How Should We Feel About Barnes & Noble Now?

From Book Riot:

When I realized my childhood Barnes & Noble was closing, I was devastated. I’m an indie bookstore lover, but growing up, there were no indie bookstores in my town: only one gorgeous, cozy Barnes & Noble. We went to book clubs there as kids, met there as teens basically every Friday night, studied for the SATs there, got coffee there to catch up over summers home from college. It held tons of concentrated memories.

The good news was that it was simply moving, not closing for good. It would have a new location and be one of the first “new Barnes & Noble stores” using their new layout, approach, and model. But was that good news?

Let’s back up. Years ago, there was a push to support indies over mega chains, but in recent years, Amazon’s threat has changed the story somewhat, leading many book lovers (me included) to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble, as one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar chains, is still a preferable option over Amazon. They’ve made some headway over the past couple years as they once again spin to becoming the “hero” of the story, the big-box store that outlasted and survived Amazon, proving our love of physical locations and physical books despite the odds.

. . . .

However, their new attempts to rejuvenate their stores are a way to appropriate the warm coziness and trust we have in an indie bookstore while taking away the mechanics of an indie on the back end. The maze-like layout is meant to be a “curated, cozy, and welcoming space for communities to work, read and browse.” But while branding and new layouts may seem innocent, anyone who has worked in the business world knows that it’s often more complicated than it appears.

After Barnes & Noble was sold to a hedge fund in 2019, owners Elliott Advisors brought in James Daunt, the chief executive of UK chain Waterstones (owned by the same company, I should add). His strategy for saving Barnes & Noble included giving local stores more individualized flexibility to choose what they sell based on local demand, moving away from the gifts and toys section, moving locations into smaller physical spaces, and redesigning the stores.

It’s not a coincidence that Barnes & Noble sought to capture something of what the indies were bringing to the table. Over the pandemic, books boomed, but so did a certain nostalgia for physical spaces and for wandering and browsing in-person. Indie bookstores benefited from this, and new ones have been popping up all over the country over the last few years. Barnes & Noble wants to take advantage of this moment.

But all moments aren’t created equal. As Jenn Northington unpacked in her piece in 2022, there was a 12.4% drop in hardcover sales from 2021 to 2022. And in 2022, Twitter buzzed with the realization that Barnes & Noble’s new policy seemed to be to stock only hardcovers that had “proven sales” records, making it harder for debut authors, “genre” authors, and authors traditionally neglected by the industry (people of color, queer and trans authors, disabled authors, etc.) to be discovered.

. . . .

Northington says it best:

“If the only hardcovers you can find at your local branch are also the ones that are on the bestseller list, which are also the ones getting marketing dollars, which are also the ones that the algorithms are suggesting to you online, then the chances of, say, a debut author from a marginalized community getting their book in front of your face long enough for you to see it and consider buying it are lower than ever.”

Some argue that it’s okay because B&N will still sell a more diverse selection of paperbacks — these rules are only for hardcover releases. But how can you get a paperback printing if your hardcover doesn’t sell? And how can your hardcover sell if a bookseller won’t sell it unless you can prove it will sell in advance?

Barnes & Noble is trying to capture the wonder of wandering your local indie bookstore, while simultaneously narrowing how much you could possibly discover. It wants you to think that it’s as personal and local as your independent bookstore would be, while showing you the same five books you’ve already seen blasted all over BookTok. They’ll continue to get that good bestseller money while convincing people that they’re in a community space.

. . . .

The implication is obvious. Barnes & Noble is trying to improve their bottom line. Which is fine: a bookstore is a business, and a chain needs to make money to keep stores open. What I don’t like is that they are quietly prioritizing profits in ways that hurt the goals of the literary community while also pushing this vision of Barnes & Noble as your local indie that supports your community and is a haven for readers. They are putting on the costume and language of a pretty neighborhood independent bookstore, but their inner mechanics are still all big-box chain corporation. They’re trying to disguise their profit-driven corporate decisions behind pretty warm-lit curtains.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG doesn’t recall that he’s read anything about it, but he wonders if the partner/employee/etc. at Elliot Advisors who championed the acquisition of Barnes & Noble in 2019 has been fired, demoted, etc., for what was surely a huge mistake from the standpoint of making money.

10 thoughts on “How Should We Feel About Barnes & Noble Now?”

  1. What I don’t like is that they are quietly prioritizing profits in ways that hurt the goals of the literary community

    What is the literary community, and what are its goals? Are independent authors who sell on Amazon part of the community?

    • Why did you even ask that third question? The answer is no, of course not. The literary community is for *real* authors who write beautiful prose about dreary subjects, not mere storytellers who bring pleasure to the masses.

