Over the Border(s) (RIP): The Changing Face of Consumerism VII

While there’s been talk of ‘green shoots’ and other such piffle relating to an imminent recovery in the market and of the economy, the evidence of recent events suggests that such positively has been, and remains, somewhat premature. Now, it’s my opinion that those who say that the end of the recession is in sight are those who are gullible enough to believe what they hear in the news. Of course politicians want us to believe that things will be rosy in next to no time, and talk up ‘consumer confidence.’

The trouble is, I can’t see where this additional consumer spending is going to come from when redundancies are being announced on an almost daily basis – or where these people with cash to burn are going to spend it given that there are a diminishing number of shops trading.

Last week, our city centre Threshers began its closing down sale. Within a couple of days the shelves were looking extremely bare. Ok, so I rarely shop in there, not least of all because I tend to brew much of my own beer. I don’t think however that my lack of custom alone has brought about the demise of a chain of off-license stores.

I was more concerned by the news that Borders has gone into administration. I’m a big buyer of books, and while I do purchase a lot of my books second hand, and many via Amazon, I have been a regular shopper in Borders, too. I do think that Borders was significantly better when it was owned by its American parent company. I remember when Borders first opened in York, being bowled over by the range of books, in particular US publications. On relocating to Glasgow in 2000 and finding the largest Borders in the UK, I was in book heaven.

Valco Capital Partners, the private equity company that took over in the summer steered the chain in a more mainstream direction, serving up the same 3 for 2 offers on bestsellers as Waterstones ad WHS. And so it is that I’ve found myself increasingly forced to turn to on-line stores to obtain the books that I want. It goes without saying that commentators will blame the Internet for ‘stealing’ trade, but in instances like this, I can’t help but feel that the trade’s been surrendered, handed over to the on-line stores on a plate.

Even so, Borders still carried a far better range of stock than its competitors, and what concerns me is that once again, the disappearance of the chain can only lead to one thing: reduced customer choice. The fact that there’s choice on-line is not the same. Much of the immense joy of perusing the shelves of a bookstore is not knowing what you want until you find it. Through the years, I’ve made many browse purchases, including my first discovery of Stewart Home, whose Slow Death I happened upon in Virgin in Oxford in 99. There have been terrible days in my life where I’ve completely turned things around by going to my local bookshop, picking up something that, on the basis of the cover and the blurb and a quick flick of a couple of pages, appears to be just what I need to lift my mood – or reflect it – and immersed myself in an impulse book buy until things have improved. That can’t happen with on line shopping. I’m not impatient, but sometimes we all need instant gratification.

What’s more, browsing just isn’t the same. ‘Other people who bought this’ recommendations are all too prescriptive, too obviously designed to steer the shopper in a certain direction, can all to easily be rigged to operate as another marketing technique. Browsing is a truly random, arbitrary and physical experience. No-one else can browse on your behalf.

It’s surely through browsing that a great books are sold, and while many some have the advantage of being included in those stack ‘em high, 3 for 2 offers and therefore stand a chance of being the third bonus book that someone throws in simply because it’s free, small publishers simply can’t compete.

This is perhaps the biggest concern raised by the collapse of Borders – a chain who have been pretty good at accommodating small, even local publishers, and were forward-thinking enough to incorporate a print on demand element within some of their stores. Yes, the future of publishing is something that is affected by this latest development in the retail sector. In the first instance, no Borders equals one fewer outlet through which publishers – and consequently authors – can make their works available. For me, there’s a personal dimension to this story also: the plan had been to approach the Borders in York and Leeds to see if they would be willing to stock Clinicality Press’ Clinical, Brutal anthology, given Clinicality’s position as a ‘regional’ publisher. Granted, only a couple of the authors in the book are remotely local, but that’s hardy the point: the point was exposure, pure and simple. Another door closes…

Worse still, if new authors are more likely to be discovered by readers through browsing, then the virtual elimination of browsing from book shopping culture means that only established authors – or authors that readers intentionally set out to buy books by – are going to sell. The result will be that publishers – already reluctant to try new authors because of the increasingly tight bottom line – simply aren’t going to take risks on unknowns. Before long, there will come a point of total stagnation… and then what?

Chances are the long-term outcome of all of this will be a dramatic revision of the way books are sold, the way the publishing world operates – a brave new world, in much the same way that the music industry revolution that is currently under way is seeing bright new ways emerging from the dark ruins of what was once a seemingly unshakeable empire. But right now, it’s rather hard to be optimistic.

Some time ago, I posted a blog pondering on the future of publishing, suggesting that these are exciting times for tiny publishers with innovation on their side and for authors who are willing to adopt the punk ethic in their approach to writing and (self)publishing. I still believe this, but also believe there are some difficult times ahead. It’s going to be a long and difficult struggle for survival. But I’m up for a fight…

If you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk… and if you’re really loving it, feel free to purchase a book or two, since you can’t get them in Borders.

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