Readers know Bryan Smith as the author of such extreme horror novels as Depraved, The Killing Kind, Rock and Roll Reform School Zombies, The Freakshow, and his latest, Darkened (formerly titled Deadworld). What they might not know is that Bryan was also employed by Borders. He has a unique perspective on the company’s downfall, and I asked him to share it with us in today’s guest Blog entry.
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As anyone reading this is likely aware by now, Borders Group, Inc. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. Many consumers expressed dismay as the news of this development hit. From a personal standpoint, the only surprise is that it took this long to happen.
I am a mid-list horror writer. For a number of years, Brian Keene and myself had numerous titles published by Leisure Books, a division of Dorchester Publishing. The early years at Dorchester were very good. Sales were strong and our readers were enthusiastic supporters of our work. However, while a core group of readers retained that enthusiasm, overall readership in the mass market paperback segment of publishing declined dramatically over a very short period of time. As editor Don D’Auria put it, “The bottom dropped out.” Dorchester abruptly ceased publishing in this format last summer. That changed a lot of things for writers like us and we’ve had to forge new ways forward in this drastically altered literary landscape.
These personal hardships were reflective of a larger struggle occurring in the bookselling world. The sharp rise in the popularity of e-readers corresponded with steep declines in print sales in general. One of the hallmarks of any successful business is its ability to adapt to change. In this case, Amazon was far ahead of the curve. The Kindle was a game-changer. The people at Barnes & Noble recognized this and soon introduced their own e-reader, the Nook, a versatile device that has also proven popular. Borders, true to form, was slow to respond. The company belatedly unveiled its e-book strategy last year with some fanfare, including many email blasts and some flashy website graphics. However, beneath all the surface color and flash was a whole lot of not very much. Rather than developing their own proprietary reader, Borders partnered with a third party, Kobo, who would provide the backbone of their e-books store. The Kobo reader, which would use a Borders e-reading app, was heavily promoted on Borders.com.
This seems like a good point to mention that I am a former Borders employee. I worked in the Customer Care Center as an email rep for five and a half years, until I and all my fellow email reps were laid off in October of 2010. The entire center was shut down in December of the same year. Oh, Borders still has a Customer Care Center. It’s just that it’s in the Philippines now.
ASIDE: Don’t you just love the concept of outsourcing? Oh, you do? That means one of three things. 1. You’re an asshole. 2. You’re a soulless, stone-hearted executive with no regard for the human cost of your decisions. 3. You are involved in some way with a sitcom airing on NBC about the obvious inherent wackiness involved in outsourcing the customer service department of an American business to somewhere like India or, hmm, the Philippines. Or, perhaps, all of the above.
Anyway, I was there for the introduction of the Kobo reader. When I read the specs for the device, I was underwhelmed, to say the least. In a world of Kindles and Nooks, the geniuses at the BGI corporate level elected to pin their hopes on a device with no wi-fi or 3G capability. Not only that, but they failed to price the device competitively. The wi-fi Kindle was for a time cheaper than the clunky Kobo, which many customers found non-intuitive and difficult to use. Several months later, a wireless version of the Kobo was finally introduced, but by then it was too late to matter.
The Kobo stumble is indicative of an entrenched pattern of strategic missteps. A successful business strives for innovation and sets a standard for others to follow. The leadership (if we can use that word without snickering) at Borders has consistently scrambled to keep up with everyone else, without ever remotely succeeding. On the few occasions when the company did attempt to innovate, the results have been almost hilariously inept and misguided. Other fumbles include the introduction of “concept” stores with digital download centers. Does it really need to be said that anyone with even the smallest amount of technical savvy would prefer to download music and e-books on their own computers? Unsurprisingly, the “concept” failed to catch on.
As the years went by and the company continued its precipitous, inexorable slide into the abyss, the rate of turnover at the CEO position became almost comical. One after another these clueless goofballs came and went, usually staying just long enough to drive the company even closer to the brink of utter ruin. I’d describe these guys as circus clowns masquerading as executives, but that would be an insult to circus clowns. Desperation set in and every aspect of the business became micromanaged to absurd degrees. Things became particularly grim during Ron Marshall’s brief reign of terror, when the “make book” program was introduced. Each month, employees in the stores were required to push a new title someone at corporate had identified as one they wanted to turn into a bestseller. At the Customer Care level, the primary result of this was a barrage of emails from customers furious about being “harassed” by store employees who were urging them to buy books in which they had no interest.
Some of these make book titles did see sales increases, but any benefit was offset by the customer ill will instilled by these aggressive sales tactics. Many store employees suffered tremendous stress as a result of being forced to use these tactics. At Customer Care, the Marshall Effect was felt in the form of stepped-up disciplinary measures and dubious performance reviews. Intimidation tactics. In the Ron Marshall era, the mantra was “Do whatever it takes.” Meaning do whatever it takes to satisfy every single customer, even if that customer is a screaming, psychotic, brain-damaged, entitled freak lacking anything even remotely resembling a legitimate complaint. Give them whatever it takes. Give them $10 in Borders Bucks. $20 if that’s what it takes to shut them up. Free express shipping. Free product. WHATEVER IT TAKES. Even if that means practically giving the goddamn store away.
Do whatever it takes. OR ELSE. Needless to say, this approach was an utter failure and essentially sealed the fate of the company. At the beginning of this, I said the only thing that surprised me about last week’s news was that it had taken so long. That’s true. I’ve been expecting it for at least the last two years. Each time, though, Borders found some last minute, almost miraculous new source of additional financing. Some new sucker to prop them up just a little bit longer.
Last week their luck finally ran out and reality caught up with them. Caught up with a fucking vengeance.
I feel bad for all the people losing their jobs. I feel bad for all the communities losing their stores. But the corporate bigwigs who ran the company into the ground?
For them, I feel nothing but contempt.