« Editorial

Barnes & Noble: From Thug to Love

Editorial by Edward Nawotka

For a long time Barnes & Noble, the United States’ largest bookstore chain, was the bully of bookselling.

B&N was the bookseller whose massive expansion into superstores in the ’80s and ’90s was seen as the catalyst for the closure of numerous independent booksellers across the country. They were the booksellers who absorbed much beloved small chains -– Doubleday Book Shops and Bookstop, among them -– and systematically closed them down. They were the bookseller who moved aggressively into college stores and gutted them of their serious academic titles in favor of higher margin sidelines and sweatshirts. They were the booksellers who wanted to WIN!

It’s time to say it: Barnes & Noble may be the last, best hope for American bookselling.

When you talk to publishers, they too had mixed feelings. B&N’s co-op was a pricey, but necessary evil –- how else would people find your books amid all those other titles, and the company’s fiction book buyer -– She Who Cannot Be Named – was perhaps too powerful. SWCBN could make or break a novel with a single order and was said to be so influential that she could all but order a jacket to be changed to suit her fancy.

Even their corporate culture seemed a bit belligerent. I remember sitting through stockholder meetings while B&N execs did their best to muster some charm, but all they could do was scowl. And I’d be remiss in not mentioning the time a B&N exec called a meeting with me and my editor at Publishers Weekly, where I worked in 2000, for the sole purpose of screaming at me about a critical news item I’d written about the company. That meeting ended with the exec tearing up a print out of what I’d written and throwing the resulting confetti in my face . . .

These days, all the grumbling is about Borders, America’s second largest chain, which is flirting with bankruptcy (again!) and Amazon, which has for the last decade or so taken on the role of Bully-in-Chief. You don’t hear so much complaining about B&N. Why? The company now stands as perhaps the last, best hope of American bookselling.

Sorry Indies, but it’s the truth. B&N still has enough consolidated power to “make” books. Its buying power makes it indispensable to publishers who need advance orders to justify print runs and the various other knock on effects that entails. They are providing –- via their Nook device –- the biggest rival to Amazon’s e-reader hegemony. And, let’s face it, if they –- along with Borders -– disappeared, how many communities would suddenly be underserved or not served at all? This is the reason small towns lobby B&N to open stores in their community: people are now, like it or not, accustomed to the selection available at big box retailers. True, perhaps half of those who shop at B&N’s aren’t there for the books, but what better chance is there to entice a not-so-avid reader into picking up a book?

I live in Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, which has only two independent bookshops of significance -– Brazos Bookstore and Blue Willow Book Shop — as well as a premier independent mystery bookshop, Murder by the Book. The distance between the two indies takes a good 45 minutes to drive, in decent traffic. And the mystery shop happens to be all but across the street from one of the indies. What else is there? Well, there is a brand spanking new Barnes & Noble that’s a ten minute drive away, and several older locations (and several Borders –- though for how long remains to be seen). And before you suggest that it’s just Houston, please note this is the same situation in all the big cities throughout Texas -– Dallas, San Antonio, and yes, even Austin -– and in many other cities across the United States. (And before you suggest it might just be Texas, let me point out that some 45,000 doctors work and live ten minutes from where I’m sitting).

Now, I’m not going to tell you that I do all my shopping at B&N -– I don’t have a B&N frequent shoppers card, for example. But it bears pointing out that convenience is often in conflict with my loyalty to the indies -– and with an impatient three-year-old strapped into a car seat in the backseat, convenience all too often wins.

And here’s the rub: the more time I spend at B&N, the more I’m impressed by the way the company’s culture has evolved and, indeed, changed. When I lived in New York several years ago, shopping at B&N’s flagship Union Square store -– which was on my way home from work -– was my option of last resort. The staff were at best indifferent and at worst impatient and hostile. I found much the same at B&N stores when I moved to Texas in 2004.

