January 3, 2011

Is the US about to become a one-bookstore-chain country?


One of the most dramatic — and frightening — developments in the book business in years occurred over the holiday break: Borders announced it didn’t have enough money to pay its accounts, triggering a chain of events that could mean the demise of the company. While the company has seemed near death before, this time it seems for real.

As an Associated Press wire story reported last Thursday, it began with a surprise announcement from the company that it was having a “liquidity shortfall” and that it had “delayed payments to some of its vendors as it seeks to preserve cash while it struggles to refinance its debt.” A spokesperson said the company was “in talks with other possible lenders to replace its financing and that it might sell some assets to improve its cash position. It plans to close 16 stores during the fourth quarter, including four by ending leases early and the rest when their leases run out. But Borders reiterated on Thursday that there was no assurance that any refinancing would arise, and that it could violate terms of its debt ….”

A Wall Street Journal story noted that shares in the company plunged 22% the next day.

By Sunday things were even worse. In another WSJ story, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg reports that “The fallout from Borders Group Inc.’s decision to halt payments to some publishers began over the weekend, as a leading distributor said it would temporarily stop shipping books to the retail chain. The chief executive of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc., which publishes its own titles and distributes books for several hundred publishers through its National Book Network, said in an interview the company was taking the step to look out for its clients.”

Rowman & Littlefield CEO Jed Lyons tells the paper, “When a customer of that size calls you up and says you aren’t getting a check, that’s a piece of information you have to act on.”

Lagardère SCA’s Hachette Book Group — the conglomerate that owns Little, Brown, Marvel, Twelve and more, and is one of the country’s biggest publishers — is said to be considering following suit.

Possible repercussions? Beyond the fact that it means no competition for the only remaining bookstore chain — Barnes & Noble — the more striking outcome to readers, writers, and publishers alike is this: 676 fewer American bookstores.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.