Same old excuses

As I wandered through the interwebs, looking for something to blog about this morning, I found myself checking the calendar. Had I somehow fallen through a time hole and gone back a year or two? There was an article about the Apple price fixing trial. Closer examination showed it was actually about a brief filed by Authors United in support of Apple on its appeal of the original ruling. There were posts from MSM about how Amazon has killed Barnes & Noble. There were blogs about how there is a great divide between traditionally published authors and indies. I guess it just proves the old adage that the more things change, they more they stay the same.

As our regular readers know, I have long been tired of the “Amazon evil” argument pushed by a number of authors and other people associated with traditional publishing. How many times have we heard the screed that Amazon killed the locally owned bookstores? I won’t even go into the arguments put forth by Apple and the Big 5 (now the Big 4) as an attempt to justify their price fixing scheme.

CNN Money, a couple of days ago, published an article with the headline of “Should Barnes & Noble Just Rename Itself Amazon’s Showroom?” What prompted this was yet another quarter of losses for the brick and mortar bookseller. The article isn’t quite as one-sided in its reporting as the headline would imply. It does point out the fact that the executive suite at B&N has been basically a revolving door for the last couple of years. That, by itself, is enough to cause problems with the bottom line. It also mentions the revamped website that, well, had more problems than any site in development as long as this one supposedly had been should have.

But it ignored the real issues with why B&N is behind the proverbial eight ball when it comes to Amazon. B&N, like Borders and other chain stores, was riding high when Amazon came onto the scene. These stores scoffed at the thought of having a company based solely as an internet marketplace. Heck, I’ll admit that I scoffed initially. But it didn’t take long to convince me that Jeff Bezos had found the golden goose and was capitalizing on a new market. I kept waiting for the other stores to follow suit, especially when it came to e-books. But they didn’t. They continued to hold onto their old business plans and that let Amazon get the foothold and, by the time they realized what was happening, Bezos was halfway up the economic mountain.

Then there was the well-documented lack of response to the e-book market, both in setting up e-book stores and in marketing e-book readers. Once again, Amazon became the leader in the market. The Kindle e-book reader was developed and released and then the kindle e-book site took off. No longer were we relegated to reading our e-books on our Palm Pilots or Rocket Readers, etc. Better yet, our books could be delivered directly to our e-readers instead of having to sideload them onto the devices. How wonderful.

And there were Borders and Barnes & Noble, still basking in their past glories and expanding their physical footprint without looking at economic downturns until it was too late.

We lost Borders some time ago. Now it looks like B&N is teetering on the bring and, once again, Amazon is getting the blame from some quarters. Why? Because Jeff Bezos anticipated the market and did what any good businessman does, he adapted as times and customer demands changed. He also gives his customers what they want. He is also smart enough to note on product pages when high prices are mandated by a publisher and not by him. Is he a saint? No. But he is a savvy businessman who recognized a market that wasn’t being served and took steps to serve it. The others stood back and waited and now they find themselves behind the eight ball because they didn’t step up and take a risk when they should have.

But there is something else that people are forgetting when they start arguing that Amazon is killing B&N as our local bookstore. I don’t know about your B&N but mine hasn’t been what I’d call a “bookstore” for a long time. It started slowly. The small display of journals and reading related knick-knacks moved from one small corner of the store closer to the front. Games and puzzles started showing up, at first in one back corner and then showcased up front with the knick knacks. The chairs that had been scattered around the store, letting you browse and even sit and read for a bit, started disappearing until they were gone. The shelves for the best sellers were pushed back, first for “gifts” and other non-book items and then, later, for displays selling the Nook and its various accessories. You had to walk much deeper into the store to find a book — a sad thing for a so-called bookstore.

Now we have an article from the New York Times telling us that B&N wants to “be more” than a bookstore.  This is the brainchild of Ron Boire, the new CEO of B&N. Boire is, according to the article, the former CEO of Sears Canada and has worked with Brookstone, Best Buy and Toyrs R Us. His goal is to lead “a push to rebrand Barnes & Noble as more than just a bookstore by expanding its offerings of toys, games, gadgets and other gifts and reshaping the nation’s largest bookstore chain into a ‘lifestyle brand.'”

