Alan Beatts is owner of Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, a specialty bookstore focusing on the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. In addition to the vast selection of new and used genre books, the store hosts many genre-related events. SF Signal had the opportunity to grill Alan about the genre, book selling, the future of book publishing and the store’s unique mascot.
SF SIGNAL: Hi Alan. What made you decide to bite the bullet and actually start a bookstore? Was this something you’d wanted to do for a while (how long?) or was it more impulsive?
ALAN BEATTS: At one point I was very unhappy with my job (at that time I was managing a motorcycle shop). It seemed that I was working much harder than the owner and that I cared more about how the business was doing than he did. Plus, I thought I had better ways of doing things that he wouldn’t let me put into effect. I tell you, I was pissed.
And then I had a moment of clarity. I realized that throughout my working career I had frequently resented my bosses for the same damn reason. Since I’d been in a number of fields and had worked for quite a variety of bosses it seemed that all my past jobs had only one common denominator — I was working them.
Based on that, it seemed that the best solution was to stop working for other people and start my own business. It was just a question of what kind of business I wanted to run. I knew it should be a retail store and books have always been my best friends so a bookstore seemed the thing to do. My first and greatest love has been SF, fantasy and the supernatural, so that answered the question of what kind of books to sell.
Then it was just a matter of working my ass of for about three months to get it all together. I opened Borderlands in the beginning of November, 1997. All the stock were used books, about half of which were my own.
SFS: What books got you hooked on science fiction and which ones are now your favorites?
AB: There are three people who I affectionately call, “Those Responsible”…
Robert Heinlein, Michael Whelan, and Bob Wilkins. Only one is a writer, though.
I read Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel as a serial in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine (started in the August, 1958 issue). It was the first SF I ever read and I was hooked from the outset. Michael Whelan‘s cover illustrations for the Elric books by Michael Moorcock so caught my imagination that I shoplifted all of them from the local bookstore (I was a kid and didn’t have an allowance or a job — I’ve since apologized to both Michaels and sold many, many copies to make up for it). Finally, a man named Bob Wilkins hosted a late night weekend TV show called Creature Features when I was a kid. In its heyday there were four hours of SF and horror films every Friday and Saturday night. I watched religiously, even when the movies gave me horrible nightmares.
Other writers who really hooked me in the past are Larry Niven, Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Walter Jon Williams (especially Hardwired), F. Paul Wilson (both his early work in SF as well as his later supernatural fiction) and Andre Norton. One writer whose work has been of stand-out importance to me personally is David Drake. The way that he has transferred the reality of violent professions (he served in Vietnam) to SF and Fantasy is unmatched in the field and made his work very important to me personally when I was leaving the violent profession that I was in (I worked as a bodyguard — among other things — for several years).
Currently the authors who are really knocking my socks off are Richard Morgan, Steven Erikson, Graham Joyce, Karen Traviss and Neal Asher.
SFS: What trends do you see happening in the genre today? What about trends in the sf/f/h publishing industry?
AB: The two biggest trends in SF today are the new generation of space opera, as typified by Neal Asher (The Skinner), Alastair Reynolds (Chasm City) and Iain M. Banks (The Algebraist), and the post-computational singularity and/or post-scarcity novel, as exemplified by Charles Stross (Iron Sunrise), Cory Doctorow (Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom), and Ken MacLeod (the Fall Revolution books: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road).
The biggest trend in publishing that I see is a continuation of what has been going on for years; the sales expectations for any book are getting higher and higher. The simple version is this — for a book to be considered “successful” the total number of copies that must sell is higher now that it has ever been. In other words, there is little room for what used to be called the “mid-list” of authors. An author either needs to sell large numbers of copies of each of their books (the numbers vary a bit but a good rule of thumb is at least 15,000 to 20,000 copies for a paperback) or they are likely to be unable to get their books published in the future. This is a sweeping generality and therefore subject to numerous exceptions and inaccuracies but it conveys the general concept.
The long term effect of this on readers is twofold. It means that authors at the beginning of their career have less time to hone their skills since they either succeed quickly or no longer have a market for their work. As a result, we have fewer authors in total working at any time and a consequent reduction in variety of work. The second effect is that editors are less able to take risks by publishing material that is different or challenging because they are under the same pressure as the authors to produce books that sell well and, though something different may be a huge success, the safe bet is to publish books that are similar to other books that have sold well. This adds to the reduction in variety. I don’t think this is a good trend but thankfully smaller, independent publishers are taking advantage of this situation by publishing material that would have been published by the big New York houses twenty years ago. Companies like Night Shade Books and Pyr, to mention two, are taking the opportunity to publish books that would have been out of their reach previously. Since the smaller companies have much lower overhead and also don’t need to pass profits along to their corporate owners, they can produce lower sales and still make a healthy profit.
SFS: Is there something unique about San Francisco that has allowed your store to enjoy the success it has?
