About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Conceptually Speaking

So on Saturday May 31, I finally got to explore the new Borders concept store for myself. The Southbury, CT store had opened for business the week before, but I was unable to go up for the soft opening. I had to settle for going up for the official grand opening weekend festivities, which just isn't the same.

On one level, when you walk in the door it looks a lot like you're walking into a Borders. There's the same sign hanging down from the ceiling to tell you where the mystery/thrillers are, the same red shelf tags at front of store for the new hardcovers, there's a magazine section off to the right, and if you close your eyes and walk straight when you go in the door you'll bump into a table full of new books which the publisher feels are important enough to pay handsomely to put on a table that you'll have an easy time bumping into blindfolded when you walk in the front door.

But this table is round, while the tables at the first 600 Borders to open have all been square. This disappointed me. When you look at the pictures of concept store #1 in the Borders Media Room, you see this nice long curved table, and I was kind of looking forward to that because as I thought on those pictures on the bus ride up to Southbury I did envision being drawn along the curve and into the store. And I was thinking how nice it would be to see curves welcomed back into Border world. The remodels over the past several years had pretty much taken diagonals and curves and weird design stuff out of the Borders repertoire. You couldn't walk into the Borders in Pentagon City VA and just kind of find yourself in the history section because of some weird quirk of how the shelves were set up. Some people found that too confusing and weird and it was all straight lines and rows. Maybe a curved front of store table would bring back some of the serendipity?

Not in Southbury. There was a curved main FOS (front of store) table maybe a tad bigger than the square one, and then a central aisle that was surrounded by two wiggly tables that looked just like what I remember from high school biology my villi are supposed to look like if you really wanted to. New hardcovers on one side, the buy one get on 50% off paperbacks on the other with some other display tables in the middle, but without the drawing power of the curved table in that Media Room picture. The new hardcover table did have Charlaine Harris' FROM DEAD TO WORSE, which was the one JABberwocky title to be FOS.

The magazine section was typical, neither big nor small. No Baseball America, bad but not a surprise. But the literary section had Asimovs and Analog, and Hitchock's and EQMM, and Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, good.

Venturing into the genre fiction section, the mystery section had a full complement of Charlaine Harris. But my heart sank when I got to Simon Green in sf/fantasy. Only 3 copies of his new hardcover, DAEMONS ARE FOREVER. This was a bad thing. making the rounds of Chicagoland Borders in November, I had found store after store in this not-so-good market for sf/fantasy that had only gotten 3 copies of Brandon Sanderson's WELL OF ASCENSION when I had this idea in my head that the minimum order for the FOS placement arrangement was 4. Well, not exactly. You got 3 in the bad sf/fantasy stores, so I took a look at DAEMONS and knew I was in a new store that had been designated as likely to be bad in sf/fantasy. As I wandered about the sf/fantasy section and asked after some of the new or forthcoming JABberwocky books it was a litany of disappointment. No OMEGA SOL by Scott Mackay, no copies expected of RAGAMUFFIN by Tobias Buckell or or the UNDERGROUND hardcover by Kat Richardson. None of Simon Green's Deathstalker books. None of Tanya Huff's Keeper books. Bah, humbug. And in fact, it looks as if the store had sold no more than half a dozen JABberwocky books in its first ten days. The only pleasant surprises were that the store was carrying GOBLIN QUEST and GOBLIN HERO by Jim HInes, but not the new book GOBLIN WAR, and VAMPIRE TRANSGRESSION and BODY AND BLOOD by Michael Schiefelbein. But by and large many disappointments for each pleasant surprise, and unless the store develops much more of an sf/fantasy following than the research (including sales at the Waldenbooks that had been in the same mall and still loomed spectrally but vacantly across the parking lot) suggests, this store will not be putting bread on the JABberwocky table. All told, around 86 JABberwocky titles on the shelf, which isn't bad but ain't great, had been around 100 at the Warrington, PA store I'd visited on day #2 in November. One book that had sold, WELL OF ASCENSION by Brandon Sanderson, a title or two that hadn't arrived yet, and several books that had been marked for a delete between being ordered for the store and the store actually opening which will disappear when the store settles down and the employees focus on the returns list instead of the grand opening.

But enough about me.

The store is attractive. Functional shelving, but with a nice wood veneer at the end caps and on the uprights. A decent balance between attractive and cheap. The sections that were intended to be destinations within the store all looked pretty solid. The graphic novel and manga section did look really nice, with plentiful shelving and spaces where it was possible to mix media, so that you might have for some series a video or a doll (excuse me, action figure, or collectible character artwork, or whatever we're supposed to call them because grown men don't play with dolls) available near the books. There were lots and lots of Borders Search stations, which will be doubly functional when they integrate the new Borders website with the in-store terminals. In the health section, you had special wellness stations with videos and whatnot. The children's section was big and spacious with lots of stroller parking and lots of space for budding toddlers to build up a head of steam so they can crash into the shelves, fall down and start crying about their booboo. It's actually bigger than it seems in proportion to the store because the intermediate reader section is now outside of the children's section, so it's kind of the same size as an older store with the IR in the kids area except all that space is now for the younger kid books.

