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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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Go Borders, Go!

This will post six months to the day since I gave an interim report card to Borders CEO Ron Marshall, who came on the job after the holiday season a year ago.

I love this guy!

And I'm urging all of you to check out your local Borders this holiday season and think about giving them some of your business, because I think Ron Marshall has worked very hard and for the most part very successfully to position Borders for the holiday season and bang the stores into shape.

By way of background, the prior CEO, George L. Jones, had not done a good job. First, he debuted his wonderful new concept store a very very short time before announcing the company was in a cash crunch. While I was roaming around visiting bookstores in LA, my thinking on this crystallized: this meant he either knew the company was running out of cash but was having too much fun with his new toy, his "buy a GPS, burn a CD" digital bookstore of the future, to tend to the important fact that he was running out of cash, or he didn't know. Either should have gotten the guy fired sooner than actually ended up happening. And then his solution was to slash inventory levels, which hurt the best Borders stores most of all. One problem Borders had was an inconsistent brand image because their worst stores for sf/fantasy had an inventory selection markedly worse than a B&N, while the best stores had fabulous deep selections that were much much better. The best Borders were just really, really, really good, but the huge gap in selection from good stores to bad wasn't good for brand identity. So when he slashed inventory levels over the course of 2008, it meant that the best Borders no longer carried things like a selection of "Hot Blood" anthologies which you couldn't find elsewhere. Before this, the average Borders had been about the same as the average B&N, though with a bigger spread. Thus, the average Borders was worse because the worst stores were still appreciably worse while the good stores were no better than the competition. Which made it that much harder to cover up the slower supply chain, the less frequent reordering, and other such things. On the plus side, it was under George Jones that Borders finally rolled out a new computer system for its employees and started a non-stop Charlaine Harris campaign which B&N took around a year to catch up to.

Ron Marshall is doing what he can to solve these things.

As I mentioned six months ago, he quickened reorder cycles for backlist. Borders still takes longer to replenish than B&N because its supply chain isn't as good, but the problem is no longer exacerbated by waiting eight weeks to reorder. If a Borders is supposed to carry a book, it is much more likely to have the book on the shelf than ever before in its history.

Starting in October, I could see the results of a major effort to increase inventory levels and improve selection from top to bottom at Borders. There is hardly a JABberwocky clients who doesn't have more books carried at more Borders locations now than in September. In the case of the Goblin books by Jim Hines, the books were rolled out to every single store as of October. Tanya Huff's "Keeper" books went from being carried maybe at 20% of the stores to being carried at 65% or 70%. Elizabeth Moon's "Legacy of Gird" picked up a few stores. The most recent earnings press release said Borders invested an extra $16M in inventory in its superstores this holiday season versus last, and you can see that to greater or lesser extent at pretty much any Borders you go into.

There are many books that B&N carries more consistently than Borders. These include the Dark Delicacies anthologies, the first two Greywalker trade paperbacks, the Crispin Guest mysteries by Jeri Westerson, both Andrea Cort novels by Adam-Troy Castro and a full selection of Michael Schiefelbein. But if you want to find Elizabeth Moon's "Deed of Paksenarrion," Brandon Sanderson's "Warbreaker," David Edelman's "Infoquake," Jim Hines' "Goblin" novels, John Zakour's "Zach" novels, Peter Brett's "Warded Man," you have to go to Borders. On balance, I think we're regaining some of that special feel at the top 20% of the stores in the Borders portfolio that helps to make up for some of the advantages B&N still has with its supply chain. And the typical Borders has much more Sookie Stackhouse and Brandon Sanderson on the shelf.

Borders had to do a lot of store remodels in the spring and summer to cover up the gaping holes from eliminating the music and movie sections at many of their stores. A lot of the stores were a mess, and as discussed in August, some Borders locations may always be weighted down by more square feet than anyone can know what to do with. I'm not happy that many of these remodels moved the genre fiction much further from the front door. The latest store where I saw this was Borders #55 in Farmington, CT., where the genre fiction is now way in back in part of the old walled-off music section, and the space right up front where the genre fiction had been is now filled with bargain books. Me sad! But at least the store looks OK, design wise, without the sense that somebody had scratched at the store and pulled off strips of its flesh. It didn't look that way in the summer. So going into the holiday season, the store had been remodeled into some semblance of attractiveness, and with a slightly beefed up inventory selection as well.

So the stores have been spiffed up a little bit, they look nicer than they did, they're carrying more titles than they did, and I hope customers will start to take notice.


Tim Akers said...

I know our local borders has gotten through that "strips of flesh missing" phase more or less intact. Of course, my local B&N is closing at the end of the year so unless I want to deal with traffic I'll be shopping exclusively at Borders.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. The new Borders in my area at Southcenter Mall has a good, not great, genre' section right off of the magazines. I have to say though that the best SF/F superstore I have seen is my own hometown B&N at Westwood Village in Seattle. They have one whole WALL just for SF/F New Releases and then a large "U" shaped section stacked high, with graphic novels and manga on a rack in the middle of the "U". It's actually quite impressive.