Borders Books is dead. I feasted off the dying carcass a lot, making four trips to stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I bought a few titles for myself and then the frenzy started and I was buying birthday and Christmas presents for my brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, the mailman, and the people down the street. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I was buying a few books because they were cheap. Now, that I have enjoyed the experiences of getting new books for almost nothing, it is time to think about what the death of Borders means for those of us in the history business, and it isn’t good.
Borders died because of bad management. The issue was not misreading the rise of e-books as business journalists have widely reported. Yes, Borders was late in advancing into that market, but it is still a small niche, accounting for roughly five percent of sales. The real problem that Borders faced was that they had the wrong people in the wrong jobs. Buyers in military history had years of experience in romance fiction, or knew mystery fiction but were responsible for science fiction. They put the wrong books on their display tables and did not know the importance of the people writing blurbs on the back of books. They under ordered titles that turned out to be best sellers and bought a thousand copies of academic books and then barely sold a hundred copies.
They were also notorious for not paying their bills and this dunning of publishers is the real problem that is going to have real, long term ramifications for historians because of the way publishers responded to this issue. Some—the smart ones—simply cut off Borders and said no more new books until you pay your old bills. The publishing houses that took this hard line were taking a gamble, because this attitude was a good way to alienate a major, major retailer. As it turns out, this approach was the right one and Borders to some degree paid these bills. Other publishers decided to keep selling books to Borders on credit, essentially making a de facto investment in the future of this chain that blew up in their faces. The business directors of these presses simply thought Borders was too big to challenge. According to gossip in the profession, the chain owed some major academic presses amounts reaching into six figures. It is even worse for the trade presses. Borders owed those firms millions. These publishers have all filed liens as creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings surrounding the death of this corporation and will get some of that money back, but not all of it or even most of it.
That means that publishers large and small are taking financial hits. Some will be better able to absorb this lose than others. The result is that a number of academic presses are going to be unable to publish new titles. Intellectual merit is no longer going to be enough to earn a book contract. Editors—even those at prestigious operations that thought they were above base commercial concerns—are going to have to ask some hard questions about new acquisitions: can we make money off of this title?
The ramifications for individual scholars are immense. A real possibility is that certain types of history will not get published at all. For example, military history, while not popular among most historians, has the advantage in that it sells. Political history, particularly the kind that focuses on White House, also does quite well. American history does better than European or any other region. Another development is that narrow case studies might very well never see the light of day. If it cannot get adopted in undergraduate courses, presses are not going to be interested. Along those lines, I would not be surprised if editors become more demanding in their expectations of writing ability. Poorly written books are more difficult to sell than those that are an easy read. I can also see a future where presses require that authors, particularly new ones without much of a track record, subsidize publication. And if you need a book to get tenure or be viable as a job candidate, you will pay the $2,000 that they ask of you.
This requires even more thought on the part of historians in training. Not only do you need to think about dissertation topics in the context of how you will make an intellectual contribution to the field of history, but also of how commercially viable is your topic. It also requires some careful thought on your field of study. Are there legitimate publishing opportunities in a study of religious practices in Republican Rome or is it in a military history of the U.S. Civil War? These are serious issues and ones deserving of some discussion with your supervising professors.