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.