Borders's category management, one of the most ambitious bookseller programs in several years, has prompted guarded interest on the part of publishers. In an informal survey of publishing executives, the picture that emerges is of an industry piqued by the idea of more specific book-buying information, but often skeptical that it could be achieved in this way. In the words of one sales executive at a well-known New York publishing house, "It's always good to think about how we do business. I applaud Borders for trying to learn more. But I'm a little mystified by how they're going about it."

In some cases, publishers are keeping an open mind and are even enthusiastic; others have shied away from joining and even murmured that those participating may be doing so out of obligation rather than strategic interest. Because the full results of the program won't be known for months or even years, many interviewed said they would have to wait before coming to any conclusions. Still, many voiced concerns based on what they know now.

These questions tended to fall into two categories. There were those who wondered about the value of the research, and then there were those who wondered about its integrity. (Because houses have to pay about $5,000 for seminars and as much as $100,000 to be fully involved, some thought it might skew toward the larger houses.)

But others interviewed thought that Borders was taking on a task that publishers should have handled themselves and that, rather than being wary, publishers should be thanking the retailer. "If publishers had spent those funds internally to do brand research, consumer research, then their publishing programs would have improved," said one publisher, adding that "Borders is not using category management as a moneymaker."

Why They Like It

Among the large publishers who have already gotten on board are Harper (romance and cookbooks), Random House (children's nonfiction) and Sterling (promotional publishing). Several of those interviewed said that the possibility of better information, as well as better relations with Borders, tipped the scale. "I don't think they're going to shrink down a category [because of the research]," said one publisher. "What I hope is that this will be beneficial to the way books are sorted within the category, instead of a buyer whimsically making a decision and then throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks."

But one executive in New York publishing whose company is not participating questioned the motives of those publishers who are: "I think fear is a clear factor in this. It's some form of supporting Borders. You can't escape that. No one wants to be a pariah. My sense is that no one is very happy to pay what they're paying."

Many indicated that the fate of category management may turn on the kind of results it brings publishers. Co-op has turned out to be a useful tool for houses looking to get a leg up. In the words of one executive, "It's one of these things when some guys come from outside the business and say: 'Let's impose order on this business.' Can you? Maybe you can."