From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
The most important question in the world of trade publishing is “what will happen to the book trade”, meaning, primarily, the bookstores (but also the other retailers that sell books, the libraries and the wholesalers that supply them).
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[I]t was announced that Barnes & Noble was being sold to Elliott Management, which also owns and has reconditioned the Waterstones chain in the UK. That acquisition caught everybody’s attention and made two reporters call me as part of the research for their stories. (ReaderLink emerged as a late possible alternative acquirer of B&N, but that did not come to fruition.)
They wanted to know, “will Elliott save B&N?” The announced strategy, by James Daunt who will run both chains and who engineered the changes at Waterstone’s, is to repeat what appears to have worked in Britain. Diversify the stores from each other. Give more local autonomy for title selection and merchandising. Make them as different from each other as independents are different from each other.
My hunch is that it will take much more profound change to make the “big chain bookstore” model commercially viable in the US anytime in the future. What surprises me a bit is that this conversation about the future of bookstores, and just about every one I’ve seen, just doesn’t acknowledge the history of how we got to where we are.
The Barnes & Noble store network that exists today was spawned by investor enthusiasm in the late 1980s, which also financed the growth of B&N’s longtime competitors, Borders, which closed in 2009. When the book consumer of that time either wanted a specific book, particularly one that was not a current bestseller, or wanted to “shop” a category or topic to see what was available, it was a natural instinct to go to the store with the biggest selection, the most titles.
The fact that selection was a magnet became the driving reality the superstores were built on. The biggest independents had long carried a very large number of titles and now the chains, which had previously specialized in 20-25,000-title stores in malls, started building freestanding destination stores that carried 100-125,000 titles. The national wholesaler Ingram also kept expanding their title base, so both the chain stores and the independents could get rapid resupply support for most of what they carried.
The situation started to change when Amazon arrived in 1995 with the ability to deliver just any available book to any customer in as much time “as it took” (varied by the book and publisher, of course), with a “promise date” to tell the customer when to expect it. Since most needs for most books by most people are not immediate, over time online shopping, rather than looking for the biggest in-store selection, became the logical default for anything you weren’t sure you’d find. And in a multi-million title world of books (to which we have evolved over the past 20 years from the quarter-million title world we lived in before Amazon), that’s by far most of the shopping and has become most of the purchasing.
In addition to the shopping reality, the marketing reality has also changed. It used to be that word of mouth was a slow thing, taking the time it did to travel from person to person through conversation and personal interaction. The internet changed that; social media changed it on steroids. Now word of mouth can spread like lightning, and stop nearly as quickly as it starts. Social media can make a book, or a meme, very ubiquitous for a week or a month, and then disappear.
That means that there is a high premium on having a book available in as many places as possible for the period of its great fame, but it also means those books need to be rotated quickly. To maximize sales, they need to show up right away when they’re hot, and they have to relinquish their place of prominence to make room for the next thing that comes along.
What that all added up to is that the retail sector that is needed in the area of rising online sales is very different from the one we needed before. A massive selection is not an effective magnet anymore.
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[I]t will take more than diversification of the title selections and merchandising emphases to make the pretty large B&N stores thrive again. They need more smaller stores, not so many very large ones. Making the title selections more local is well and good, but the information that drives that has to be deep, sophisticated, digital, and reacted to very quickly.
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Britain is culturally and physically different enough from the States that it is hard to know whether a strategy that worked for Waterstones there can work for Barnes & Noble here.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files
PG is familiar with the incoming CEO of Barnes & Noble, James Daunt, only through a variety of articles written about him that include quotes from Daunt.
PG’s general impression is that Daunt is British in a way that can lead to parochial views of the world and the United States in particular. From a brief scan of biographical information, Daunt’s father was a British diplomat and Daunt was educated at a 1300-year-old private (in the US sense) boarding school prior to completing his education at Cambridge. One profile mentioned that he presently owns three different homes.
Daunt’s only extended exposure to the United States that PG could discover was when he worked as an investment banker in New York City for four years in the 1980’s right after he graduated from college.
PG has no doubts that Daunt’s business instincts are well-attuned to the sensibilities of a typical British book purchaser, particularly in the upscale locations where he sited Daunt Books stores prior to being named CEO of Waterstones.
PG has his doubts about whether Daunt’s instincts will work as well for a Barnes & Noble in Omaha or Mobile as they do for a Daunt Books in Marylebone however.
At present and in most locations, working in a Barnes & Noble store is pretty close to a dead-end job. It’s a half-step above flipping hamburgers for working conditions, but Shake Shack isn’t on anyone’s list of public companies most likely to show up in bankruptcy court either. PG suggests that a Shake Shack manager is more likely to have his/her job five years from now than a manager of a Barnes & Noble is. And a Shake Shack manager may be earning more money as well.
PG suggests Daunt’s most important task will be to make the employees of Barnes & Noble’s retail stores feel like they are part of a business that is worth caring about and isn’t likely to lead to unemployment during the next few years.
Customers sense when the store staff feels like they’re in dead-end jobs.