AB: I think the biggest advantage that we have in being in San Francisco are the sheer number of people who want to support locally owned businesses. Two other factors are the number of visitors to San Francisco every year and the fact that science fiction and fantasy are very popular in the Bay Area — this is a high-tech center and that makes for an interest and acceptance of SF. Plus, people here are very open-minded. That tends to be a quality of SF and fantasy readers.
SFS: I’ve read that some independent bookstores in the San Francisco area have recently closed up shop. Aside from the pleasure of crushing the competition, what does this say, if anything, about the future of the independent bookstore?
AB: Before I get to the meat of my answer to that question, I should point out that there is no pleasure on my part in the closure of any independent bookstore. That’s a feeling that I think most booksellers share. Unlike many businesses, bookselling has a very strong cooperative quality. It’s very common for other stores to call us to try to find a book for a customer who’s standing at their counter and then send them along to my shop to purchase it.
Conversely, I’ve done the same on many other occasions. Likewise, I’ve gone to other stores to get my stock signed by visiting authors and have been treated very well by the staff. So, my reaction to a store closure, be it in San Francisco or anywhere else, is sadness.
This is one case where John Donne’s often quoted phrase truly does apply, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Independent booksellers see themselves as part of a much bigger endeavor than their own business and the closure of one shop weakens the whole.
However, if Borders or Barnes and Noble were to shut down, I expect that there would be quite a few parties thrown in bookstores around the country. I’m not sure Borderlands would throw one but there would be a certain feeling of relief around here.
I think that the future of independent bookstores is unclear and turbulent. On one hand, there is an increasing awareness that locally owned businesses are very positive for their communities from a concrete and objective standpoint. A number of recent studies conducted by towns and cities indicate that, compared to national chains, a much larger percentage of the income of locally owned stores stays in the community where it helps the local economy which in turn improves the standard of living. As this information is becoming more and more widely disseminated, more and more people are choosing to spend their money with local businesses. Since one of the major factors in store closures is the income lost to chain stores like Barnes and Noble, this change in spending is a very good sign.
On the other hand, the ownership of bookstores is getting older and older and very few new stores are opening. Once an owner decides that they want to retire, it is often impossible to find a buyer for the business and so it closes. Additionally, the possible future of electronic books designed to be read either on some portable (possibly purpose built) device or computers may result in more lost sales for stores already teetering on the edge of viability.
If I had to make a prediction it would be something like this sequence of events:
- Independent stores continue to struggle along with some closures, primarily large general interest stores (especially those with older owners) and marginally profitable smaller stores. Stores especially hard hit will be ones located near existing or newly opened chain super-stores.
- Chain stores start to close locations due to sales losses to on-line merchants and electronic formats (ebooks and audio books). Independents continue to hang on but there is slow, constant attrition.
- Chain stores start to move more and more towards on-line sales and continue to close locations. Independents, in part due to their lower operating costs, start to see marginally increased sales due to chain store closures. Marginal stores continue to close.
- Chain stores either successfully make the transition to on-line and electronic sales or go out of business. Independents see substantial sales increase due to chains leaving the brick and mortar arena.
- Continued movement towards electronic formats starts to drive independent sales down from the high of the previous period. Stores start to close again.
- Electronic formats continue to build sales and store closures start to accelerate. Used book stores continue at previous levels with a significant dependence on on-line mail order sales.
- For all intents and purposes new book stores cease to exist. Used bookstores move more and more towards to collectable books as cheap, electronic “reprints” eliminate the market for out of print books.
- Final stage, bookstores are rare and specialize in expensive, collectable inventory. All new books are “published” in electronic formats except for small print runs of collector’s editions.
I’m sorry if I’m painting a grim (from the bookseller standpoint) picture but that’s how I see it. The only real question in my mind is how long that cycle will take. I would be shocked if it happened in 10 years but I would be equally shocked if it took as long as 50 years. My completely off-the-cuff guess would be somewhere around 15 to 20 years for the whole thing to play out.
Sometimes I feel a bit like a wheelwright looking at my neighbor’s brand new Model T Ford. I can see the end coming; I just don’t know how long it will take.
On a brighter note, the effect on readers will be generally very positive. You’ll be able to carry (and store) many more books than before, the prices should be lower, and nothing will ever be out of print.
SFS: That does sound like a grim future. Today, how has online competition (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) affected your business? What do you feel your store has to offer its customers that an online store can’t?
AB: Online competition has affected us very little. I opened Borderlands the same year Amazon started so they’ve always been a factor in my sales. As a result, their existence has been part of the normal background. This has not been the case for other stores who have been in business longer.
In terms of what we offer that an online store doesn’t, it’s a long list. Not that online doesn’t have its place; it’s the perfect way to buy a book if you already know what you want. But most people don’t shop for books that way.
- The chance to browse our shelves and “just find something”
- The ability to ask my staff (who are absolutely wonderful) for suggestions or just chat with them about books.
- A place to go to meet authors and hear them read and talk about their work.