That’s not a surprising goal coming from someone with his background but it is a far cry from being a bookstore. Part of me hopes he succeeds. I hate seeing any company go under but part of me wonders if, yet again, it is too little too late, especially when the name of the company is so tied in people’s minds with books. Think about it. When someone mentions B&N to you, you have this image of a store that is known as a bookstore. Sure, it sells other things but it is primarily associated with books. But now go back and look at the description of what he wants to do. Isn’t B&N already selling toys and games and gadgets and other gifts? So what sort of changes is he really suggesting?

For me, I want a bookstore. It doesn’t have to be a mega store. I miss the intimacy of the smaller stores where the employees knew their stock and felt confident to make recommendations. The early B&N and Borders were larger than the mom and pop stores they eventually ran out of the market. B&N and Borders were successful in those early days because they could order more of a book due to the chain nature of the business. That meant they could offer books for less. They could also offer more titles because their stores were larger. But there was something else. There wasn’t a B&N or Borders at every mall or shopping center back then. You had to drive more than a few miles to get to one. It was an adventure, a fun one, to go to B&N or Borders. It wasn’t something you did every day and, because of that, you spent more because those stores had books your local didn’t.

Then these new chain stores basically pushed the locally owned stores out of business. Riding flush on their success, they started expanding even more. With that came the superstores. They started appearing at every shopping center. Some even had both B&N and Borders within yards, not miles, of one another. At one point, I could drive 30 minutes in any direction from my home and come across several of each store. There were at least a dozen of the stores within that half an hour of my home. That is called not only market saturation but over-saturation. Add in the economic downfall and, well, things went south because the companies did not adapt to the changing times.

We lost Borders. It is good to see B&N fighting to survive but I’m not sure it can. I’m not sure becoming a “lifestyle brand” is going to do it. I wish them well but I’m not going to hold my breath.

44 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: PUBLISHING

44 responses to “Same old excuses

  1. Sam Hall

    Years ago, I got pissed at the local B&N because of their poor customer service so I went looking another place to get SF books. I found Amazon and never looked back. I must not have been the only one since that B&N location went out of business.

    • I had pretty much the same experience. Add in the slow decline in the number of real science fiction novels (not fantasy and certainly not paranormals) and I had to go looking for my “fix” somewhere else.

    • snelson134

      What did it for me was realizing how blatant the political bias was getting in the stores. This was about 1998. They weren’t going to carry “right wing ” authors, and they didn’t especially want “right wing ” customers either.


  2. From ‘The Music Man’: The Wells Fargo wagon’s bringing something special just for me.
    Seems like we have a product and a delivery system. In The Music Man, the product was the ‘something special,’ and the delivery system was the Wells Fargo wagon. The wagon prompted joyful anticipation, and was a social event. BUT: the reason the wagon was a big deal is because it was the only way you could get raisins, maple sugar, salmon, a bathtub and a cross-cut saw. Once those items became available locally, the Wells Fargo wagon lost significance.
    Barnes & Nobles and Borders are just delivery systems, and the primary product is books. Amazon makes a better delivery system. If B&N wants to repackage itself as a product, rather than a delivery system, they can try that. Wells Fargo, after all, stopped being a delivery service and became a bank.
    It’s going to be hard to convince me, however, to pick up my fat carcass and drag it to a lifestyle store (whatever that is). I like books, and I don’t particularly care whether they are dead tree or electronic. And I can make my own coffee, if I have to.

    • Yep. I don’t go to a lifestyle store to buy my groceries, or to buy my electronics or to buy my books. I don’t know why they think folks will go to B&N to buy anything they aren’t already selling.

  3. I miss Borders, as the local stores’ managers were very supportive of local and indy-authors; they were fantastic about ordering and stocking our books, and organizing special events. The Borders in the biggest shopping center in town even had a yearly Christmas author group event. They were fantastic to work with … B&N not so much. It apparently depends on the individual store managers, as indy authors in other locations have told me; very much hit or miss, and in San Antonio, mostly miss.

    • That really was one thing Borders did right. Our local Borders was also a great supporter of the library and we knew we could count on them when we held author events to bring in books and even have staff there to help sell, etc. And they gave a portion of the proceeds back to the library. Something we have never gotten from B&N.

  4. Robin Munn

    Question:

    … the Big 5 (now the Big 4) …

    I thought it was the Big 6 (now the Big 5). Typo? Or did another legacy publisher go under and I simply missed the news?

    • Typo and wishful thinking — also a bit of only five of the six, iirc, took part in the initial collision and justice department inquiry.

