Business Musings: Barnes & Noble

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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.

Passive Guy wrote on October 3:

…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?

Or, as Craig Johnson of the consulting firm Customer Growth Partners told Billboard:

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.

Now almost everyone does. In fact, according to Mike Shatzkin, Amazon sells more than half of all print books, and B&N sells less than a fifth.

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).

If you want to know the history of that rivalry, check out this summary from Axios.

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:

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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If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

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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.


22 thoughts on “Business Musings: Barnes & Noble

  1. Not every B&N store is that bad. At my local store, the clerks are knowledgeable and helpful. There are usually one or two wandering around offering to help someone browsing the books. The none of the books stacked out of reach (at least for me a short person might think differently), and there are recommendations (hand written I might add) by the staff in most sections and not just one or two.

    That said, I have also heard many horror stories from other stores. It would appear it is all about the manager at that particular store, and most of them are lacking in the extreme.

    It will be sad to see B&N go. But they have burned me on the Nook several times. The hardware was great, the problem was their management of it. Not to mention with the original Nook we asked for better library and organizational features. What did they give us? Games! Then they dropped development altogether about one year after it was released. The classic Nook is a great e-ink reading device if you root and add a better library app. It is still my main “reading” device. I have a Nook tablet that I use as a general device (also modified). The removal of side-loading was also a horrible decision that made no sense at all.

    The worst part is when they go out of business, it will hurt a lot of Nook customers that never backed up their books. Which B&N has tried to make as difficult as possible.

  2. So, what happens when B&N finally goes under?

    How does Amazon respond? How do they change? Do they finally realize they have full control and screw everybody? Or Do they operate as though nothing has changed? Do they utilize their advantage?

    How do trade publishers respond? How do they change? If B&N was only 1/5th of paper book sales does it even matter that it’s gone? How does trade evolve–new contracts with even more rights grabs, better exploitation of rights acquired, or something new and unexpected?

    What of small book sellers? Do they thrive? Do they grow? Or is online purchasing of both paper and ebooks force them to stay in the background?

    What of trad authors–do they finally go indie? Or do they continue to sacrifice for the illusion/delusion of what trad offers?

    What of indies? Will they face even more competition from trad authors converting? Will they face an Amazon that has become even more crucial to book sales?

    Where will power shift? What advantages will be born? What opportunites grow or close? Who will move to fill the void? Who will gain the power? What will publishing look like once the dust settles?

  3. At this point, it doesn’t really matter to me if B&N closes its shutters. Every time I’ve gone in the shopping experience has been bad. Ex. I get a gift card from my son for my b’day or Christmas, and after going there with a basic idea of what I want, I often wind up aggravated and/or frustrated. Buy music? Crappiest selection available and now they’re pushing vinyl as a cure all (note: pricing stuff at $30 and up is not going to get people to buy your product). I actually went to my local store once to buy a copy of a book that the author was pimping on his very popular website. Took me 20 minutes of searching to actually find it, buried on the bottom shelf in an incorrect genre location.

    The only thing I can say about my local B&N is that its turning into like my late local Borders, which means that that the Starbucks is the most popular spot and people take up residence for hours on end doing everything but buying books.

  4. Well said, Kris. I live two hours from the nearest B&N (rural Northern NY), so a trip to B&N is still a bit of an escape … but everything in this article rings true. Limited selection (it feels like the last thing B&N wants to sell is books … they’d much rather fill up their prime space with over-priced tchotchkes and hide the books in the back. Selection is limited. And by the gods, if I wanted to be a member of your stupid club, I would be by now, QUIT ASKING!

    But still, I love to spend a couple hours in the cafe, reading a few magazines or comics or skimming a “maybe” book to see if it is worthwhile. And I always leave spending way more than I intended to.

    And yet, Amazon is easier, more convenient and more affordable. The biggest advantage for Amazon is that I can get any book I want without having to jump through hoops. I have to wait a few days, but that’s not a huge deal.

