Pirate This Book 

Borders goes bankrupt. Will books survive?

NEW YORK--Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, Borders is probably doomed.

The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?

Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).

We are reading more than ever. Just not in print. According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets, we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.

The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.

Why does this matter? Quality. The fact that Huffington Post recently sold to America Online for $315 million points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We're getting exactly what they pay for: crap.

Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention.

Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious mnemonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.

It is hard to quantify the value of a country's intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, but less of it in print, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.

In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers have to learn the lesson of Borders: Middle of the road equals mediocre. Beginning at least 10 years ago buyers for Borders began eschewing risks. Buying into the "blockbuster mentality" of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors--profitable, but not bestselling, titles.

Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders'. Barnes and Noble's inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel "curated," the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity.

It's a frightening thought: America's intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.

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