Home » Bookstores, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » Charge of the write brigade: How to save the last American bookstore chain

Charge of the write brigade: How to save the last American bookstore chain

6 June 2018

From The Bookseller:

In every great epic, there is the last stand: a waning of hope, a dutiful last charge, and a hopeful moment of deus ex machina.

It’s all too tempting to imagine American publishers in a boardroom today using similar literary tropes in a dramatic analogy involving besieged Barnes & Noble locations and a fight to the last man against Amazonian invaders. Our analogy isn’t far off. Right now, B&N faces death but bravely holds fast to stave off private takeovers and Amazon at the gates a little bit longer.

The death of the last major American bookstore chain is significant. It leaves publishers with few major bookselling channels outside of Amazon, hundreds of American communities reliant on e-commerce for books, and a beloved brand and store experience only a distant memory for readers.

. . . .

Financially, B&N is in dire straits. The stock is trading a hair above $5, less than a fifth of their 2006 price before ebooks and Amazon consumed the market. Since then, stores have seen 11 years of declining sales and dozens of closures. After Feb. 12 lay-offs of 1,800 full-time positions, many stores now have no full-time employees.

B&N’s online sales have been steadily declining more than 25% in the last two years, despite occasional odd attempts at building unique online experiences. Meanwhile, Amazon currently sells one out of every two books in the U.S., according to digital publishing consultants Mike Shatzkin and Hugh Howey. While the overall book market grows a healthy 3% a year, it “is solely due to Amazon’s fast-growing online print sales,” says Howey. Last year, “all other channels shrunk.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says  the death of the  last American bookstore chain is primarily self-inflicted.

Ditto for the big publishers on life support, down-sizing their way to a brighter future.

Nowhere was it cast in stone that Amazon would dominate bookselling. Barnes & Noble was a household name when Amazon shipped its first book. And its thousandth book. So was Borders.

Each of the two big book chains (plus some other smaller chains) was ideally positioned in the minds of consumers to dominate online book sales. Who do you trust? Barnes & Noble, where you have purchased books for years or that Amazon web thing operating out of  some guy’s kitchen in Seattle that’s liable to take your money, go bankrupt and blame UPS when your book gets lost?

With their unerring ability to locate a sinking ship, publishers jumped on board the SS Queen of  the Livre Papier. Apple always sold its computers and other stuff at list price, so  publishers created an illegal conspiracy with Steve Jobs’ encouragement that had one principal objective – Sell at List Price – and a motto, Discounting is the Devil’s Playground! (except when Barnes & Noble does it)

Ebooks were an ideal product for publishers – no printing costs, no waiting for ships full of books from China, no warehousing charges, no slice of the pie for Ingram. Send some electrons to any online bookstore that wanted to sell them and watch the money roll in.

But no, that would be wrong because Paper!

Shakespeare used paper. So did Mark Twain. And Jane! Jane Austen never allowed a computer in Pemberley. Everybody knows they were geniuses so who are we to question their ways?

Bookstores, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

26 Comments to “Charge of the write brigade: How to save the last American bookstore chain”

  1. The snark is strong this morning. I like it.

  2. Felix J. Torres

    Are they actually quoting Howey alongside Shatzkin?

    Did I miss where DataGuy was revealed to be Howey?

    • ‘… according to digital publishing consultants Mike Shatzkin and Hugh Howey.’
      Yes… they really are. Not a sentence I ever thought I’d read.

      • Felix J. Torres

        Me neither.
        Especially since Sharzkin was quoting DataGuy in his column.

        • Terrence OBrien

          Not too long ago, Shatzkin told us Date Guy’s work was worthless because it failed to adequately consider unearned advances.

          I suspect Data Guy is making significant inroads in the publishing consulting market. When market share flows to him, it flows away from others. It’s a zero sum game.

    • shush – don’t tell anyone

  3. Terrence OBrien

    Send some electrons to any online bookstore that wanted to sell them and watch the money roll in.

    Correct. But in that world, what would the publishers have done better than anyone else? With low barriers to entry, and low acquisition and marginal costs, competition would likely have made huge cuts in the money roll.

    Pretend Amazon didn’t exist. Is it likely publishers would be the only ones selling eBooks? with eBooks, publishers contribute very little economic value. Anyone can do it.

    • Felix J. Torres

      People were selling Indie ebooks online well before Amazon.
      Fictionwise most notably.
      That would be the same Fictionwise that B&N bought and killed.

      Just another of the many many, many many, many… (you get the idea) wounds B&N inflicted on itself.

      • Interestingly enough, you can still visit fictionwise.com.

        You just can’t do anything.

