When no one shows up, you know it’s over. That’s just what happened with Borders this week. The second largest book store chain in North America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed over 200 stores in February. The store then went through the process of looking for a buyer, which was rejected by creditors. So Borders went to auction this past weekend and not a single bid was made. Liquidation is expected to follow, with the remaining 399 stores closing as soon as this Friday. The entire operation will likely be over by September.
While some comic book publishers didn’t have significant distribution at Borders, others are surely feeling this. Like Barnes & Noble, Borders had cultivated a healthy graphic novel and manga section over the last decade. Marvel, DC, VIZ, IDW, Image and more all had prominent placement and now that revenue is lost in an already struggling market and economy. Book market sales simply aren’t what they used to be, and sales from the comic industry’s primary revenue source, comic book stores, continues to slide each month this year.
It’s no surprise then that publishers are feverishly looking at the one growth sector in comics right now, digital. While it’s still a tiny percentage, it’s growing fast and has a huge potential to reach audiences. After all, large portions of the country are nowhere near comic book stores. Comparisons to digital being the new newsstand pop up in nearly every interview publishers give on the topic. And for good reason. Up to the 1980s and even into the early ’90s, most readers first discovered comic books on spinner racks in convenience stores or local newsstands. That distribution method faded away and comic book stores saved comic books from vanishing entirely, but the cost was that you had to know about comic books and their specialty stores to discover comics, which of course is almost impossible. Needless to say, the oxygen has been slowly running out on the sealed tank ever since.
While there is a lot of hope with digital, there is something lost in Borders. What made Borders great might have been a piece of its ultimate commercial failure. Borders was great for browsing. They welcomed people sitting around for hours at a time, reading books they hadn’t purchased. The store itself was designed like you had stepped into someone’s personal library. It allowed for discovery. Amazon.com and digital comics providers like comiXology often (but not always) allow select pages for browsing and discovery, but that’s it. It makes it harder to know if it’s for you and some customers are very reluctant to take that risk and just try something. Or maybe that’s something the digital generation isn’t concerned about.
Of course, the book market isn’t completely gone. There’s still local book stores that carry graphic novels and comic books (surely some do), Barnes & Noble, Chapters (in Canada), and others. Marvel Comics just announced four original graphic novels that are surely aimed at the book store market. Executives at Marvel had previously stated in multiple interviews that it didn’t make financial sense for them to do original graphic novels, instead publishing graphic novels comprised of collections of reprinted comic book issues which allowed them to defer production costs with sales of the comic books. Something has apparently changed in the numbers they’re looking at for them to do an about-face. Last year DC Comics experimented with original graphic novels by releasing Superman: Earth One. by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis. The experiment was so successful that Straczynski abandoned his monthly writing assignments and has been focusing almost entirely on more original graphic novels for DC. Time will tell if the loss of Borders will merely be a blip, or if it’ll be too big of a loss for some publishers to continue.