An Open Letter to James Daunt

From Publishers Weekly:

Dear Mr. Daunt:

I was excited to read that you will be taking the helm of Barnes & Noble when its acquisition by Elliott Advisors is completed later this year. I hope you can help this great retailer, much as you did U.K.’s Waterstones bookstore chain.

Do you mind some advice? For some time, I’ve been bumping around the publishing world as a reader, author, and freelance editor. My window on that world might be narrow, but it still offers a decent view. Here are some things I’d love to see happen as you strive to make B&N the go-to bookstore for millions of Americans:

1. Sell books. I know that seems obvious, but sometimes when I go into a U.S. bookstore, I feel as if I’m in Tchotchkes & Games R Us. Don’t get me wrong—I like the displays of toys and gewgaws, but they take up an awful lot of store real estate. One of the things I loved when visiting London bookstores (Foyles in particular) was the sense of being surrounded by so many books. Books everywhere! You couldn’t help but want to buy some.

2. Advertise your wares. It amazes me that the book industry, which is part of the entertainment industry in terms of competition for similar dollars, does very little advertising. While we’re all bombarded with messages urging us to see this movie or that streaming series, we rarely see anything urging us to lose ourselves in a written story. Selling books is hard. Selling them with little to no paid advertising is even harder, and, I believe, a remnant of a previous century’s thinking about how books should be promoted.

3. Advertise the bookstore experience. Going to a bookstore is different than going to a clothing store, hardware store, grocery store, or other stores. You’re not always looking for something specific. You might just have a vague idea, in fact, of what you want. While other kinds of shopping can seem frenetic, book shopping can be calming and restorative. Remind your customers of this in paid ads, maybe even featuring celebrities who’ve made some books popular—Oprah Winfrey or Reese Witherspoon, for example.

. . . .

6. Recognize that writers are customers. Amazon realized this at the dawn of the e-reader revolution. They created a platform for authors to sell directly to customers without a gatekeeper publisher. Barnes & Noble was slower to see the value of this customer segment and to figure out how to help authors reach readers. (I will confess to bypassing its e-publishing outlet with some of my own self-published novels.) Look for ways to make the e-publishing experience easier and more attractive to authors. If you help them make money, you’ll make money, too.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

11 thoughts on “An Open Letter to James Daunt”

  1. “Look at ways to get a book into the store for a customer in 24 hours. Look for ways to use print-on-demand technology for backlist items and classics. If people want a book quickly, make Barnes & Noble the store where they can get it faster than from anywhere else.”

    I’ve always thought that this would be great for the airport bookstore but why not B&N? I have no idea how much they cost to purchase and maintain, but imagine every store with thousands of titles to browse but then any paperback title available for POD while you shop.

    • Time is still a big killer for POD. People waiting for their flight may not have an hour to wait for it to print and bind their book – never mind if someone else had the same idea just before you came in. Same problem at a bookstore – just how much time are your customers willing to kill for it rather than downloading an ebook?

      As I have yet to run across a POD, do they give options for font type/size for those of us with failing eyes? (and do they then auto correct for which pages the chapters now fall on?)

      This is why we see trad-pub and friends tooting audiobooks as the next great thing, they hate the fact that ebooks are easy to make by anyone and the font type/size issue doesn’t exist. (Had a reader tell me they’d just picked up my latest and was reading it on their phone – seems they work somewhere that bans ‘reading’ on the job but not checking your phone? Madness, but they’re happy so I’m happy. 😉 )

    • I have no idea how much they cost to purchase and maintain

      and that’s the rub. The answer for brick & mortar bookstores is “too much”. They require skilled onsite maintenance, something that doesn’t come at minimum wage. An average book takes about 15 minutes to produce, and unless they are running all the time they lose money. If they do run all the time, a customer has to wait longer than they want to to get a book.

      The thing is, the economics of POD work very well for Amazon. They have very high-end machines that run all the time, and that’s how they fulfill many midlist and backlist titles.

      “Sell books, not other stuff” sounds really nice to the casual duffer who thinks that the toys are the problem, but B&N brought in the toys because they have better margin than books. “Sell the books for more” would be the logical answer, but price competition makes that a non-starter.

      • Last I heard, the Espresso POD machine ran over $100k and was both slow and finicky.
        Amazon and Ingram use small printing presses and those are much more expensive.

        There’s a reason POD books are more expensive than batch printed books. It’s not a solution for a commercial business; expensive to make, low margin.

