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A World Without Borders?

Explaining the decline of a bookselling empire.

9:14 AM, Jan 29, 2011 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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In case you missed it, last week's Washington Post had an in-depth feature on the precipitous decline of Borders Books. As Michael S. Rosenwald explains,

Once, Borders was, with rival Barnes & Noble, the long tail of reading, with supermarket-size stores offering thousands of obscure titles alongside bestsellers. Now, Borders confronts the limitless, more efficient supply chain of Amazon's online emporium. Borders, which helped a generation of readers learn the pleasure of diving into a book for hours at a stretch, now competes for the attention of readers who dip into a few pages on an iPad, open Facebook, read some more, then tweet random thoughts.

Ouch. And adding insult to injury, Amazon recently posted holiday quarter sales 36 percent higher than the year before. (Amazon, reports the Financial Times, is also getting involved in the groceries business and has already acquired Zappos, the online shoe store.) So how exactly did the dream of Louis and Tom Borders (not to mention the inspiration for Fox Books in You've Got Mail) come to an end? There were a number of factors both external (Amazon, technology, the culture) and internal—"Analysts say Borders executives, who seemed to turn over at the same rate as bestsellers, did not pay enough attention to the social change. They spent hundreds of millions buying back stock from shareholders. They embarked on an expensive foreign expansion. And they were too slow to build their own Web sales operation, finally giving up and partnering with, yes, Amazon."

Still, the cultural shift seems to be the most unsettling (at least if you love dead-tree books):

"There has now clearly been a shift to reading more quickly," said John Miedema, an information technology architect and author of "Slow Reading." "We are a little more scattered now in our approach."

That genie is not going back in the bottle. The Kindle can now tweet. Ebooks bought on Amazon can be read on Kindles, iPads, iPhones, BlackBerries or a computer screen.

All in all, a terrific read.

And speaking of iPhones, have you noticed the cameo appearance of Christopher Hitchens's memoir Hitch-22 in the new ad for the iPhone 4? In case you were curious, Apple did not ask Hitchens for permission, nor did they give him a heads-up. "No," he says via email, "it was a surprise to me. A pleasant one." And no, he has not received a new iPhone 4.

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