Content consumption metamorphosis

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov

As you are reading this, the bookseller Borders is preparing to file for bankruptcy. Pundits and social critics are already labeling this as a sign of America’s dying reading culture, but they could not be more wrong.

The problem that Borders is experiencing is not due to declining readership, but due to its own structural limitations. Its business model was slow to adapt to modern technologies, utilized an increasingly inefficient method of distribution and was simply unable to scale up and scale its literary diversity. Borders isn’t dying because Americans aren’t reading – it’s dying because they’re reading too much.

Originally, Borders rapidly grew, riding a wave of rising readership and book diversity in the 90s. Each store carried a great variety of books tailored to the demographics of the communities each store served. Borders and its rival firm Barnes and Noble made it possible for a consumer to enter into a book store not knowing what he or she wanted to buy and come out with books that fit his or her interests. Desktop work processors led to a publishing surge, allowing Borders to increase its selection and turning it into the outlet store for books.  Even an inveterate reader could find literature in his or her chosen genre.  

However, there is a physical limit to the amount of books one can cram into a given space. While one part of the success of outlets such as Borders was the decision to take a traditional bookstore and make it bigger, they can only grow so large; the system was simply unsustainable.. Making the problem worse, Borders decided to diversify more by adding music to its selection. Despite an impressive and ever growing catalog, Borders has lagged significantly behind its top competitors – Barnes and Noble and Amazon – for most of the decade.

Amazon’s solution to the retail space and increasing diversity problem was simple: digitize the space.  

Generally, when choosing a book to buy, readers usually glance at the covers. Sometimes, they may open the book to a random page and skim a bit. Amazon’s founders realized that most of this could be easily done online. Amazon’s website even lets you open the book to a random page and read a bit – all from the comfort of your laptop. They may have been on to something considering they are one of the top online retailers in the world. But rather than explore the possibilities of the web, Borders abandoned any attempts to carry out book sales online, effectively turning over its online division to Amazon in 2001.

The other competitor to Borders – Barnes and Noble – went for a diametrically opposite approach to selling books. Rather than act as simply a book store, it rebranded itself as some bookstore/library hybrid. The bookseller encouraged customers to hang out and read by using a library stack-like arrangement of bookshelves and spreading comfy chairs and couches around the store. Add a coffee shop to the mix and the new Barnes and Noble created an atmosphere that got people interested and engaged on premises, translating to bigger sales. And now, with Barnes and Noble’s new e-reader, “the Nook,” you don’t even need a book; the store’s entire online collection is available for free while you are in the store.

In short, Borders’ demise is no one’s fault except Borders’. It became really big by embracing a certain view about how books should be marketed and sold. But when people no longer had to go to a physical store to find the book they wanted, or were unable to find it when they did, Borders had nothing else it could offer prospective customers. And because it shunned the web market or mobile device integration, it had no backup plan to turn to.

So it is too early to cry for the demise of reading. Books still play a significant role in our society and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We probably won’t buy them in a big store though – we’ll order them instantly delivered to our mobile device. Speaking of which, my Kindle finished downloading the complete works of Leo Tolstoy. Do svidaniya!

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].