      • Our local Christian bookstore had a POD machine. So they can’t be too prohibitively expensive. And all of the minimum wage employees were trained to run it. The issue was it took between 10-60 minutes to print and bind a book. So at best, you could only sell and create 10-20 copies per day on a single machine. In order to make this work at any scale at all that would make a difference to a business like B&N, half the huge store would have to be dedicated to running POD machines.

    • I’ve always thought that this would be great for the airport bookstore but why not B&N?

      In zillions of offices all across the land, those little green lights on copy machines continue to blink while users stand around hoping Gladys is somewhere in sight since she is the only one who can make the damn thing work.

      I strongly suspect the POD machines ship with little green lights, but without Gladys.

      And POD? In a place like an airport, queuing theory raises its ugly head. Suppose books popped out every five minutes. But consumers don’t pop in every five minutes. They cluster. We could see no orders for 30 minutes, then ten orders within two minutes. That makes the average wait time 25 minutes rather than the five minutes it takes to print.

      It’s not easy.

      • What if Gladys doesn’t feel like it? (I was going to link today’s Dilbert – but Scott is apparently experiencing an uncooperative internet server right now. Maybe after he finds Gladys.)

        • Move all the paper from tray-1 to tray-2, open and close all compartments and drawers, unplug, count to ten, plug it in. Get your stuff done, and play dumb when Gladys starts the interrogations.

  2. I’m sorry, but I had to laugh at #2. The only commercials you see for movies are for Movies that are expected to make $150M or more. Or they are advertising as an awareness campaign for the Oscars.

    When was the last time a book made $150M? Traditional media advertising is EXPENSIVE. Prohibitively so for a widget that costs between $5-$15 and will only ever sell, at most, 15,000 units.

    And as far as digital advertising? You have to be able to track sales and where they came from in order to effectively evaluate your ad spend. Something Publishers can’t really do effectively. They don’t have the data.

    And #3? Maybe for people who like shopping, and being out in public. I much prefer to make a list, go to one place, and get everything I need. Which is why I usually just pick up my phone nowadays. I hate the experience of shopping. Most introverts do. And I’m pretty sure introverts consume books at a significantly more prodigious rate than extroverts.

    And as far as #6 — Sorry, Amazon treats writers as suppliers, not customers. As they should.

    • KKR did a series a few years listing the costs of advertising.
      Starting here:

      Signature quote:

      “…only the really big titles—the ones that will sell millions—get advertised in Entertainment Weekly. Why? Simple. A four-color full page Entertainment Weekly ad costs $189,400. And that’s for one ad that is in the magazine for only one week.

      Think it through, folks. If your publisher buys your novel for a $5,000 advance, they’re not going to spend nearly $200,000 to advertise your book. You’ll note, if you read EW like I do, that very few books get the full-color one-page treatment. Most books get a one-third page full-color ad, which is still mind-bogglingly expensive at $85,300 for one placement. One placement. ”

      TV ads (off Prime Time) run $100-2000 for each showing.

      Meaningful TV campaigns need dozens if not hundreds of showings; nothing bookstores can afford for their own brands.

      Online ads are cheaper but they’ve even more ephemeral than TV or radio so effective campaigns need to be denser and longer.

      None are for the faint of heart or lean of pocket.

  3. One thing that I think ought to be done is just this: take all those worthless/mindless/ghost-written titles B&N have a tendency to load down their lobby tables with and replace them with books put out by indie and small presses.
    That’s right. That’s what I miss the most about the long-gone mom & mom stores: they ALWAYS had a nice selection of books from the smaller presses, that Borders and B&N never would carry.
    Even about 2 weeks ago I went up to a B&N clerk (for what good it did) and expressed my frustration with regards to the blatantly commercial junk that the lobby tables are full of.

    Yes, we know: the big 5 pay for that space. Guess what? Too bad. Stop this corrupt practice & give everyone a fair shot.
    You might even sell a few books as a result. I know, I, for one, will at least pause at these tables long enough to take a genuine look. How about that?

    I have spent thousands of dollars on books over the decades. Guess where I have been getting (most of them) for the last 20 years? That’s right: Zon. Don’t want to, would rather not, but what choice is there? And even with Zon, due to their insisting on cluttering every damned page with paid-for-titles lately, I have pretty much stopped buying there as well.

    Look at this as an opportunity, Mr. Daunt. Go for it.

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