Four Reasons to mourn, but not to fear
spectacular implosion of Borders empire
I am Borders. In the early 1970s, my life’s vocation led me to literature as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and I befriended the little shop where Tom and Louis Borders, UofM students themselves, sold both used and new books. Flash forward to this week, as the world learns of Borders spectacular implosion, and I was just sending emails to schedule a book signing for one of our authors at an Atlanta Borders in late September. Of course, Tuesday’s announcement of Borders liquidation makes that final pilgrimage to Borders as Editor of ReadTheSpirit moot. Only fire-sale remnants will remain in those hundreds of final Borders by late September.
I am mourning. You are, too. We know that’s true because our readers love—and depend on a daily basis—on the inspiration that flows through published voices. But, please re-read our founding principles from 2007, which are looking more prophetic with each passing year.
Here are five reasons to mourn with us, but not to fear …
1.) Books Aren’t Going Anywhere
For all their heralded power, fewer than than 1 in 10 Americans own an e-book reader. Don’t misunderstand. Book buying obviously will flourish on e-readers in coming years. Pew research says the two biggest adopters of e-readers are Young Boomers (47-56) and Silent Generation (66-74). But, neither of those early adopter groups has crossed the 10 percent mark in ownership. Tablet computers like the iPad also represent less than 1 in 10 Americans, growing fastest among Millennials (18-34) and Gen Xers (35-46).
How many books are selling? No one knows the total, which is guarded by publishers. But the Bible leads all titles with some intelligent guesses pegging that number at more than 50 million copies published and distributed per year. Since 1997, half a billion Harry Potter novels have been sold; and there still is no e-edition of Rowling’s series (although one is coming). Think of all those millions of young Americans raised on the tactile memory of curling up with beloved books!
The mainstay categories of American publishing are mysteries, romances and celebrity books, including celebrity cookbooks—all roaring along in print!
The 500-year success of books isn’t just about preference. Books represent amazing technology: They’re cheap, especially in economic hard times; require no electricity or Internet connection; fit into your pocket where the soft covers will bend comfortably; dry out and work fine even if they get damp; and you can instantly access your favorite parts usually faster than on an e-reader.
2.) It’s about the Voice,
not the book
Our first principle and guiding light at ReadTheSpirit: “This religious truth cuts across spiritual traditions. Our Scriptures talk about Voice, Message and Word. And, today, this principle remains profoundly true. In this new century, power lies in the message, not the specific packages, which are constantly evolving. So, we are not merely a community of writers; we are a community of Voices preparing ourselves to speak in a variety of media. Recognizing that the power is in the message, not any specific media product, gives us tremendous freedom and speed—because our messages begin to have impact the moment we voice them, not merely on some arbitrary, fleeting product-release date.”
3.) This Is a Time to Mourn
Borders employees have been part of my home church and circle of friends for years. The whole world now knows about the 10,000-plus Borders employees heading into unemployment by late September, joining thousands who were laid off in earlier waves as the company shrank from its peak of 1,249 stores in 2003 to the 400 remaining stores that now are liquidating.
But most Americans aren’t aware of the countless others who soon will lose their jobs. Book publishers—the handful of international giants and the thousands of small to mid-sized publishers—fund a network of media professionals who print and distribute books, market new books, cover new books for news publications and hold conferences and other events to promote new titles. With the crash of Borders, the dwindling of bookstores overall and the rise of thin-margin e-books, a host of those men and women soon will join Borders employees in looking for new kinds of work. Many successful authors, who depend on “advance” checks from publishers every year or so, also will be forced to find new work as the once-hefty buffet of advance checks dries up.
Today, we are mourning all those friends and colleagues who fear for their families, health insurance and even their homes.
But, sadly, there’s more! The net effect for millions of American readers is that suddenly many of the brightest lights in spiritual media will go dark. Don’t worry—mysteries will flow along undimmed; celebrity media still will sizzle. But in the realm of religion, spirituality and cross-cultural issues, suddenly many lights will go out.
For example, even before Borders announcement this week, the chain had dumped many beloved writers from their spiritually themed sections. Sure, Barnes and Noble survives, but clearly BN was saved only by the success of the Nook—a foreshadowing of where the 700-or-so remaining BN stores are heading. And the overall structure of American publishing and bookselling is imploding with Borders.
4.) This Is the Time for Innovators like ReadTheSpirit to Shine
The single biggest reason Americans buy books, especially in realms of religion and cultural diversity, is: “I saw it on the shelf.” That conclusion comes from years of research by Stuart Matlins of SkyLight Paths and Jewish Lights. Now, you’ll need more help in finding great books—and one of ReadTheSpirit’s central goals is providing that saw-it-on-the-shelf experience. Not every book we recommend is a match with every reader. But, browse through our innovative coverage and you’ll discover lots of great gems!
Like saw-it-on-the-shelf, Americans want communities where we feel comfortable and can experience Voices—books, short texts, videos and other media—that meet our needs. In the realm of spirituality and cross-cultural issues, we want to find peace, inspiration, rich religious traditions and fresh ideas. Innovators like ReadTheSpirit are building those new connections. We’re weaving together burgeoning communities such as Facebook and we’re adding new communities forming around writers we love—whether those writers are in remaining bookstores or are selling independent media directly to you.
Since 2007, ReadTheSpirit has published more than 200 of our signature weekly interviews with the greatest spiritual writers of our age. We have recommended thousands of Voices in book form and increasingly in video. We’ll bring you much more in the years ahead. Over the coming year, we will be launching powerful new opportunities to meet writers, meet friends and enliven the millions of small groups that truly are the mainstays of American publishing.
Farewell! And, Hello!
In the summer of 2007, we launched ReadTheSpirit with a national conference in Ann Arbor. Among those who gathered with us were some mid-sized publishers who wanted to learn more about our plans. As we promised that summer, we have become a major force in identifying and spreading news about important new works by authors. At our conference, we also reported that ReadTheSpirit would include our own book-publishing division—but we would not try to place our books in bookstores. We would concentrate from the start on marketing and distributing through the Internet.
“Did I hear you right?” one publisher asked me over coffee at that conference. “You’re not even going to try to get your books in bookstores?”
“Well, I wish you well—but you won’t survive,” he frowned.
Now, it’s 2011.
Farewell—truly and sincerely—we mourn the passing of Borders.
But, we’re still here.
And: Hello! We’re growing!
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.