        • Felix J. Torres

          In an alternate universe out there, B&N turned Nook over to the Fictionwise crew and they now control 45% of the ebook market. And Apple never dared get into ebooks, scared by their micropayment loyalty program.

          Let’s face it, the BPHs cooked up the conspiracy because they had no confidence in B&N’s competence, even when tbey controlled a quarter of the market and Amazon barely half.

        • Fun fact: B&N forgot to keep up the registration on fictionwise.com. The domain now belongs to someone else.

    • That’s the question, Terrence.

      It’s a perfect chance for publishers to demonstrate the value they add for an author when they’re not a gatekeeper.

  4. Felix J. Torres

    By the way, do these “supporters” realize that they are warning off potential B&N customers?

    Anybody with a B&N gift card will rush to use it before it becomes worthless. Nobody wants to have to revisit this:


  5. Did nobody catch that Mike Shatzkin is now a digital publishing consultant?

    • Felix J. Torres

      “Follow the money”.

    • And just how is Shatz gonna re-position himself as a “digital publishing consultant” when he demonstrably doesn’t know squat about it?

      Oh, wait… He’ll snooker Big Pub on that one. At least until he shows his ignorance (which might be life + 70 with respect to BP, even more ignorant than he).

      I don’t think he’ll find too many clients in the Self-Pub World. 🙂

  6. As they killed off others they in turn will be killed. Let them die already so we can move on.

    Just more ADS from the ‘bookseller’ …

  7. I doubt the writer has any real experience in business. He refers to a proposal from a hedge fund to take the company private, but without giving details moves on to a lot of pie in the sky drivel about various touchy feely type ways B&N can restore its fortunes. We are left to wonder whether these ideas are his own or come from the hedge fund. I would be surprised if they came from the hedge fund except perhaps as part of a sales pitch.

    • Felix J. Torres

      I suspect those guys don’t get out much and aren’t terribly interested in how the outside world works.

      The term “parochial” is a very good fit.

      • That, and this ‘analyst’ is parochial in that he isn’t much of a businessman.

        It must focus on space, experience, and memberships while cutting book inventories and unprofitable departments.

        the resources […] would be better leveraged towards B&N’s core competencies of space and community.

        So according to this schmuck, they should stock even fewer books and face the facts that the only reason most people go to a B&N these days is to try to get some work done while their annoying roommate plays video games. Why not just charge for table space and (formerly) free wi-fi?

        Cafes make B&N a valuable space for American community with open spaces, late hours, and local events.

        None of which is going to make any money. “valuable” indeed.

        • Felix J. Torres

          That would work if they had a magical machine that could deliver any book in a catalog of millions in seconds.

          Oh, wait…
          They *had* that and still flubbed it.

  8. Save B&N? For whom?

    They’ve closed so many stores that they now serve only selected urban areas. Their nearest store is over 150 miles from me, in a different state. It might as well be in Uzbekistan.

    They *had* a store only 30-odd miles away, years ago. They closed it. Presumably because it wasn’t profitable enough. I went there once; it had nothing I was interested in, and nothing that wasn’t available from other bookstores closer to me. Certainly nothing worth fighting dense urban traffic in a “premium retail” area.

    Perhaps there simply weren’t enough customers to support a Wal-Mart-sized store that had nothing to offer to make it worth going to.

    • Felix J. Torres

      For the big publshers, of course.

      A world without B&N is a world with a more level playing field for publishers of all sizes and B&M retailers of all sizes. A world without volume discounts on new tradpub releases.

      A brave new world for corporate publishers… 😉

  9. Back in the day, I worked at Barnes and Noble.

    There was a bookseller there who was a literature fanatic. This guy was familiar with all the classics and read every new novel that came out. When customers had obscure questions, he had the answer. Every week that bookseller led a bedazzled customer up to the cash register, arms loaded with books, newly infused with a passion for reading and happy to drop a hundred bucks. Did Barnes and Noble promote that guy? No, they fired him.

    The staff worked for starvation wages and under 30 hours so the company could avoid paying benefits. Whenever possible, Barnes and Noble disposed of the competent in favor of the ignorant. I have a degree in literature and poetry and a background in publishing. They put me in the music department, where newly minted booksellers dragged customers to my desk to ask questions like “who wrote Moby Dick?”

    Who killed chain bookstores? The careless, disinterested, money-grubbing management of stores like Barnes and Noble. The sooner they are gone, the sooner things can change.

    • Felix J. Torres

      That sounds exactly like the Borders post-mortem…

      …except the Borders guys had the excuse of not being “book guts”. Riggio can’t claim tbat kind of ignorance.

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