Home » Uncategorized » The wrong goodbye of Barnes and Noble

The wrong goodbye of Barnes and Noble

24 January 2013

Dennis Johnson, writing at Mellville House Books:

. . . .

For a couple of years I’ve been predicting in column after column that B&N was going to get out of the brick-and-mortar business of selling books, but seeing it finally kick into high gear was no fun. If you include the company’s college stores, this is going to mean 1362 bookstores disappearing from the American landscape — less than two years after 686 Borders stores disappeared.

. . . .

…And my brother and sister indie fanatics shouldn’t get too righteous about it either. Two thousand fewer places for people to be exposed to books is pretty obviously not good for our culture.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not good for business, either. Two thousand bookstores vanishing would represent roughly half the total bookstores in the country. Even though many indie bookstores are thriving right now, thanks in large part to the disappearance of some cutthroat competition, how much longer can they thrive if books are simply becoming so vastly invisible?

I’d just like to say here that if Indies are doing well and online sales are healthy (both true), books are probably not in danger of becoming invisible. Your mileage may vary, as does Mr. Johnson’s.

. . . .

As a Publishers Weekly story reported, [B&N] store sales declined nearly 11%, while NOOK sales tumbled 12.6%. There are no doubt a lot of reasons for this. Mike Shatzkin has a couple of interesting observations about the quality of B&N’s bookselling efforts, for example. And I’d say the Department of Justice abetted B&N’s demise with itssupport of Amazon‘s effort to lower prices: Nook sales were great when agency pricing was in place, with B&N taking as much as 30% of the digital market away from Amazon.

Now we get to the real meat of the problem: The DoJ has conspired with Amazon to lower book prices and destroy B&N. Apparently that old chestnut just never gets old. Agency pricing (never the target of the suit) was saving B&N. Oh, and the sky is falling. Duck.

Publishers are on a crash course learning how to survive without any volume booksellers, and in an environment with one retailer (oh, guess) representing as much of its business as — well, who knows? Eighty percent? More? That alone is likely to make publishers give up on printing books — there’s no sense in printing books if your main outlet isn’t going to order any until they sell them — and join the digital “revolution.”

In short, B&N’s scorched earth policy of the 1990s has ultimately left us with, well, scorched earth. If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.

Link to the rest at Melville House Books blog

Posted by Bridget McKenna


31 Comments to “The wrong goodbye of Barnes and Noble”

  1. “Mike Shatzkin”


    Isn’t it time the usual suspects were finally rounded up and shot?

    “I’d say the Department of Justice abetted B&N’s demise with its support of Amazon‘s effort to lower prices”

    LOL, makes yer eyes bleed and yer belly ache with the ridiculous idiotic moxie of it. Does anyone believe that pooh?

    “If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.”

    Honesty is such a lonely word.
    Everyone is so untrue.
    Honesty is hardly ever heard.
    And mostly what I need from you.*

    @Copyright, Billy Joel. Hopefully used here under fair use.


    • Big lie theory: say the same thing often enough it becomes truth.
      It works, too.
      Just not as well as it used to, pre-internet.
      Now it works only with those that want to be lied to. Which unfortunatelyy is still the majority of the populace.
      Comforting lies always win over harsh truths.

  2. If B&N goes away, I would be willing to bet more than a few Boomers/early X’ers who have a little retirement savings (assuming arguendo such a unicornish beast exists) will go into the indie bookstore business.

    As long as they’re not as dreadful as the one I was in on my lunch hour for jury duty on Tuesday, SOME of them can’t help but succeed. (I did buy a book anyway, just to stand for the cause.) Bookstores we will always have with us.

    By then those instyprinters should be economical for a small business, too. Maybe they’ll keep a sample of lots of good books out – want one to take home? We’ll print you your own copy – maybe even put a bookplate in it for you! Hot off the press, enjoy! This would work well as a hybrid with DWS’ “card-hybrid” model, too.

    • ZOMG! My generation is being lumped in with the Boomers! The Apocalypse Is Upon Us! *facepalm*

      • “lumped in with the Boomers! The Apocalypse Is Upon Us!”


        U’d bettah believe it Sistah, “Hurls enormous pixelated rotten tomato.” Put that in yer age-prejudiced soup and eat it!

        Phooey. The youngins today! No respect!


      • I’m an X’er, Suzan. (I was born in 1970.) Writing that horrified me not much less than reading it horrified you. I’m just saying that that is the rough demographic of people who might:

        1) Like books enough to do this, and

        2) Possibly have the resources to pull it off.