    The trap for authors is the appeal of seeing your book in a big chain book store, the lure of the best-seller list … and yet you have to give up so much money and so many of your rights.

    And yet, because Amazon doesn’t report its sales figures and Amazon is so much of the book industry, both print and electronic, the irony is that the heavily-curated best-seller lists are even more inaccurate than they have historically been. If an author had their books in Kindle Unlimited, they could conceivably be the best-selling author in the country and yet never appear on the NY Times or USA Today best-seller lists because neither counts Amazon … the biggest retailer by far. It’s just a huge disconnect between reality and the version of reality that the folks curating the best-selller lists want to present.

  5. At the beginning of this year, B&N announced they would lay off their senior bookstore personnel (buyers, cashiers, stockers, etc.) in an attempt to save money. I remember one cashier who almost always checked out my items when I went to the local B&N. She was there last Christmas, but after January, I never saw her again. Must have been one of the senior people. Sad. I hope she found another job.

  6. B&N went utterly irrelevant to me several years ago when they bought Fictionwise in a much-past-deadline attempt to provide eBooks in competition with the Kindle Monster. They then proceeded to foul up their eBooks in a fashion remeniscent of the Keystone Cops.

    They did EVERYTHING wrong. My 3000-book Fictionwise library was transferred more-or-less successfully, but the search function was lousy. The best way to find a book was to page through the list from A to Z. Add in that the Nook app for Windows couldn’t handle a large library like mine, and they eventually banned off-the-web downloads entirely (to protect their precious POS the Nook, I guess). That was the last straw.

    Just how incompetent with eBooks was B&N? In the year before they took over Fictionwise, I spent $2000 on eBooks. During the first year of B&N’s ham-handedness, $200 before I quit dealing with them. When a client drops his spending on your product by ninety percent, that’s a warning. They didn’t care and never responded to my complaints.

    B&N burned down their own house, and my only regret is that I didn’t have any marshmallows to toast in the fire.

  7. I love the idea of book stores, but I’ve never been in one that lived up to that ideal — independent or box store.

    Honestly, the book store that made me feel like a kid in a candy shop was the first time someone gave me a $50 Amazon gift card. Suddenly, I have money and access to the books I cared about with an easy way to find more like them.

    My only worry with B&N closing is that my best friend works there and I want Amazon to have competition so they innovate.

  8. Brick and mortar book retailing seems to be splintering into a smallish number of quirky, well-run specialty bookstores targeting knowledgeable avid readers, and a lot of cookie cutter, stock-it-and-they-will-come (maybe) walking dead. The latter tend to carry the exact same mix of big publisher “bestsellers” as the next non-chain store as well as the chains, drugstores, and dept stores still carrying books. They seem to have given up on the avid genre readers that used to haunt B&M stores last century and are all betting on casual readers looking for the current “hot” bandwagon title with buzz. What might be called Everywhere Books that are available everywhere.
    Problem is, buzz is a lot harder to hear because buzz started with avid readers and those are spreading their spending over deep backlist, easy to find used books, and Indies–all online. Bandwagons are increasingly hard to get rolling and even the biggest of big names in front list are seeing decreasing launch window sales. For the past couple of years even the industry mouthpieces are reporting it. Naturally, they blame the authors. The biggest names still get the biggest sales but their fans are increasingly willing to wait for sales, paperback releases, or used copies because waiting saves them money and there is no shortage of good reads to tide them over.
    The fresh produce model is wilting and bookstores unable to provide some form of value are going with it. Some fast, some slow, but the model needs to change.
    Like: In the UK Waterstones god rid of paid placement and saw sales rise by moving away from Everywhere Books and letting local managers serve local interests. That requires knowledgeable staff.
    In the US Barnes and Noble fired most of theirs.
    The clock is ticking.
    It won’t be pretty but it’s unavoidable by now.