Now, things seem different. The employees may not know where every book in the store is, but they do show a willingness to try and find it for you. Some chat with you. When I recently bought a NookColor and was thoroughly impressed with the way the staff handled the “sale”: I’m no noob, but they were patient enough to show me several features that were unique to the device, such as the magazine “article view” (which, while nice, doesn’t work well on pages with multiple short items!). What’s more, the salesman showed actual enthusiasm for what he was selling and even handed me a business card and told me to phone him if I had follow-up questions. (And, no, I didn’t mention that I was a publishing journalist).

There have been other signs that the culture is changing as well: Len Riggio talking to NPR about the state of the book business and sounding pleased to do so; the NookColor winning the People’s Choice Award at the “Last Device Standing” competition at CES; the completely unexpected Christmas card I got from B&N’s regional director; and their innovative co-promotion with Esquire magazine this month where model Brooklyn Decker appears virtually in the stores.

It seems as if B&N has realized that if the company is going to have a virtual monopoly on chain bookselling and hopes to keep those customers from migrating online, it must be more user-friendly and solicitous. And all this change in attitude seems to have happened amid the acrimonious power struggle between Len Riggio and billionaire investor Ron Burkle that took place throughout 2010.

This is why, when I learned yesterday, that the company had laid-off some 45 staff -– including several long-standing executives and book buyers (but not She Who Cannot Be Named), I was struck with dismay. The news came after the company claimed to have one of their best holiday seasons in recent years. This is exactly the type of behavior Borders has been engaging in for several years. In fact, Borders has had so many executive level staff changes over the past five years, it’s been nearly impossible to keep track of who’s-in, who’s-out and who’s barely holding on –- and lord only knows how much severance Borders must have paid out during that time.

Should we be worried about Barnes & Noble, too? Is good customer service actually incompatible with profitability? After all, isn’t it logical to assume that your best customers are already familiar enough with your store to shop on their own, and those that need the most help are likely the one’s who shop there the least? Does B&N’s shedding of buyers signal that the company was top-heavy all along and is looking to streamline operations, perhaps to make it more attractive to a buyer?

All we know is that if American bookselling (and publishing) wants to thrive –- and have some leverage to work against Amazon, Google and others who might desire their own hegemony — B&N must survive. If there was ever a case that proved competition is healthy for business, this is it.

Long live B&N, Borders, the Indies, Amazon…and all those publishers who depend on them to sell their wares.

DISCUSS: Will Independent Bookstores Survive Without Selling E-books?

(Photo from phototakeouterBX)

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18 Comments

  1. Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Long leave Readers, because without them my work could not survive!

    Harold Michael Harvey, Author
    Paper Puzzle

    @hmichaelharvey

  2. Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I have to take issue with this editorial on a number of levels. First of all, there are places in this country where there are no bookstores at all and I have been to them. They all have to buy books online no matter what. There is nothing within any driving distance.

    I live in Queens, NY, in NY which is supposed to be the publishing capitol of the country. There are 3 bookstores in this entire borough. The closest B&N I go to only when absolutely necessary because whatever that new customer service attitude you are lucky to experience hasn’t made it to Forest Hills yet.

    I suffer no love for nor should any of us for the predicament this behemoth has found itself in. Their idea of bookselling hasn’t changed substantially and the many missteps they took with their Nook are too numerous to mention here.

    But ultimately, they, and one day we can hope Amazon and Google as well will begin to disappear. If you read about their business models you can begin to see why that will happen. What we, as people who believe in more independence from these huge corporate giants, will gain is a chance to help the book business re-invent itself and allow more air into the discussions of what is bought and sold.

    I don’t think we are going to have to make a choice as to whether B&N survives. Much of their problem resides in the numbers of massive stores that are mostly empty now most of the time. Aisles where we could bowl, literally.

    They never really helped writers find their readers at all. They helped publishers make money on a few titles. The rest be dammed. And paying for shelf space, spine in or cover out, is not a way to run a book business.

    I shall leave it there. But thanks for posting an editorial that got me working today faster than I might have.

  3. Garry Entress
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Ed:

    Well said!!

