Business Musings: Barnes & Noble
Recently, I went to one of the three Barnes & Noble Bookstores here in Las Vegas. I had decided to read everything in a bestselling author’s series, and I knew I could find most of the books in that series at B&N. I wanted them all right away, in paper, so I could binge.
I knew B&N would have that series because the author is a major bestseller. If I had wanted, say, something from any one of a dozen writers whose work I love and am currently reading, I wouldn’t have taken the time to drive to B&N. I would have ordered from Amazon because it’s easy and convenient, and here in Vegas, I usually get the books the next day.
The B&N experience was not that different from the experience I would have had on any given day in 1995. The layout was the same as it had been then. The café looked inviting, and the place was swarming with customers on a Thursday afternoon.
I had forgotten how much I missed the large chain bookstore experience. Until…I tried to ask about a book that wasn’t by a mega-selling author. Then the clueless employees irritated me. They did what employees of large stores often do—they went to the place I had just come from and looked around as I didn’t have the ability to look for something on my own. (Even though I told them that I had just been to that section.) They didn’t know the difference between an anthology and a novel. They told me to go to their website and order from there.
Because I like to amuse myself, I then asked them about books by the Big Name author whose work I’d come to buy. I had already checked to make sure the books I wanted were there—and all but one of them (the most recent) was—but I hadn’t picked them up yet.
No one on staff had heard of this author, even though her books are the basis of a major TV series. The store had an entire shelf unit devoted to her novels. But nope, the B&N staff had no idea.
And that’s when I recalled why I had stopped going to big box stores and would go to indies (such as Powell’s in Portland) or would go online with Amazon.
Still, as I stood in the middle of that gigantic store, surrounded by other people who were browsing books, enjoying the scent of coffee and paper dust, I realized how much I missed coming into stores like that to check for my books. Once upon a time, the buyer for B&N actually saved my career by putting in an order for my work for every single B&N store that then existed. This was 1992 or thereabouts, and he was able, with the push of a button, to move several thousand copies.
Those days are long gone. The days of going into a bookstore and finding unusual books are gone. A few months ago, I checked out one of the local indies here and was startled to see all the bestsellers—mostly literary bestsellers (the kind you want on your coffee table to impress your guests, if that’s your thing), but still. I had expected quirky, off-beat books, and I didn’t see a one. Not even one that was local to Las Vegas.
I left, very disappointed.
Booksellers who specialize in new and used do a lot better than booksellers who are just peddling new books. In the new/used stores, you can find one-of-a-kind items or that book you didn’t even know you were looking for.
Dean and I own stores that carry used books, as well as older comics. We don’t sell new books at our stores, though, unless they’re WMG books.
I do miss the 20th century bookstore experience—from a reader perspective. As a writer, that experience was always fraught. Were my books in the store? If so, were there enough copies—as in more than one? If not, why not?
Back then, though, the only way a reader could get my books was at a store. Which was the presence of the book in sufficient numbers was the only way to make sure my career remained viable. That’s why I would occasionally do (the much hated) book signing at a major chain store. If one store in the chain sold a lot of copies, the other stores in the chain would pick up the books.
There were a lot of games that savvy writers could play to make sure their books were on the shelves. Romance writers used to get up at dawn and bring donuts to the truckers who delivered the books. Back then, those truckers would often place the books on the shelves. If you gave that trucker donuts, he would make sure your book got excellent placement.
And so on and so forth.
The days of the megastores were short—only about 20-25 years—but they had a major imprint on writers. We all want to see our books in traditional bookstores, even now.
I checked when I went into that B&N to see if I had any published work in the store. I found a lot of my stuff, mostly in those dreaded anthologies, but also some tie-in titles (still!). None of the more recent novels, but I could have easily ordered any of those novels on the B&N website. (Putting me in the same company as the mega bestseller whose most recent novel was not on the stands.)
Old habits. Old dreams.
It’s hard to let go of them.
And now comes the news that B&N is up for sale. Or something like that. Because there are a lot of shareholder shenanigans going on, as well as lawsuits, stock…well, if I say manipulation, I’m accusing them of something illegal and that’s not quite the case.
I’ve read a lot of analysis about what’s going on at B&N in the past week, and the two best comments I’ve seen have come from Passive Guy and a blog that Dean wrote.