  9. BN closing is so depressing for me. I live in Fairbanks, and our BN still has several comfy chairs surrounding a fireplace and a big section of Alaska books in addition to all the other stuff. And most of the employees are the knowledgeable book-loving type. I love shopping on Amazon, but browsing for books in person is still more fruitful for me than algorithm recommendations. I’m still recovering from Blockbuster closing this summer! I suppose I had to join the 21st century eventually.

  10. I love bookstores. I love browsing, picking up books, and reading a paragraph or two out of the middle to see if I like the author’s voice. (Lots of authors over polish the beginning and middle, but not so much the middle.) That’s hard in the middle.

    My local B&N rearranged the books so that the top shelf is above my head. I’m 6’1″, and I can’t read the titles on the top shelf. I can read the second-from-the-top, if I stand on tiptoe.

    A ladder or stool would help, but the employees keep them behind the counter for insurance reasons. Employees will check the top shelf for you, but they get fired for letting customers use the stool to browse.

    I was expecting a pleasant hour, and left furious and frustrated.

    Plus, my wife is 5’2″ and loves books as much as I do. I was mad, she was incendiary. They didn’t just ruin the hour, it ruined the day.

    We haven’t been in a B&N since.

    If a general-purpose bookstore can’t sell me books, it’s doomed.

  11. Great piece.

    I have several nonfiction books that I contributed to sitting on the shelves at B&N. Once a couple years ago, I trudged across the teal carpeting, found the title, looked at my name on the cover, waited for something to happen inside. Nothing did. The world continued spinning on its axis. I shrugged and put it back on the shelf and walked away over to the cafe and got a coffee. Yay woo.

    Emotionally, it didn’t mean a thing. I’m so focused on the process – the next book, always always the next book – that the outcome doesn’t move me. I kind of wish it did. I wish I could get excited to see my name in print in an actual bookstore.

    I won’t really miss B&N, but I won’t rejoice either. All retail outlets are good outlets, to my point of view.

    It’s also worth mentioning that this B&N extinction event is part and parcel of the more general retail apocalypse that has been occurring for the last five years.

  12. I have a Nook. I’ve had a Nook since first generation of them because I despise the way Amazon treats us. I love my Nook. Have the $50 Nook tablet too, and it does what I expected. My Simple Touch is showing its age, sadly, and it’s time to replace it.

    But I’ve been watching this whole debacle since it started and subconsciously coming to terms with the idea of B&N disappearing over the next three or so years. So I’ve picked out a tablet with the specs I want and I’m waiting for the Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals to get it next month.

    But it won’t make me a Kindle shopper. I’ll buy from Kobo and the Play store. I’ll only go to Kindle reading if it becomes the only option. And I hope it doesn’t.

  13. I hate to say it, Kris, but I believe you’re right.

    Being in a mall isn’t helping the B&N’s that are in traditional malls rather that strip malls. My local B&N is located next to one of the main mall entrances, which is facing one of the busiest streets in town. There wasn’t much parking. Now a Cheesecake Factory is going in next to the street, taking out about half the parking in that area. Finding a parking place on that side of the mall is nearly impossible. Which means it’s an even bigger hassle to get to B&N. There were plenty of other places to put the Cheesecake Factory that would not have crimped the traffic to B&N, but apparently the mall management didn’t think about that..

    I had a coupon last weekend, but I spent an hour at B&N trying to find something I was interested in reading. Combine the poor selection with the lousy parking and traffic situation, and I don’t think I’ll be browsing B&N much before they finally shutter.

  14. Customer service seems to be the first thing to go when a company starts cutting back. It’s like they can’t see that it is a huge advantage they have over Amazon. I’ve seen the same problems at J.C. Penny and Macy’s. The people in the store manage their cash registers. They don’t know anything about what they’re selling. And how they stock…? If I don’t buy clothes right as they go up, I’m not going to be able to get it because they will run out. I went into Macy’s two weeks after fall formally started. The one brand I wanted to buy was picked clean. Just three sweaters on the table. Nothing else. Barnes and Noble has been going down that route for a long time. If a favorite writer comes out with a new book, I have to grab it fast or it will be gone, just like the clothes. I’m amazed that no one is thinking, “If customer can’t find something because we don’t have it, they aren’t coming back.”