    GWE

  4. Andrea Mullins
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    So sorry for your experience. Mine has been just the opposite. The most incredible instore experience with people who love books, are always helpful, postive and friendly. I have lived in many places without bookstores and for that reason I value the instore experience even more. There is no online substitution for spending time in a quality bookstore like B&N.

  5. Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I agree with Ed’s comments that the tenor of B&N’s attitude does seem to have changed. There was a time when publisher’s feared B&N both because it did wield such power over “buys” of books and a publisher’s list and also because they seemed intent on moving into publishing themselves in a way that would threaten publishers. There does seem to be more of a partnership as publishers, retailers, authors, agents and all key stakeholders face the changes in our digitizaing word.

    However, no monopoly situation is ever positive. No matter who the party is, a monopoly is a license to abuse power. We saw this with ebooks and Amazon, audiobooks and Audible, Apple and music..The list goes on and on. It is a natural outcome of monopolies. We need every retailer, online and brick and mortar, to insure a healthy marketplace for books in any format.

  6. Susan Bhat
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m puzzled that there are few red flags being raised at the fact that B&N has just gutted their buying department and small press and merchandising team. The scrupulous attention paid to regionality and small presses, the ability to whomp the competition with regional titles, and their collective book knowledge and expertise was what made the difference between B&N and other chains. Many of those people had been with B&N for 20+ years and though they may have been expensive, they were valuable. I am disturbed at this sudden, unwarranted, thuggish move on the heels of an announcement that they had a stellar holiday season. To me, it does not bode well for the future of the company.

  7. Garth Kobal
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I am also struck by the depths of layoffs in B&N’s buying dept. Although the figure of 50 positions is not confirmed, nor is the nature of these positions known, it begs the question of how many positions existed in the dept to allow such a large number to be released and still retain a meaningful buying team. In all likelihood, depts were combined, processes streamlined, and deadwood let go. Still, as a professional book buyer myself, my curiosity is piqued.

    My wishes for the industry’s future would be the regrowth of neighborhood independents. There has been an increase in small bookstore openings this past year to support this nascent change in direction. One thing that media reporting leaves out these days while blinded by the advent of e-books is that there is a large unplugged or lightly plugged in demographic out there that simply doesn’t adopt or is indeed abandoning digital culture. There is room for a portion of the book industry to operate as boutiques. Some of these will innovate and become very successful. Big corporate identity’s may interface with the general population, but I suspect that most neighborhood oriented culture is going give support to their friends down the block. There is a desire for smaller community focused businesses and bookselling is a natural for that.

  8. Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    When I was director of Penn State University Press, I got a call in the early 1990s from Steve Riggio, who was eagerly promoting the idea that all books should carry bar codes. When university presses didn’t move quickly enough, he began calling the presidents of the universities where these presses reside–just one example of the heavy-handed tactics that B&N often used, at least in the early days.

    University presses had high hopes when B&N first started opening its superstores, eyeing all that shelf space that seemed to portend wider exposure for scholarly books, at least those of more general interest. But it didn’t take long for press directors to realize that B&N practices were not favorable toward the medium and smaller presses, and titles from those presses thereafter seldom made it onto the shelves of any B&N store, except perhaps some regional titles in the press’s own state.

    Where I live now in Texas, near Dallas, one major independent bookstore bit the dust recently, though it did reopen later in a smaller space. The major alternative to B&N here, besides the struggling Borders, is Half Price Books, which sells both used and new books and even some rare books. People seem to love this independently owned chain. On the other hand, when I wanted to get a signed copy of Rick Springfield’s new autobiography for my wife, it took B&N to attract him to the signing.

    Amazon benefits from the unlevel playing field of not having to pay taxes on sales in most states. But Texas is now claiming some $265 million in back taxes from the company, which has a warehouse in the state and hence a physical presence. Amazon is countersuing. I’d like to see Amazon lose this one.

    —Sandy Thatcher

  9. LewisM
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    That B&N on Union Square doesn’t even have books in its windows anymore. B&N’s emphasis on selling Nooks won’t lead to a diversity of printed product on their shelves. It will lead to them staying competitive with an industry-wide change to a more online market.

