We got into a discussion about the future of publishing, over on my online writer's group, Codex, and I ended up writing an entire essay about what I think. And since so many people keep asking my opinion of it all, I figure it's completely worthwhile to x-post it on the blog. So here it is, my professional speculation about Borders. It's long; enjoy. =)
"Ok, since Borders was brought into this, here is the long version of my professional speculation.
One, Borders and HarperCollins are not discontinuing returns together. Borders and HarperStudio, which is one specific, fairly small and experimental, imprint of HarperCollins is doing this. The rest of Harpercollins is still doing returns.
Two, Borders is now trading at 51 cents a share for stock, at the time of the writing of this post. It has been common knowledge in the publishing industry that Borders is going under. It's expected to be gone, as we know it, by February. The real question, however, is will Borders be gone right after Christmas? They are desperate; they are discounting massive amounts of books, CDS, DVDs, etc.
Three, what happens, once Borders is gone? There are a number of answers to this. Since I'm already using numbers for points, I'll start lettering.
A. Borders gets bought up by an investment group, and they do something with it.
B. Borders goes into immediate bankruptcy, everything gets liquidated, and poof, it's gone.
C. Borders gets bought up by Amazon, who decide to go into the brick and mortar business of selling books.
D. Something else happens, that no one knows yet.
We now have several scenarios that can happen.
If Scenario B happens, this has an immediate impact on NY publishers. Print runs go down, because we've knocked one of the major book buyers out of the marketplace. Remember that it's not consumers who buy books from publishers, really, it's booksellers. Because print runs go down, advances go down. Authors and agents lose money on this. Is this the route that publishing will have to go in the long run? I don't know.
If Scenario A happens, it's anyone's guess, and really, in this economic time, does an investment group want to play it safe or take a chance on a failing business?
If Scenario C happens, NY publishers may be in a slightly better position. They'll still be able to publish midlist titles, although print runs and advances may still go down. Will Amazon go into brick and mortar for books? Unknown. But then again, if an investment group is able to pick up the pieces of Borders for chump change, Amazon will be able to as well. And this is the most interesting scenario in my opinion, because it means that Amazon gets an expanded role in the bookselling business, and may possibly aid smaller publishers and midlist titles, just by virtue of being there. Also, I can see this being a benefit for them, in that their consumers could now return books bought online, in store. That's a huge convenience.
If Scenario D happens, I don't know what happens.
Then, there is the so-called "doomsday scenario", which in this case, we'll call Scenario E. Scenario E is where Barnes & Noble goes under too. Currently, Barnes & Noble is trading at $14.61 a share, at the time of this post. I don't think it's in imminent danger of going the Borders route, but 2009 is predicted to be a very, very soft year for bookselling. For all retail in general, really.
So finally, let's address Scenario E. Let's assume, because we're exploring possibilities, that Barnes & Noble goes too. We then have no big chains in America. This reduces the booksellers to Amazon, indie bookstores (which there aren't many left of), Walmart/Sam's Club, Target, grocery stores, and airports.
It essentially means that midlist titles will get shafted, because everything in that list after indie bookstores doesn't stock midlist titles. They stock best-sellers. They stock the popular shit. And yes, some of it is good, and a lot of it is *really bad*. Since those retailers are going to be the only places with shelf spaces, other than indies, publishers are going to have to scale back on midlist titles drastically. I don't think it will necessarily be the death of the midlist or the death of publishing, as has been bandied around lately.
I do think that it will mean that editors are instructed to look for uber-commercial projects. That they'll have less leeway in buying good books that may not sell spectacularly. That smaller publishers may pick up the slack, or a new paradigm will need to be set.
I don't know, and not many people are in a good position to know what happens in Scenario E. And frankly, I don't think it's entirely likely that Barnes & Noble will go under too; I think it's more likely to pick up extra business from everyone who has been deserted by Borders going under.
But like I said, this is all professional speculation.
(X-posted to my blog, because I've apparently written a freaking essay. =)"