Will the Book Business Survive Borders Collapse?

The surprise of the holiday season was the sudden news that Borders–the limping-along-on-life-support book chain–had suddenly and unexpectedly run out of cash. The first business day of the New Year brought the decision to fire the General Counsel and Chief Information Officer as the company prepares to negotiate with vendors. The end is clearly near for country’s second biggest book chain. But the question isn’t whither Borders but whether the loss matters much to books or the publishing business.

Barnes and Noble is busy claiming the all-important Christmas selling season had improved its same store sales by 9.7% in late 2010. We’ll have to wait to see what those numbers really mean but some substantial component of that rise is going to be Nook device sales.

Although Borders decline is a measure of shifting retail channels as books move away from being sold in bookstores to online and big box retail sales, it is also a sign of the rise of e-books. The Nook probably can’t save Barnes and Noble. But not having a electronic reading device surely hurt Borders. There are no accurate numbers for ebook sales but all accounts suggest that e-books own around 10% of the US market and will likely rise substantially again this year. (That’s another reason to write Borders off.)

Also today, publishing’s trade organ Publishersmarketplace.com, published some numbers from Bookscan on the overall book market. Bookscan recorded 702 million books sold in America during all but one week of 2010. Of those books, 10.5% were copies of the top 200 titles. That means the average sale for a top 200 title was 368,550 copies.

If you were one of those lucky authors, you probably made somewhere around $1.3m from your book in 2010 alone. And though it’s true that few authors made the average, that’s good money for any medium. More to the point, these figures only apply to physical book sales.

According to Publishersmarketplace.com’s cagily written report, the 4.4% decline in overall physical book sales across the industry (in other words, book retail stores dropped more than 12% and discount stores rose 11% leaving a shortfall in the overall books sold) was more than made up for by the electronic sales.

So in terms of the number of books sold, reading is on the rise in America. That won’t save the book store but doesn’t mean the book itself is going extinct.


Two Executives Leave Borders
January 4, 2011; Wall Street Journal

The Year In Sales: Print Sales Decline Less Than eBooks Gained, As Retail Market Share Is Hit
January 4, 2011; Publishersmarketplace.com

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