Minding the Bookstore Redux: How a Mentality Turned into a Mistake
A few years ago, when I was reading several annual SEC reports from the soon-to-be defunct Borders Group, I came across a sentence that not only defined the dysfunction of one retailer, but the dangerous mindset that has been crippling the book industry for decades.
It may sound rather innocuous, but here it is: "The Company's growth strategy is dependent principally on its ability to open new superstores and operate them profitably."
That sentence was in Borders' 10-K SEC filing made in April 2003. The very same sentence was in the 10-K the year after that. And the year after that.
And the year after that.
When you consider the changes the book world was facing even then (before the Kindle, before the tablet, before a lot of things) it's an arrogant statement -- and one that horribly mangles the purpose of "expansion." Expanding a business should be done to meet demand. Expanding for its own sake and simply expecting demand will be there is simply a bad idea.
That's the core of how the book industry got to where it is today. At some point retailers and publishers seemed to think (wrongly) that the biggest problem consumers had was that they couldn't get their hands on books fast enough.
It's not at all difficult to wonder how this mentality was reached: Promotional infrastructure has been mostly built to reward the reader that booksellers and publishers already have. The series trend, author web presence, three-for-the-price-of-two -- all of it has the book addict in mind and not the far more common person who has, at best, an intermittent relationship with reading.
One can go even further than that and look at the publishing world's own demographics: As (mostly) city dwellers who are very "wired" and highly educated, we're going to read a lot more than the average person and probably surround ourselves with people who do the same. It's a real "blind man and the elephant" situation because publishers and retailers only have their hands on the most passionate readers and think: "this is who my customer is."