- A place for book clubs (we have two that meet each month) and writers groups (we have two, one meets weekly and one meets twice a month).
- Somewhere to walk in, grab a book and a seat and read for an hour or two.
- A place to sell your used books for credit or cash.
SFS: Turning back towards the future and your comment on books moving to electronic formats, what are your thoughts on where the book publishing business will go using other new technology? Do think that on-demand publishing or electronic paper will become popular and thus money making ventures for the book business?
AB: Let me take those one at a time. I think that on-demand publishing (or POD) is going to be a bit of a dead-end. For certain special purposes like deep-backlist titles and works in the public domain I think that POD works quite well. But the problem with POD is the price. Due to the process used to print them, they have to either be priced around 15% higher than a more traditionally produced book, which hurts sales to consumers, or they are sold at wholesale with a very low discount, which makes stores (even on-line sellers like Amazon) hesitant to carry them. Adding these disadvantages to a book that’s already being published by a smaller company with less money for (and access to) publicity makes success difficult. For larger publishers, POD already fills a limited role for back-list titles and is not likely to be used for much else, again for reasons of price.
All these comments apply to genre fiction, not POD as a whole. For some other projects (specifically ones that have a built-in market and small demand) POD is an excellent choice. As an editor I know commented, “If I was going to publish a book of poetry or a family memoir, I’d immediately look at POD”.
Electronic paper, if I understand the way you’re using the term, is just another form of ebook. Perhaps I should define that — an ebook is a work in the form of text that is supplied to the end-user in the form of a data-file that is independent of the medium used to transmit the file. Doesn’t matter if it’s a plain text file, a PDF, or something formatted for a specific type of hardware or software, they’re all “ebooks” in my book. That’s distinct from audio books, which are essentially the same except they aren’t works “in the form of text”. Instead they’re audio files suitable for playing on anything from a computer, to your car stereo or even your iPod. Traditionally audio books were sold on CD (cassette tapes, originally) but I think we’re going to see more movement towards downloadable audio books in the future.
As I mentioned, ebooks are going to be come more and more important as time goes on. At this point, the only major SF&F publisher who’s doing much with ebooks is Baen Books. They have taken a simple but ground-breaking approach by not using any type of copy protection for their ebooks. The result has been very strong sales and a very successful program that seems to break expectations by not having much trouble with piracy and unauthorized copying and by actually increasing sales of hard copies of the books that are available for download. Other than Baen, publishers seem to be producing ebooks in a pretty half-hearted way and pricing them so as to offer no competition with hardcopy editions (i.e. pricing the ebook at the same price as the hardcover, which would seem to make no economic sense at all since their costs are so much lower for the ebook). I think we’ll see significant changes in this area over the next ten years.
SFS: As you mentioned, Borderlands Books regularly hosts author events. How do you entice authors to participate in these events? What’s the furthest an author has traveled for one? Which event had the best turnout?
AB: Most authors don’t need much enticement to do readings. The catch most often is whether they are going to be in town. If not, then in some cases their publisher will be sending them on tour. But when people are in town, for any reason, they’re usually very happy to appear at Borderlands. The farthest that an author has ever traveled would be tied between Sara Douglass, Stephen Dedman, and Terry Dowling. Each of them came from Australia. A close second was Koji Suzuki, who came from Japan.
Best turnout is a slippery question. Our biggest turnout was for George R.R. Martin but that was just for a signing. I’d say that best turnout has consistently been for the release parties for Morbid Curiosity Magazine. The publisher, Automatism Press is local, and we’ve been hosting the release parties for years and years. Over 65 people attended the last one.
SFS: OK, seriously, what’s the story with the cat?
AB: Ripley is a representative of a breed called a Sphynx. They were bred for hairlessness, among other things. I got her about four years ago because I think bookstores and cats go together perfectly but I was concerned about making my customers (and staff) who were allergic uncomfortable in the store. Though Sphynxs are not hypoallergenic, the lack of hair means that they don’t shed and thus make their entire environment a problem for people with allergies.
Two other qualities that make Sphynx perfect for a bookstore are also consequences of their breeding — they’re very affectionate and have a very even-tempered and calm personality. Ripley is pretty much unflappable when it comes to noise, shrieking kids, dogs and so on.
One final thing, despite the name, the breed does not come from Egypt. The original pair of hairless kittens that were the breed’s foundation were actually born in Toronto, Canada. Not, it seems to me, a good place to be hairless.
SFS: Thanks very much for your time, Alan. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AB: I don’t think so. It was a pleasure doing this interview, John. I hope that your readers find at least one or two things of interest in it.
Actually, there is one thing I would add. I’m often seen as being the “face” of Borderlands but the store would not be what it is without the remarkable and outstanding work of my staff, Jeremy Lassen, Claud Reich, Cary Heater and Heather Cornish, and first and foremost, Jude Feldman, Borderlands’ incomparable General Manager. They are, without a doubt, the finest group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and Borderlands would be a far lesser business without all their contributions.