Jun 242010

Borders and the digital future

I’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the emerging digital future of books on this blog, as it’s a topic I’m passionate about as both a reader and an author. But I’ve also spoken before about how bookstores don’t need to die alongside the decline of printed books, they can evolve and remain relevant, useful, and even profitable. And I also mentioned how Barnes & Noble seems to “get it,” and is doing a good job focusing on e-books and e-book readers (like their Nook), and is even offering a number of generous promotions for free e-books, coffee, and cookies — and they just lowered the price of the Nook to $199 and the Nook Wi-Fi to just $149.

There’s also evidence that Borders, America’s #2 bookstore behind B&N, “gets” e-books and is serious about embracing the digital future. Borders partnered with Kobo, which makes a nice entry-level e-book reader for $149, and which offers a nice selection of e-book titles in its online store. Borders is also coming out with its own e-book reader and e-book store. Today, I read this article in Fortune magazine by Michael Edwards, CEO of Borders. He talks about how he sees the direction the market is heading and the growth of e-books — it’s good to see someone who doesn’t just stick their head in the sand — but argues that bookstores can remain relevant in the digital age. He claims that “There will always be plenty of people who welcome the opportunity to read words on paper rather than staring into yet another glowing screen.” (Of course, that’s what I like about my Kindle compared to an iPad — the e-Ink screen mimics paper and doesn’t glow.) He talks about how bookstores are still a place for social interaction, discussing books, sipping coffee, browsing magazines, going to author signings, and more. He ends with a surprisingly forward-thinking paragraph:

“Ultimately, there’s no reason traditional bookstores and digital booksellers can’t co-exist; for all their common ground, each offers a substantially different value proposition. Of course, the onus is on booksellers to prove their continued relevance in the digital age. If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer and the ways they engage the community, consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives. If they fail to adapt to changing market conditions and consumer needs, they’ll deserve the empty aisles — and cash registers — that result. The next chapter is up to them.”

While I’ve heard that Borders is in financial trouble, I’d like to see a company with such a forward-thinking attitude pull through the tough times and stick around. Contrast the realistic, modern, and customer-friendly words and actions of B&N and Borders with the “Big 6” book publishers — who seek to “protect physical books as long as we can” by raising e-book prices, blocking lending and text-to-speech, delaying releases, and other anti-customer tactics.

Although I’ve gone over almost exclusively to reading e-books, I still enjoy bookstores and would like for them to continue to exist as places devoted to readers. It’s through forward-thinking and innovative ideas like developing their own e-book readers and e-book stores, and offering free e-books and other incentives to get people into bookstores, that bookstores can remain relevant long into the digital age.

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