I’m going to tell you a true story about the now-defunct Borders bookstores.
Years ago, I wrote a book about the town I was living in. Even though I changed the names to protect the innocent and threw in heavy doses of exaggeration and fantasy, everyone knew exactly whom I was writing about.
I’m a nice guy and it was a fun book and no one took offense (no one sued me, that is) and I was happy and the publisher was happy and the people of the town I wrote about were happy.
One of my neighbors was traveling when the book was published, and when I ran into him months later, he said he’d heard I’d written a book. Yes, I told him, I’ll get you a copy, something I’d done for all the other neighbors.
“No, no, no, I’ll buy one,” he said. “Where can I get it?” We went back and forth for a while, but he insisted that he would rather buy one, in the mistaken belief that somehow, someway, I would get all the money from the sale. It was much too hard to explain that on a $26 book, I might get $1.25 – if the wind was blowing from the southeast and it was sold after 11 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month. At least that’s the way the contract seemed to be written.
Borders was the closest bookstore, in a nearby town that was big enough to have a mall. I told him they’d have it. I ran into him a month later and asked how he’d liked the book.
“They were out, so I ordered it. No big deal; I’m on the road again for a month.”
Two months later I asked him how he liked it.
“I called them and they said they had my order, but a woman came in and bought five copies and they had only four, so they sold her my copy and reordered it for me. They said they still don’t have any copies in the store.”
No copies? I called my editor. This was my local store. If you couldn’t buy the book there, where could you buy it? If they were selling five copies at a time, you’d think they would reorder it as fast as possible.
Ten minutes later, the editor called me back and said he’d just talked to his contact at Borders. “She said they have nine copies of your book at the store, according to her computer.”
I called my neighbor and told him there were nine copies at the store. He said he’d give the store another call.
Five minutes later he called me back, laughing. This could not be good.
“I told them what you told me. They put me on hold for five minutes and then said: ‘You’re right, we do have nine copies in the store. But we don’t have your copy, the copy you ordered.’”
It was a lesson in exactly how hard it is to sell a book. Writing a book is the easy part. Selling a book is the hard part. Pundits will tell you that Facebook, Twitter, Amazon.com, e-books and Kindles have changed the book business so much that Borders couldn’t survive and Barnes & Noble may be next. But I think books – the kind you open and shut, the kind you hold in your hands, the kind you read while you are eating your cereal, the kind that keep you up long after you should have gone to bed – will always be with us. So will e-books and audiobooks and book forms yet to be. They’ll all coexist nicely.
Borders’ mistake was this: People who read books, read lots of them. People who don’t, don’t. Trying to run a bookstore for people who don’t read a lot is a bad business idea. They don’t need the music and the cafe and the novelty stuff. It’s like opening up a Dairy Queen for people who like salads. You can do one or the other; you can’t do both.
Jim Mullen’s latest book “Now in Paperback!” is now in paperback. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.