  5. Uncle Lar

    If only some where some publisher would figure out a way to peacefully coexist with Amazon and the rise of e-books. Some publisher with the foresight to adapt and change to mesh with the new paradigm.
    Oh wait, seems that Jim Baen and now Toni went and did exactly that and quite successfully from all appearances.
    Find out what the customer wants, serve it up efficiently and at a fair price, rinse and repeat. And any of the big guys could easily do the same, if only they wanted to.
    “the Big 5 (now the Big 4)” I must confess I don’t pay all that much attention to dying corporations these days. Who’d we lose?

    • We didn’t lose anyone — yet. That was me pre-coffee. Sorry. And yes, Jim Baen did set the example all too many in the industry chose not only to mock but to ignore.

  6. Reality Observer

    Amanda, I can remember when one of the local malls had three chain bookstores – B & N, Borders, and Waldenbooks. I’d hit all three every month…

    So far as their “transformation” (rather, going further along what they were already desperately trying, and failing, to do). If I’m looking for unusual, “cool” gadgets – I go to Ikea. Neat games – half a dozen mom & pop stores in this town. Oddball household stuff – any of the larger Ace Hardware stores, or Bed, Bath and Beyond.

    I have not been in a B & N since I realized that (other than books, which come from Amazon or directly from Baen) I could find anything on their shelves at Walmart, KMart, or even Costco – for a lot less money.

    • That is something they don’t seem to get. They think we will pay for the honor of buying something at a lower price — but that lower price is still higher than we can find the same item in other stores.

  7. B&N and Borders never really had to compete when they were on top. The publisher set the price, even allowed for ‘discounts’ on hardbacked copies but still the price was set. So it’s no wonder that when someone showed up that began competing based on price the brick-and-mortar stores began losing customers.
    None of them have made a real effort to compete with Amazon. Bezos, however, hasn’t let that stop him, continuing on as if there really was competition. He’s kept on innovating, first with Kindles, then with programs designed to appeal to authors, the Select and now KU programs.
    Apple certainly has the money to compete with Amazon, but they haven’t bothered. They concentrate on a relative few books, generally bestsellers. New authors, new programs to attract and keep independents, those aren’t part of their marketing plan, so Amazon continues to expand. Apple doesn’t really like to compete either, marketing their products based on a different strategy. You can buy cheaper phones or computers, but they won’t be Apple Macs or iPhones. While that works for innovative devices, it doesn’t gain traction when Apple or others is offering the same product at essentially the same price, and with the same level of convenience.
    I keep wondering when other publishers will actually challenge Amazon, maybe even come up with a strategy for competition. From the looks of things, I can keep right on wondering, because there’s no sign of it happening soon.

    • Sara the Red

      Apple was one of the first to offer ‘digital’ video stuff–tv shows, etc. And I bought quite a lot. But when Amazon entered the scene, they made it so I could watch stuff I got from them on multiple platforms. Apple, on the other hand, forces me to watch it on my computer (which I can’t anymore, because iTunes borked several updates back and refuses, for some reason, to play video now, and of course Apple’s customer service has no idea why), on my tablet, or I have to buy “Apple tv”. Amazon, on the other hand (as well as Netflix and Hulu and other similar services) made it so I can pretty much watch my stuff from them on anything I like.

      Apple’s “exclusivity” gimmick has left me cold at long last. My current tablet/ipod I will use until it croaks–but I will not be replacing it with another Apple product. Other companies, like Amazon, make it much easier to read/watch/listen to my stuff, no matter what gadgets I use!

      (And although I am a graphic designer you won’t catch me on a Mac, either. PCs have more than caught up to Macs in terms of graphics utilities, and as I’m also a gamer there is zero reason for me to find any appeal in Macs.)

      TL;DR: Exclusivity is a stupid thing in this day and age unless you are offering something truly, profoundly unique. I expect this to eventually bite Apple in the behind.

      • scott2harrison

        Apple offers progressive values & social justice. The only Apple shop that I know of is a well off progressive church. As long as there are progressives, they will buy Apple. The question is: will there be enough progressives to support Apple.

        • LOL. Actually, I love Macs for doing high end graphic work. But for anything else, they aren’t worth the additional money just to have the nice little apple on the lid.

          • Sara the Red

            And see, thing is–as far as I can tell, PCs have more than caught up to Macs in the graphics department. Granted, I don’t do computer animation. But for painting/drawing/vector-based graphics, etc, I can do just as much on my PC as I could on a Mac without paying a ton of extra money. (And I can rebuild my PC easily whenever I need to upgrade!