  15. We lost most of the chain bookstores in the UK about 2011. The one survivor was Waterstones which was rescued from bankruptcy by a Russian entrepreneur who put James Daunt in charge, a man who loved books and business. Its turned around. It’s not perfect, what is, but the ebook market has peaked in sales penetration leaving a market for real bookshops. Plus the Harry Potter generation have been brought up paper copies and continue to but paper books. The bookshop is not dead, but it will dies if we don’t use them. BTW Waterstones are trying to encourage local managers to stock what sells locally rather than a central dictat, even opening bookshops that appear independent!

    1. I’d agree with that John. I’ll use Indies if they stock SF& F but the local indies close to me (in the SW) have a terrible selection of SF. Waterstones seems to be customising their branches, in the same way they used to in the 90’s which means some towns with great staff are creating great bookshops. Brighton and Salisbury’s Waterstones are particulary goo.

  16. First, a side note. B&N’s shelves are not designed for logical humans to find what they want. The book you wanted, if it was in the store, might have been in that section, or the “new release” section, or a special end cap display, or on a special theme table someplace, or grouped with other books of that type (hardcover, TPB, MM) in a separate section, or simply misfiled by someone who picked up a book and put it back in the wrong spot, and it’s unlikely B&N lets its employees scan the shelves simply to reshelve misplaced books until it’s culling day to rip off covers and throw them away. And if it’s on an end cap or a separate section, don’t expect alphabetization … you’ll have to look at every book. Frustrating when you know what you want and you can’t find it because B&N is playing hide and seek.

    The last time I specifically went to B&N for a book was the weekend of a local science fiction convention, when the publisher had neglected to ensure there were copies of the author’s books available to be bought and signed. The author was there, and the only book dealer at the con had 3 or 4 copies of the latest book in the series but nothing else.

    I went online to see what was available and the website said each of the 2 local B&N stores had one copy each of the first 4 books in the series. So, early Saturday morning, I went to one, and it had 3 of the 4 books, and a duplicate of one of those. The store offered to order the missing book from the other store from me (which would do me no good but would have helped their bottom line). Instead, I drove to the second store, again found 3 of the four books, including an extra copy of the book I wanted. The delivery person was supposed to deliver a full set to each store but mixed up the books, and the B&N website incorrectly stated what was in its own stores. Nobody had checked. (That can hurt sales when someone WANTS to buy them but wants all the books.) I bought that 4th book, then went to the con and got them signed.

    It had occurred to me later I could have bought both full sets, gotten both sets signed, and made a bundle at the con selling the signed books to someone, since no one else had the author’s books … but I’m not that mercenary.

    The point, though, is that even checking online first was no guarantee the book would actually be in the store, since no one was bothering to check on what they were getting. After that, why would I waste the time and gas money to go to a store?

  17. I remember a friend years ago sharing something he overhead at a Barnes & Noble. A mother and her high school-aged daughter went up to the customer service desk and asked if the store had a copy of Dante’s Inferno. The clerk asked if she knew who had written it. Alas, mom was just as befuddled as the clueless clerk and said she didn’t know.

    One thing that’s mildly surprising to me, is that Barnes & Noble doesn’t seem to be doing more to capitalize on the closing of Toys R Us this year. It would seem relatively easy to beef up their toy section for the next few months and make a big to-do about it. I realize that books are their main business, but I think they’re missing out on a market that they do already (sort of) cater to and bring in some cold hard cash. That said, I was in B&N yesterday and did notice the toy section seems to have a little bit more stuff, but unless they’ve got more planned I think they’re going to miss the boat.

    1. They played that cluelessness for laughs in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” when the mother asks for the “shoe” books and the guy working in the kids section has no idea what she’s talking about, and the independent bookseller who has just been put out of business by the big chain store helps her out because she just loves books.

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