  2. Has the author of this piece ever considered the possibility that the “goals of the literary community” might be different from the needs of readers?

    • Perish the thought.
      The literary community exists to protect literature for generations to come.
      Or six months, whichever comes first.

    • Has the author of this piece ever considered that there is no “the literary community”? Herding authors is like herding cats. Finding coherent “communities” among readers is much more difficult, much more likely to result in scratching and biting (and fleas… not to mention Bartonella henselae infections and even rabies), and much less rewarding.

      The “literary community” east of the Hudson is all barbarians anyway.

  3. If they want a haven to read and meet other readers there’s always the library. They act as if supporting B&N is some noble thing – as if it’s a glorified mom&pop store unlike evil Amazon. Psst, they are a giant corporation just like Amazon, just not as successful.
    I’d rather find books at Amazon where I can get book from INDIE authors (I don’t think B&N is putting that in their stores) rather than just the ones pushed by the big publishing houses. I can go to a library to mingle or better yet hang with my friends.

  4. “PG doesn’t recall that he’s read anything about it, but he wonders if the partner/employee/etc. at Elliot Advisors who championed the acquisition of Barnes & Noble in 2019 has been fired, demoted, etc., for what was surely a huge mistake from the standpoint of making money.”

    Nothing in the piece suggests that the acquisition was a bad financial move. This might be the case, but it is an unsupported assumption: the ideological basis that bookstores must suck.

    • Sorry, but I’m with PG on this one.
      It’s not that bookstores suck.

      It’s that B&N at the time of the purchase wasn’t worth $600M. Best estimates I saw at the time, FWIW, were for less than half of that. (Chapters looked at their “books” and ran away.)

      Presumably, Elliot’s folks were going by Daunt’s assessment at the time that the US was “under-bookstored” and that he could replicate in the US what he did with Waterstones.

      Uh, no.

      His MO with Waterstones was to go with small location specific stores in the UK “HIGH STREET” urban shopping areas. But the US isn’t the UK and there is no “high street” worth the term.

      At the time B&N was an oversized chain of oversized stores located in or near suburban malls at a time Malls were imploding by the dozen. Waterstones were located right where shoppers needed to go anyway, whereas B&N required an express trip to go there.

      Daunt has, to his credit kept B&N afloat but at a cost of a year without revenue.
      It hasn’t imploded. But it isn’t even close to exploding into big profits. And not likely to.

      Tying $500M in good cash to a low margin project just before the pandemic and a sea change in the financial world–from zero interest to 7-9% as the new long term baseline was not a good business move. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, keeping the money in bonds or investing in tech would’ve been a better investment. Whoever bought into the idea of the US being under-bookstored obviously didn’t do their homework.

      B&N’s business model worked in the 90’s because it dominated the market to the point they could dictate covers to the publishers and demand higher discounts from the BPHs. That was why the ABA sued them. But that hasn’t been the case for over a decade. More to the point, trade book unit sales have been stagnant since 2003 and never got over the losses from the 2008 financial mess.

      More stores isn’t going to change that.

      Today’s B&N barely moves 15-20% of trade books, the same fraction it had when BORDERS was pushed into the abyss. (If that.) But 25% of today’s BPH book sales are digital, where Amazon gets at least 75%, and Amazon moves at least the half of their pbooks. Daunt’s strategy of more/smaller stores isn’t very likely to make a dent in Amazon’s share (or Hudson’s); at most it will eat the share held by the independent bookstores. Which is around 5%. That sets a limit on B&N’s growth potential.

      And it still faces rent and payroll issues.
      The entire pbook ecosystem is facing supply chain, labor, and inflationary issues. More stores, if they even can afford them, will not move the needle.

      Simple test: how soon are they going to recover the $600M + the operating costs?
      So what’s the payback on the investment? When is it? They are nowhere near an IPO and they won’t be until they can show enough growth to draw investors from outside the “literary community”.

      If anything, Daunt should go in the opposite direction: less/bigger. Make a small chain of POWELL’s-like destination stores. Load it up with special editions, leather bound, signed editions, and other exotics. Maybe a dozen in the major metro areas. After they reestablish their brand’s value by offering something other than what Amazon does, they could leverage that *online*.

      Alternately, they could take a page from Hudson’s and go minimalist and colocate at EV charging stations. The gerontocracy is hoping for a million chargers; 10,000 mini stores would do well for them.

      Go big or go small, but the middle ground will only shrink, especially if Hudson realizes 15-30 minutes of EV charging time is just begging for a distraction.

      And until B&N changes the plan, the $600M will lie fallow. 4 years and counting.
      Not a good outcome.

    • Bookstores don’t suck. But the external environment in which they operate sucks for bookstores.

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