NEW YORK — The Borders Group chain, which has been struggling to stay in business, is seeking renewal through the timeless art of "hand-selling" books.
In January, soon after CEO Ron Marshall was hired, Borders began an independent-style strategy on a superstore scale. With thousands of titles from which to choose, the idea was to select a few works favored by Borders national sales officials and promote them nationwide in the spirit of a local seller, from prominent placement to personally advocating ("hand-selling") books in the stores.
Borders calls it a "make" book program.
"There has to be the in-house passion," Kathryn Popoff, Borders' vice president for trade books, says. "So we ask the buyer (sales official) to write a letter and work with other buyers and work with publishers to get advance copies to the store so the people there can read it and share that passion."
So far, four titles have been selected: Jeffrey Zaslow's nonfiction chronicle of the lifelong bond between 11 Iowa women, "The Girls From Ames"; Jamie Ford's debut novel, "On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"; the paperback of David Benioff's World War II novel, "City of Thieves"; and the paperback for Kelly Corrigan's "The Middle Place," a memoir about enduring breast cancer.
All four books have been best sellers, and publishers have credited Borders with either being an early factor in the book's success or a key in turning a hit into a major hit.
"It's almost as if Borders is going back to its roots as a personal, hand-selling organization," Albert N. Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University and a leading industry analyst, says. "It's a very good marketing strategy and a very positive sign."
Borders has featured books selected by its own people before, through its book club and other programs. But Popoff says the current strategy is more aggressive and more focused, with no more than two titles chosen at a time, compared to the 35 suggested monthly for the book club.
In a Borders earnings call held in April, Marshall cited "The Middle Place" as a prime "make" book. He noted that the memoir was not a big seller in hardcover, but still was designated as a likely paperback hit after Borders officials saw a video Corrigan had posted online.
Hyperion president Ellen Archer says that Borders wasn't the first to catch on to "The Middle Place," but was essential in boosting the book from a best seller to a major best seller, enabling it to have paperback sales of 158,000 (according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 75 percent of industry sales) after four months, compared to 32,000 in hardcover.
Marshall said during the earnings call that Borders' weekly share of the market for "The Middle Place" has been as high as 59 percent (based on BookScan numbers), a statistic Archer calls "definitely possible" and Greco calls "remarkable," noting the bookseller's estimated 10 to 11 percent share overall. (Rival Barnes & Noble is believed to have about 16 percent.)
"That's a real example of what happens when an account gets behind the book the way that Borders did," Archer says. "The independent stores are known for doing this, and people tend to see national stores following behind. But in this case, Borders had a very structured plan in place for it."
"City of Thieves" is well on its way to becoming another paperback success for Penguin Group (USA), which has mastered the art with "Eat, Pray, Love," "The Kite Runner" and several others. BookScan reports that "Thieves" sold just 27,000 copies in hardcover, but 50,000 in paper within two months.
Borders says its weekly market share for "City of Thieves" has been as high as 69 percent. Don Redpath, Penguin's executive director of national account sales for paperbacks, would not confirm that number, but said that Borders has had "an early and intensive impact on sales."
For "The Girls From Ames," published by Penguin imprint Gotham Books, sales have topped 9,000 less than two weeks after release. The book has reached the top 10 on several best-sellers lists, including The New York Times and Publishers Weekly.
Borders says the percentage of sales coming from its stores has been as high as 80 percent. Penguin sales executive John Lawton says that's overstated, but still credits Borders with more than 50 percent.
"They really used all their channels," says Lawton, Penguin's vice president and director for hardcover sales for national accounts. "We even did a huge event, in Ames, Iowa, where Borders brought a lot of people from their headquarters. ... It really emphasizes what Borders can do when they really put their minds to it."