Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Death of Borders and Naïve Technological Determinism

One very superficial way of looking at the present is to think that everything is changing very quickly and that the pace of change is only set to increase. The problem is we view progress as a straight arrow. This is because—after God and Joe DiMaggio died—our religion is technological progress. I am wary of all religions, but I'm particularly suspicious about secular ones.

Take the closure of Borders, for instance. Aha, the naïve technologist tells us: The book is dying. The sale of books is a moribund business. No one will read within 30 or 40 years, right about the time we are uploading our brains into Kurzweil machines. And if any reading occurs, it will be done from a screen. Although by then advances in speech software and optical character recognition will mean that most of our “e-reading” will probably be auditory. We will be listening to a computer program simulating the voice of Al Pacino as it reads to us A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… HOOAAAAH!”). Unless, of course, we get our reading material uploaded immediately into our brains, a la The Matrix (“I know Dostoyevsky!”).

But that is not how technological change works. People who don’t know anything about literature or history extrapolate from their present time. And usually they get it wrong. Dead wrong.

Let’s return to the closure of Borders. For readers not familiarized with the United States, it was a mega-chain of bookstores similar to Barnes and Noble. (For a cultural reference, Borders and B and N were the real-life equivalent of Tom Hanks’s Fox Books chain in You’ve Got Mail, which ended up mercilessly crushing Meg Ryan’s little children’s book shop.) Now, of course, the Borders bankruptcy is driven by changes in the book industry (although massively bad management also played a part). The thing is “change” is such a pedestrian category for looking at society that it is almost tantamount to saying nothing. Open any history book at random about any period and you will find that “the thirteenth century was a time of upheaval” or “the Iron Age brought about a revolution in the way human beings lived.” Whenever I read a sentence like that in a history book, I wish I could throw the damn thing at the lazy bastard who wrote it. It is such a tired trope. “You will not bathe twice in the same river” (because both the river and you are not the same). It was probably already a commonplace thought by the time Heraclitus wrote it in Ancient Greece. Yes, change is the substance of humanity and society. Tell me something I don’t know, Einstein.

As a bibliophile, believe me, I will not mourn the passing of Borders. Chains like that seemed intent on hiring the most ignorant sonsabitches they could find. The disappearance of seven-foot piles of books by the latest spazzmo or in-the-closet-but-fooling-no-one celeb who placed third or fourth on “American Idol” are nothing to lament. The passing of Borders means that another example of vulgar, mass commercialism has gone on to meet its forefathers. That is nothing to cry over.

Instead, the really interesting development is that independent bookstores still exist. In the naïve vision of the technological determinist, e-books and Amazon should have blown away first small bookstores and later Borders. But it was Borders, with its mega-balance sheet, its bloated ranks of middle managers, its relentless commoditization of the book, its ruthless exploitation of razor-thin profit margins to squeeze competitors… yes, this monstrosity was the company that bit the dust first. In the mean time, better-managed competitors and smaller bookstores are thriving in the midst of this soft version of the Great Depression we are currently living through. The New York Times reports the following:
Barnes and Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain, said that comparable store sales this Thanksgiving weekend increased 10.9 percent from that period last year. The American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independents, said last week that members saw a sales jump of 16 percent in the week including Thanksgiving, compared with the same period a year ago.
That is the really fascinating development. The likeliest thing is that the retail book industry will be a barbell. Amazon will be one of the dumbbells, sucking up revenue like a vacuum cleaner and driving down the prices for everything. Behind Amazon will be a bloated Barnes and Noble, huffing and puffing under the weight of expensive rental contracts as it tries to reinvent itself as a tech company. And, on the other end of the barbell, a smaller dumbbell will consist of thousands of tiny, niche bookstores, providing a service to local communities. So, please, go out and celebrate. Buy yourself a book from your local bookstore staffed by one of those impossibly arrogant people who inexplicably still work at a bookstore. Luxuriate in the rudeness of their snooty contempt. Reality is always more interesting than ideology.

(For an essay making a similar point to mine, visit this blog. Our naïve ideas of the past and the way technology changes things are at the heart of the misperceptions described there as well.)

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.


bonnjill said...

As a former "ignorant sonsabitch" let me just tell you that a lot of things played a role in Borders' demise, and it certainly wasn't because of the employees. The managers and upper managers probably, but certainly not the employees. A lot of my coworkers (and my uncle who had a journalism degree and was the editor of Business Week in the 1970s) were passionate about books (like Steve Zahn's character in You've Got Mail). We weren't paid well, but most of us knew what we were talking about. The constant stream of people coming in asking for Oprah's latest book or the latest bestseller drove the marketing more than anything. The store really changed once the family sold it to K-Mart, which then spun off to Borders-Walden Group. The store lost its magic for me when it stopped featuring live music on Fridays and Saturdays. I don't think the digital age really played much of a role more than perhaps speeding up its demise.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I certainly hope you are right!

I would nonetheless love to read more comments from people in the bookselling business, such as the one by bonnjill.

I had recently put together a questionnaire to find out how readers learn about the existence of books they buy or borrow in public libraries - from librarians, friends, specialised media (magazine about books), tv, internet , web bookshops, physically browsing the shelves in a library or bookshop. My responders were people who hang out on a local book forum (a very mixed crowd, judging by the content of threads; a wide range of tastes). Now, public libraries are financed by taxpayers' money and since they are obliged by law (in my country) "to educate and to strive to improve the general level of culture" of the people, one would expect that librarians would select quality books. As things stand, there have never been so many "Coca-Cola" (after you drink it, there's just a short aftertaste and it does not make you any less thirsty) books on the shelves of public libraries as there are now. Most of these are translations; Slovenia has 2 million inhabitants in all. How lamentably miserable most of these books look - how carelessly they they are put together: divorced from grammar, rife with typos, printed on paper hardly worth the name, bound so badly they fall apart within a year. In such translations, a polka dot bikini easily becomes a bikini to dance the polka in (it is almost a rule). I asked one librarian why the libraries bother buying such thrash and was told that they are pressured into buying such books by the publishers. A representative of the national book agency on the other hand seems to think this is because librarians themselves are fond of reading thrashy novels.

>The constant stream of people coming in asking for Oprah's latest book or the latest bestseller drove the marketing more than anything.<

I think that this is true. The results of my questionnaire seem to confirm this. 97% of my responders only borrow widely advertised books; 98% only learn about books from the TV and the general media. All readers who are only interested in light reads also have to rely on translations. In addition, they rarely buy such books at the bookshop if they are not available at the library and indicated that they would not buy them if their local library did not offer them.