        • Actually, exclusiveness is what almost did Apple in. Apple kept tight licensing, so there were no Apple clones. Dimly recall all sorts of squawking when Computer Shopper ran a story on building a clone.. This was back when the monthly magazine was as thick as a city phone book. Apple was already established in schools and some homes when along came the IBM PC with loose licensing, which allowed third party add-ons like the Hercules card, and then the PC clones. Add to this Lotus 1-2-3, and now the home computer of choice was the clones.

          The loose licensing may have been accidental, for IBM tried to tighten things up with Microchannel, but by then it was too late. Almost too late for Apple, too, who by then had lost the school market and was in a rapidly shrinking niche.

          It didn’t help that Apple equipment was more expensive than PCs for the same performance.And when you went with Apple, you were stuck with Apple. If you went with IBM, you could later go with HP or Gateway or Dell.

          Then the big companies dropped the ball with hand-helds. Apple didn’t and the rest is history.

          Now Apple is getting pressure from Android tablets, Samsung, and Microsoft, and it’s exclusiveness is becoming a liability again. You just about have to renounce the entire world for the Apple Way. If Microsoft is Roman Catholic priest, and Linux a Lutheran minster, Apple is a guy in a bright robe banging on a tambourine.

      • And that exclusivity is only getting worse. I heard just the other day that the next iPhone to be released will not include and earphone jack. So, to be able to use earphones/headset, you are going to have to buy Mac authorized products that have the lightning jack on them. Sorry, but I will keep my Galaxy Note 4.

        • Robin Munn

          No headphone jack?

          … Yeah, they’re trying to push the Lightning connector as hard as they can, aren’t they? And it’s a really cool connector — it got “flip it over and it still works correctly” absolutely right, years before USB Type-C — but it’s proprietary. While the rest of the world staggers slowly into putting USB Type-C everywhere (which is going to take years), I don’t see anyone but Apple deciding to invest in Lightning.

          I think their problem is that they still think it’s five years ago. Five years ago, Apple dominated the mobile market, and Android was only just starting to be a viable competitor, and nowhere near a big thing. Now, Android is to iPhone what the IBM PC was to the Apple and/or Macintosh. The iPhone is still a really cool piece of tech, but you pay more for equivalent functionality, there’s less software available for it, and it locks you into the Apple hardware world.

          No headphone jack…. *shakes head* Welp, now would be a good time to sell my Apple stock if I had any.

        • Robin Munn

          … Okay, looking into it further:

          1) The “no headphone jack” thing is a rumor, so far unconfirmed. There are always rumors floating around about Apple products, and most of them don’t pan out, though they do give tech-industry magazine authors something to write their latest column about.

          2) Besides the Lightning connector, any Bluetooth headphones you might own would also work, so they wouldn’t be completely exclusive to a proprietary connector. But most Bluetooth headphones are high-end gear, and they’d be dumping the cheap end of the headphone market if they went with that move. So not quite as boneheaded as I thought… but still boneheaded.

          • nerdgal

            But most Bluetooth headphones are high-end gear

            Not so much any more. The price point is c. $30 for decent home use ones. They are better than the $5 plug-in heads. Been a while since I got decent plug-in headphones, so not sure how much a comparable set would be.

    • Apple is a lot like publishers. It has a business plan and it isn’t going to deviate from it, at least not without a lot of kicking and screaming. It has benefitted from the mindset of some consumers who will gladly pay to have the apple logo on their items. But they are starting to hurt themselves with so many frequent updates to the iPhone, often without actually giving the consumer any real upgrade in the process. As for their footprint in the publishing world, they would help themselves a great deal if you didn’t have to have a Mac or use a third party aggregator to upload your e-books.

      • Sara the Red

        You’d think it would be obvious to these businesses that diversification and flexibility in their business plan(s) was the key to long life, but noooo…

  8. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Ultimately the customers who make the choices and the stockholders chose the guy that didn’t know books. That’s why B&N is going to go away. Bezos knows books and Bezos knows business. Frankly B&N will just be yet another bad example of what happens when people who do not know about the business try to run it. One would think that people would have learned by now.

    • The Other Sean

      To run a business, you either have to know about the business, or at least find (and listen to) underlings who do. If you do neither, you’re guaranteed to fail. OTOH, you may have a golden parachute that means you don’t care too much either way.