    Books won’t ever go away, but the selection of new printed books will likely dwindle due to online delivery systems. As customers find it more economical to buy for their portable devices, the bulk of people buying printed books will be those who only buy one or two books a year. And we know what those books are.

    The clear precedents are in music and home video. Tower and Virgin brick and mortars are gone. You can still find CDs for sale in physical stores, but the selection is pitifully small. Walmart, not B&N, is the future of bookselling in America. The other survivors will be those indies that are the equivalent of the indie record shops that still sell LPs.

  10. Posted January 22, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I was VP of Sales at Random House; Scholastic and Sourcebooks. Whether I was at the largest corporate publisher or at a small independent one, I found B&N to be a partner. I think the talent is tremendous and am saddened by the recent layoffs.

    I always found the buyers supportive and helpful (even Fiction). They are very smart and proud. They did a great job.

    Bookselling is changing. But it won’t go away. Someone will rise from the ashes.

  11. Michael Walsh
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    “Amazon benefits from the unlevel playing field of not having to pay taxes on sales in most states. But Texas is now claiming some $265 million in back taxes from the company, which has a warehouse in the state and hence a physical presence. Amazon is countersuing. I’d like to see Amazon lose this one.”

    1. Amazon doesn’t collect sales taxes in most states because it believes it does not have nexus in those states.

    2. Amazon is suing Texas because Texas is unwilling to explain how they came up with their back taxes number. Do you really want to receive a tax bill from your state with no documentation?

  12. Fern
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Amazon isn’t killing B&N because Amazon purchases are tax free, Amazon is killing B&N because they have much better prices, and if you’re willing to give up immediately having your book after purchasing it, a better buying experience. You can’t read a dozen reviews if a book in a B&N store, but you can on Amazon, including both professional and amateur reviews. You can’t get book recommendations right next to the book you’re holding in a B&N store, but you can on Amazon. And Amazon does it for 30-40-50-60% less than what B&N charges. If B&N books with tax were only 5-10% more than Amazon books without tax, you might have an argument. But that’s just not the case.

  13. Sarah
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    B&N has to pay for the bricks and mortar. If you know what you want, then you can order online. If not, you need to see what’s available. B&N online prices are less than in store, for this very reason.

    BTW, who is “she who must not be named”??

  14. Jeff
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I worked for a medium sized publisher for a dozen years, and always found BNN to be on top of their game. From executives to warehouse people, you either got an answer to a problem, quickly, or were put in touch with the person who could do so. They were certainly aggressive on pricing, but always had a semi-reasonable justification for their position (their costs and benefits to the publisher)- trust me, I’ve been in industries where major players are far more abusive toward suppliers.

    On a consumer note, I’ve always been irritated by Amazon’s “available now” status where you find out after you’ve finalized the order will ship in five business days (great for gifts)- I order from BNN and it’s on my front porch in 48 hours.

  15. Linda
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    B&N pays their in store staff $7.25/hr starting wage with a guarantee of 10 hrs/week. Who can live on that? What does that say about their attitude toward their staff? You can do better working at a fast food joint!

  16. Demetria Iazzetto
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I tried to buy ebooks for the nook–specifically chose the nook for my travel to South America–only to discover I can’t download ebooks for the nook outside the US. too bad, b&n, now I give my business to ibooks and amazon.

  17. Posted September 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    To date BN has consistently outperformed Amazon’s bookselling ability. Not only do they maintain a friendly customer-focused atmosphere in its shops, its willingness to host independently published books and ebooks and SELL them is above par. Amazon has lost its credibility in that it routinely undercuts the retail prices of books on its catalog and pushed independent author titles into a cul de sac which is rarely seen on its front page. Recently it has chosen to “curate” ebooks based on staff picks….which means that any other titles are not visible unless one does a title search. To date I have sold more Nookbooks than I have Kindle ebooks. I think Amazon’s day in the sun is over no matter what it does.

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