        • I second this, Marc as I too was born in ’70 and feel all the above angst.

          I would love to be able to pull it off. I do have the resources, but alas, not the time. Eight more years until I’m retired and then, THEN!, I would jump in head first.

        • I understand where you were coming from, Marc. It’s just my illusion of eternal youth was shattered. LOL I’ll go play with my Monster High dolls now, and use Brendan’s pixelated tomato as gore.

  3. Johnson writes, “That alone is likely to make publishers give up on printing books — there’s no sense in printing books if your main outlet isn’t going to order any until they sell them — and join the digital “revolution.”

    Right now, when B&N orders a certain number of a particular book, they do not pay the publisher one red cent. The books are sold on consignment and are returnable. The publisher only gets paid when a customer buys the book. Presumably, Amazon.com has the same arrangement when they stock printed books. Clearly, Mr. Johnson is talking through his a**.

  4. If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.

    The book will survive just fine. If people wanted the bookstore experience, they would be voting with their feet. If there is a demand for books, suppliers will fill it. They don’t have to be the same suppliers who did it for the last fifty years.

    Back in the last century, I wrote a column attacking B&N for putting indie booksellers in Melville House’s birthplace, Hoboken, New Jersey, out of business with under-pricing, as if selling books was like selling widgets.

    It is like selling widgets.

    • It is not like selling widgets. It *is* selling widgets. In that if I buy a book from B&N it is the exact same book I get buying it from Between the Lynes (STUPID name,) the indie bookstore I mentioned in a prior comment or buying it from Amazon. 🙂

      Books are no more (and no less) unique than endmills. Anyone who thinks so is not displaying wisdom about books: they are displaying ignorance about endmills.

      • “Books are no more (and no less) unique than endmills.”

        Nonsense. Please tell me exactly how Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP is no different than THE FOUNTAINHEAD, qualitatively.

        • I think my point may not have been clear enough.

          All endmills look more or less alike to a non-machinist. However, they are all completely distinctive in that the separate sizes and types are NOT interchangeable any more than books are. They can be generally substituted in some ways: you can use one that’s not *quite* right with some rigging and jigging. In much the same way, if you just want something to read, The Big Sleep can, in many circumstances, be substituted for The Fountainhead. They’re both books and you can read them. The degree of substitutability in endmills depends on the tolerance of the job and the skill of the machinist. The degree of substitutability in books depends on the tolerance of the reader and the breadth of their taste. They are not fundamentally different in this regard.

          But the point is this: if I buy a long-shank 3/8″ four-flute solid-carbide endmill from Grainger, it is, to a reasonable degree of approximation, functionally identical to a long-shank 3/8″ four-flute solid-carbide endmill from McMaster-Carr.

          Similarly, if I buy a copy of The Big Sleep from a physical B&N store, it is, to a reasonable degree of approximation, functionally identical to the copy I would get at Amazon, at Between the Lynes, or at Books-a-Million. In this respect, the book is a widget. And in this respect, booksellers are widget sellers.

  5. “Department of Justice abetted B&N’s demise with itssupport of Amazon‘s effort to lower prices”

    The government tries to lower prices, and that’s a bad thing? Normally the opposite is true.

  6. I’ve read this article before, but I was mostly thinking about how sad the demise of the bookstore will be, and didn’t really take in how off base this author is. For example, I never saw this line:

    “The only logical conclusion one can draw from all this, of course, is that if B&N goes down the entire industry is fucked”

    Um, no, the only logical conclusion we can draw from this is that the author of this article really doesn’t understand the business of on-line book selling.

    His basic point seems to be that “showrooming”, where people look at a book in the bookstore, leading them to buy the book, is essential and will die out without B&N, so publishing is screwed.

    I agree that showrooming is important, but what he is missing is that Amazon does a much better job of “showrooming” than any bookstore ever has. It has infinite space, can reach infinite customers, and can “showroom” those customers specific titles based on their preferences – preferences that they can edit and control.

    He is also missing the fact that Amazon actually sells the books that the Industry produces. It makes them MONEY. I wish they would get that.

    I get that this author is anxious about the changing landscape, but his conclusion that everything will go south in a handbasket is erroneous. I suspect there are hidden agendas here – a scare tactic, and alittle bit of – “see, you needed us, and now we’re gone and you’re screwed and it’s all your fault”.

    I get the feelings. But feelings don’t actually predict the future, and the book business is stronger than ever – just not for Barnes and Noble. Which I am sad about. But that is not equivalent to the demise of the written word.

    • Those were all excellent points, Mira. Spot on.