…this level of visible turmoil at BN has to be a drop in the bucket compared to the internal turmoil in the organization. Anybody who is not flooding the world with résumés is living in an alternate reality.
Dean believes (and other analysts agree with him) that B&N will most likely shut down. He writes:
I seriously doubt anyone will buy them. Can’t see a reason for anyone to take over those massive mall leases and aging inventory at this point. Again, same exact issue Borders had. And if the major publishers start cutting off B&N credit, nothing left but the clean-up.
At one point it was thought the folks who own Kobo could take it, but they are now with Walmart, a much better solution. It has been rumored that Amazon could grab it, but why would they bother with all that old stuff when they can build hundreds of new stores for less money?
If [the potential buyer] is [B&N founder and chairman Leonard] Riggio, if he had some secret sauce to reinvent the bookstore for the 21st century, why hasn’t he done that in his time there?
Yeah. No matter how you look at it, B&N is done for. The stores that were such a fixture in the last decade of the previous century are a relic now.
The problem is this: that relic lives in the imagination of countless writers. I have heard writer after writer say that the reason they want a print deal on their books is so that they can see their work in Barnes & Noble.
They specifically mention B&N because it’s one of the last surviving big chain stores. These writers seem to know how hard it is to get a book into a small indie store. But they see B&N as the stepping stone to the New York Times bestseller list.
B&N hasn’t been that store in a long time. You want to hit one of the lists? Your books need to be available online in print, ebook, and (if possible) audiobook format. People order most of their books online.
Readers still like to go into bookstores, because browsing is easier in a bookstore. But readers have become used to ordering their books online. I have had an Amazon account since 1997, and back then, I was one of the few people who ordered books online.
And…here’s the thing: it’s easy to get your print books on Amazon. As an indie writer. Without a big publisher behind you.
And that’s just in the U.S.
Amazon has inroads in many other countries, and sells English language books there (as well as books in other languages).
In the U.S., we talk about Amazon versus B&N as if that’s a big rivalry. It was in the early part of this century. It is no longer.
And even back then, it was only a rivalry in the United States.
In comments all over Facebook on the day that B&N’s sale got announced, residents of other countries didn’t understand the fuss. All of them had tried to order books from B&N and found it impossible. B&N only served the U.S. market (or maybe the North American market: I’m not sure of the details, and don’t really want to know).
So, sadly, the writers who go with a traditional publisher to get their books into “big” stores like Barnes & Noble are working off a 20th century model. They’re losing a lot because of it.
Traditional publishers demand (as a deal-breaker) what is essentially all rights to a book for the life of the copyright. I’ve dealt with this in-depth before, and will deal with it again. Writers made this trade-off thinking they would get more exposure in bookstores and worldwide.
The truth is, they get less.
And now, those writers will suffer even more. If their books get released in the week that B&N goes under, they will lose all of those potential sales. A lot of writers will lose their livelihood that week. Even more will see their sales (post B&N) drop significantly, because the one thing (the only thing?) B&N did was help push the book in its week of release.
In the traditional publishing world, writers whose book sales decline are considered losers, no matter what the reason for the decline. Those writers won’t sell traditionally again because their “numbers are bad.”
Back in the day when B&N was the biggest game in town, that loss of a traditional publishing contract would be a nightmare. It was bad enough when Borders and Books-A-Million went down years ago.
But these days? The writers who are still pursuing a traditional-only career are living in the past. Even New York Times bestsellers aren’t making enough to live on. The older major bestsellers are seeing their sales numbers decline rapidly.
The publishing world has changed, and the writers who refused the change with it will suffer even more than they already are.
So, why on earth are traditional publishers still in business? What could they possibly gain by licensing a novel from a brand new writer?
Well, that’s pretty simple. The companies gain intellectual property. And IP adds to their bottom line.
I’ll deal with all of that in the next blog post. But if you can’t wait, look at Dean’s analysis here: https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/bn-in-trouble/
I still traditionally publish short stories and the occasional anthology (through a publisher that’s not WMG Publishing, that is). I would never, in today’s market, license a novel to a major publishing house. That’s foolhardy at best, detrimental to my career (and anyone else’s) at worst.
I like being able to go directly to the reader. Just like I do with this blog.
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“Business Musings: Barnes & Noble,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Binkski.