There's one truly major change that I didn't even realize until I stumbled across two new mass market stand-up racks in the aisle by the manga and between the sf and romance. This is the first Borders I've been to in 184 stores over 26 years that doesn't have a new mass market table FOS. The 96-title mass market table with tree in the middle is not to be found in the new concept store. You've got these two stands, 72 titles total (18 on each side of the two stands) lingering in the genre section.

It was kind of hard to notice the fewer-title more face-out policy in the genre fiction section, in part because a new store tends to be ordered pretty close to shelf capacity. It's more evident at the moment in the Park Ave. store in Manhattan that has face-outs all over the sf/fantasy section, and we'll see if that's still the case as the inventory builds ahead of the holiday season later in the year. And hard to judge in a bad-in-genre store where it's more difficult to decide what's missing on account of the store vs. what's missing on account of the philosophy.

I'd gotten a sneak preview of the new digital offerings when Brandon Sanderson and I stumbled across a test store in Monroeville, PA in December, very late at night right before closing at a time when the store would otherwise have been closed if not for the extended pre-holiday hours. Here, it's totally integrated, full of customers, full of helpful-looking young men seemingly very eager to help the customers burn their own CDs. In fact, my older brother burned one for himself while I was doing my exploration. (In fact, my older brother thought the idea of the concept store was dummying down when I told him what was in store for his new local Borders several months ago, but has seemingly grown fond of the place in its first ten days of actuality).) It's a nice selection of offerings otherwise, Sony Reader. Solar Charger. MP3 player. Self publication by Lulu. Make your own photo album. Research your ancestry. Some of it makes a lot of sense. The much-reduced music section has shelf talkers to direct people to the tracks after tracks available to do it yourself. Which may along with the lulu kits foretell the days when a Borders does actively sell e-books as a go-along with an abridged print selection. I'm not sure how the photo album or the ancestry fits in, but as it's all put together in the digital circle it does seem to work as a whole.

The store was bustling with people on a Saturday afternoon on Grand Opening weekend and doing business by the bushel. WIll it be doing that in a month? You never quite know how the grand opening crowds will settle.

But all in all, I'll vote aye. It would be interesting if Borders could get its supply chain running a bit tighter, because for better or worse they are experimenting while B&N sticks to the knitting of printed books. Which may not be a great idea. The future is changing now before my eyes. I have a Kindle. A guy on the Amtrak train to Philly has a Sony Reader. Penguin reports selling more e-books YTD in 2008 than in all of 2007. I've recommended to a client not to do a book deal with a 5% e-book royalty when I'm used to seeing 15% because I don't think it's a good idea to take too much of a discount on the e-book sales. No, I don't think the book industry is going to go the way of the music industry, but it's heading somewhere new now, finally, ten or twelve years after the e-book revolution was first predicted.

Three cheers to the sort team. I think every JABberwocky book was in its right place. Its very rare for me to go to a new Borders and not find at least one title in the wrong section. In fact, I noticed while casing out the sf only one non-sf books that jumped out as having been mis-sorted. My brother found a sports/reference book in the racquet sports section. The staff seemed friendly.

The store has an actual "coffee table books" section, which is not usual to my recollection.

The person next to me on the bus ride up was reading an Ian Douglas novel from Eos. When he got off the bus at Danbury, I gave him a business card with the suggestion written down that he try the Lost Fleet books.

This was my 184th Borders visited. How will I get to 200 before the end of the year? I had to skip BEA where I might have caught up on a couple, El Segundo and Century City certainly, which I missed on my last LA trip, or some of the stores near Costa Mesa. How many can I get to in Denver? I think the Tigard store in OR relocated, but will somebody at Willamette Writers get me there? Is there someone in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area who would love to spend a day driving a literary agent to bookstores? I could pick up a lot there since I've never been to any in the area. Michigan? I've only visited stores in the Ann Arbor area and the Detroit suburbs have lots to choose from? Maybe George L. Jones can take me around when I've gotten to 195 or so, we can close the day at the Lohr Road new concept store for #200, and then have cake at HQ. I'd hoped to have made more progress toward the 200 mark than I have so far this year.


Laurel Amberdine said...

I continue to eagerly await the e-book revolution. The Sony Reader is nice (I'd have one if it worked with the Mac) and the Kindle is promising... but really, can I just give someone $3-5 and get a .pdf please? I would love to do that.

Other than Baen (which is okay, but not quite my taste), it's still not possible. Just baffles me. I can order and instantly download games, music, tv shows, movies... all of which are much harder to encode than text, but not books. Gah! Surely someone wants my money?

Lynxswift said...

The manga section sounds very cool. Can't wait for them to roll this out nationwide. Though my wallet will complain about all the extra merchandise I'll be tempted into picking up :). You should see the doll, I mean action figure collection I already have :).

EB said...

Have you offered your services to Borders as a store design consultant?

And do you think the small sci fi section is a conscious decision on the part of management or something they were forced into on account of the store's size?

The Brillig Blogger said...

The bad sf section at the Southbury Borders reflects demographics. The chains all try and guess ahead of time what to stock at a store, and in this case the performance of the earlier Waldenbooks in the mall would certainly have informed those decisions. If the store does better in sf than expected, its category ranking will rise based on actual performance, and orders will eventually adjust over time.