      • I do wonder if we’ll ever see a point where Amazon puts support behind libraries to make them useful show rooms. Maybe even the publishers. They buy shelf space at book stores, why not pay the library for a spot on the new and recommended shelf.

      • @ Donal Wells – thanks. 😀

    • If I sat and read 20% of the book I was interested in at B&N, I’d feel like a freeloader. For whatever reason, this is not the case with Amazon. 🙂 So on the edge cases where having a lot of the book available to preview might sell it to me, it’s definitely advantage Amazon.

      However, I have to admit for purposes of full disclosure that one time there was a book I wanted to read but under no circumstances would I give the author or the publisher any money. I wouldn’t even check it out of the library (assuming it were available there which it almost certainly wouldn’t be) because that would give the publisher a data point somewhere. I sat and read it in a B&N.

      Since there was ZERO chance of me buying it, they didn’t really lose much (there were other copies on the shelf, my hands were relatively clean.) But it wasn’t, perhaps, the most ethical thing to do.

    • amazon doesn’t do the show-rooming. The physical bookstores do, both independent and chain. Then customers go to amazon for the lower pricing. Amazon is a loss leader and will undersell all. It is capitalism 101 and Amazon excels at it. No judgement good or bad, just truth. We the book buyers are responsible for it. If you want something different put your dollars where your beliefs are.

  7. I always find it interesting that in discussions where Amazon is the Big Bad, they apparently have 80-90% of the book-selling market and must be stopped before they take it all and implement their Evil Plan. But when Amazon does well or there’s some service others want authors/readers to take advantage of, they’re always 60% of the market and falling and shouldn’t be taken seriously or seen as anything worth taking note of.

  8. Am I crazy or was this article already posted on this site a couple of weeks ago?

  9. This morning I woke up to my radio (yet 50 years ago when TV became mainstream, radio was going bye-bye, supposedly). Then I watched the local news on my TV while I ate my breakfast (though I have the internet and could have watched it on my computer any time of the day if I chose to, but I don’t.) Now I’m sitting and writing this in my office, with my light on but with a candle burning beside me. Why? Because I like candles – they’re cozy and readily available in most stores (though when electric lighting became the norm 100 years ago, I’m sure many candle stores went out of business). Books are not radio, TV or even candles. Books are the backbone of human culture. They will be around (in whatever form) for as long as we are. One mega-store going out of business in a single country may be an indicator of change but does not equal the demise of the printed book.

    • ‘In whatever form’ is the tricky bit. I haven’t bought a cuneiform tablet at least since I was a sophomore.

      To be a little more serious—

      The thing about new technology nowadays is that it is insidious: it moves into the shell of the old technology, keeps a lot of the same user interface and the same terminology, but operates in a completely different way. Millions of people still listen to radio — but it’s digital radio delivered via satellite. Then they watch the local news on TV — but it’s digital TV delivered via cable. (I admit, I don’t know of anyone who uses digital candles. Rumour has it that Apple is working on an iCandle, but hasn’t yet figured out how to make the user interface any simpler.) There is much talk of the sudden renaissance of vinyl records, but even the twenty-something hipsters who buy vinyl tend to play it on USB turntables and rip it the way we old fogeys rip CDs.

      In short, digital has its attractions, and they are overwhelming. Books, which in principle are the easiest medium to digitize, have resisted digitization the longest — partly because of that iCandle problem I mentioned. But the advantages to distribution of digital books are so enormous that printed books will have an uphill struggle to remain commercially viable.

  10. “show-rooming.”

    Is it me, or are modern shop places all refusing to put people on the tills?

    Every time I shop, which is growing increasingly pulling-fingernails-out rare I get more annoyed by the vast numbers of sales wallahs patrolling the store NOT employed in permitting you to check OUT.

    This is not just Barnes and Noble, but everywhere. Shops are like vast, overheated jails. Even if you want to pay your way out, there’s no one to take yer money.

    It really is time to round up the numbers wallahs and send them to somewhere vile, till shops resume decent behaviour.


  11. I think smaller shops are going to thrive if they choose the right books to sell. They sit in the perfect position to take advantage of the discoverability problem. No reader could possibly find all of the great epic fantasy stories among the bad, but a small shop can offer you 500 books in that genre, including both the big titles and a selection of books you haven’t heard of.

    B&N does well to include bestsellers and strong backlist titles. They don’t have space to do that well for every genre or topic, though, so they end up doing a so-so job in each. Business is moving toward quality service/products in a niche. B&N can’t do that.

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