megwrites: A vertical stack of books, spines facing out leaning against a horizontal stack of books. (many books)
[personal profile] megwrites
I had something of an illuminating experience at the Borders "going out of business" sale this weekend.

For those who don't know, Borders is (was) one of the major brick and mortar retailers here in the U.S. They've been fighting bankruptcy and financial woes for years, but it's finally caught up to them. They're going under and individual locations are going out like light bulbs.

Here have a link about it from the Wall Street Journal.

This is very bad for the employees who are losing jobs. I feel genuine and deep sympathy for them, especially with the way job markets are right now.

But as a person who buys books and is deeply interested in book retail and the publishing industry, it was something of an instructive experience.

What made the experience interesting was that not only was that particular Borders in the (in Charlotte, NC if you're curious) more crowded than I have ever seen it in the handful of times I've been there. The place was wall-to-wall customers. The employees at the registers (bless every single one of their hearts) couldn't get a breath between one customer and the next.

People were buying. A lot. Including me.

However, it wasn't the frenzied "wow, this thing is reduced from twenty bucks to a dollar, I must have it!" type of rush inspired by being raised in a culture that indoctrinates you in thoughtless consumerism from the time you're old enough to comprehend a toy or cereal commercial.

Instead, people in the aisles were looking for specific books. Around me they were saying, "hey, I'd been wanting to get that book!"

It seemed like a good portion weren't just randomly taking stuff because it was cheap, but because they'd wanted it previously but didn't buy it then. I was one of those people. I bought five books (coming to a grand and happy-making total of only $20.07). All books I'd been interested in before. All books I'd walked away from upon seeing the price tag on the back of the mass market paperbacks.

I'll say upfront. I'm not an economist, I'm not a business specialist, not a retail expert. I'm an SF/F writer and a reader, no more and no less.

I'm just customer who has left Borders (and Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million) empty handed each time I've visited them for probably the last four years, possibly longer. I buy books almost exclusively used.

Thus, visits to such stores are just so I can see what's new and do sample reading if I'm in a mall or an airport and need to kill a lot of time. I find a chair, mellow out, and decide what goes on the list of things I hunt for in used stores and online retailers.

It's something I don't feel guilty for. I don't apologize for not having oodles of money to spend on everything I'm even remotely interested in. I have to make choices, and most of the time I choose the cheaper option.

The only time I deviate is when I really, really, really love an author or if something just utterly blows my mind by the first chapter. Both of these circumstances are rare.

What can I say, it's hard to resist the kind of math that turns a book more expensive that the lunch I ate that day ($8.99 paperback) into a book cheaper than a decent supply of peaches for a week ($3.60 where peaches are $1.99/lb which means you can get about five of 'em for what the book cost).

Again, read the "not an economist!" sign above. It kinda seemed to me that if it took a drastic reduction in price to get that sort of commerce going, then the price of books are way too high.

Now, apply the brakes. When I say the prices are too high, I don't mean that books aren't valuable or worth paying for. Medicine is valueable and worth paying for. Food is valuable and worth paying for. But if you don't have the money or can't make them a priority for yourself, then the price of them is too high for you.

Doesn't mean food and medicine are worthless.

Here's the thing for me as a customer/reader. People have this really silly idea that when I buy books, I'm buying the words on paper or screen.

No. I'm buying enjoyment and/or information. Possibly and frequently both.

However, with media, you don't always get what you pay for. It's not like an apple where you plunk down money and walk out with an apple. You can buy a book and get zero joy and no useful information.

It's like buying a sealed crate marked "apples". You pay $8.99, go home, and pry it open. Except, you might find an empty crate. Or molded apples. Or just a couple of very sad, small, bruised ones rolling around. Of course, you might find the best apples ever and some bonus oranges and pineapples.

You just don't know until you get to the bottom of the crate.

But if you get an empty crate, too bad. The author, publisher, and store aren't obligated to ante up if you despise what you've purchased.

Lately, I just don't want to make that gamble, at least not with money that I really need for other things. I have to keep the lights on here in Casa Del Meg. Can't read in the dark.

It also doesn't help that in the last two to three years, I've become increasingly disappointed with what the big name publishing companies are putting out. Especially in the genres I like.

Paranormal romance is something I've talked about, but I can say the same for other types of fantasy and SF. It's gotten to the point where there are certain imprints or publishers I automatically go past because it seems like every time a book really sucks, their label is on it.

Not to mention that I'm also finding that diversity goes hand in hand with quality and it seems like it keeps getting rarer and rarer.

Thing is? I don't read just to be some kind of proper, better-than-thou social justice warrior. I read to enjoy myself and the time I put into it (I am a veeeeery slow reader), but since I've made the effort to consciously and willfully expand my horizons and seek out books and authors that might not have been on my radar before? I've enjoyed reading more. I've found some really awesome reads. I've had more fun, but that also means I have looked with more and more despair at the shelves in stores.

I know that the situation with Borders is more complex than a need for diversity on the shelves and pricing issues. But I just can't help but wonder what would've happened if they had focused on demographics that get underserved by other chains and if the prices had been lowered a few bucks.

Because the one thing I was really certain of when I went in that store? People want to read. People want stories and books. The audiences are there. As a writer that's reassuring. As a would be published author, it kind of scares me because it means that somewhere, somehow this business is doing something to push them away.

I certainly know that for a cheaper price and a better selection, I might have gone more often and left with more than just a shopping list to take to the Book Barn.

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