      • I’m hoping this guy has the smarts to hire those who know the business. The problem is, those folks are few and far between these days. Lack of competition has given B&N a small pool to find top execs from and there really are times when bean counters aren’t the best people to run a company.

    • Thanks for the reblog and that was my initial response when I first heard who they were appointing as the new CEO.

    • TRX

      I’ve bought half a dozen used books through third-party vendors on Amazon. I’ve never purchased a book from Amazon itself.

      What I *have* purchased from Amazon is auto parts, tools, computer parts, medical supplies, condiments…

  9. Joe in PNG

    So, B&N is going to go farther away from their core business (books), and become “The Sharper Image”?
    Yeah, doomed I tells you.

    • Well, they may want to be “sharper” but I have a feeling it is going to be “dimmer”.

      • Joe in PNG

        As a general rule, if a company needs to shift that radically from their core business, they’re pretty much already hooped.
        “Lifestyle” branded goods can work as a sideline for someone like Harley-Davidson. But who’s going to want a t-shirt from “Rapidly Failing Bookseller”?

  10. I will give the regional B&N manager credit for supporting local authors and local schools and organizations. I occasionally get a book there (mostly non-fic) or one of the magazines just because of that. But a $5 magazine five times a year is not going to keep their lights on. (OK, and a $5 fluffy-coffee ten times a year.)

  11. Bjorn Hasseler

    I see the same store layout practices at Books-a-Million – books being shoved further back while more and more non-book products appear at the front. I dropped my annual membership card because Amazon is cheaper and more convenient.

  12. We didn’t ‘lose Borders.’ B&N actively rode them out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered. They out-competed them out of business.

    Instead of expanding market share, they went after each others’ market share.

    Bezos expanded the market – to people who read on phones and other portable devices, but used to just listen to music. Bezos made it possible for us (I can say us now) to self-publish, and bypass B&N AND agents and publishers who probably delighted in how many inadequate writers they nurtured right out of existence. If you can’t write, at least you can be the one who gets to chose the Chosen Ones.

    I went through that mill – submitting and waiting and agonizing – back at the turn of the century. I much prefer creating my own angst. Over MY standards. With the help of all the lovely writers like you with blogs and advice who have broken trail.

  13. TRX

    > How many times have we heard the screed
    > that Amazon killed the locally owned bookstores?

    The last locally-owned bookstore in my town closed before 1980. There was one a few towns over that made it a bit longer. After that it was just the chain stores, all carrying the same unappetizing selection. They probably all ordered off the same list.

    A decade after Amazon a few of them still hung on, catering to an ever-shrinking group of customers. Still selling the same cookbooks, travel books, cat picture books, and “best sellers” they always had, wanting full retail + shipping + 2 to 3 weeks for anything they had to order.

    It wasn’t that Amazon was more convenient. It was that Amazon had the kind of books people wanted to read. The bookstores had the kind of books someone else thought you should read. Or maybe stuff they got really cheap.

    As I’ve said many times before, Amazon isn’t what killed the book stores. Amazon is what filled the hole after they all committed suicide.

    • It depended on the book store. Independents have more flexibility. The problem is stocking enough of what locals want to read to stay afloat. With department stores selling books – and, in the 1970s, drugstores and convenience stores – you either stock what they are selling, knowing that people will buy them when they are already in the store, or more niche market.I found a copy of The Woodwright’s Shop in an independent; found a reprint of Swanton’s The Indians of the Southeastern United States in the same one. The big draw for me was I could pick up copies of the big three SF/F periodicals of the day. By then distribution started drying up, and you couldn’t get those magazines at the grocer or convenience store anymore. Before the store finally closed, it had gone the boutique route. It obviously didn’t work.

      Ironically, Christian book stores have held on better because they tend to diversify into music, including secular. You also went there for guitars and supplies, the overlap being music in church. Note that while you can get bibles at dollar stores and department stores, you can’t get, say, a work by CS Lewis,or bible commentaries. And while you can get all these at Amazon and B&N, buying a bible without holding it in your hand and looking at the print can be risky. In other words, they survive by serving a niche market.

    • Alan

      There are still a few small locally-owned bookstores around here – but they’re all 100% used-book markets. That’s where you’ll find (sometimes) the people who know and love their stock and can talk intelligently to you about it.