Martians was foiled not with armies, but with bacteria. The economic infrastructure of publishing continues to evolve, but smaller systems can adapt to change easier than larger ones. Small hasn’t gone away. Heck, small just might laugh all the way to the bank, because, like laughter, small can be infectious.

David Ash is CEO of Basho Press, a member of Book Publishers Northwest, and a member, sometimes contributor, and major supporter of all things PNBA.