On booksellers and evil muses
To say the last few weeks have been interesting is putting it mildly. We’ve seen Barnes & Noble, after years of speculation, finally selling. The publishing world was rocked by the news and it will be years before we see how the sale finally shakes out. Indies and traditionally published authors alike are being impacted by the sale–we simply don’t know how. Will B&N still exist a year or five years from now? Will it still be a platform open to indie authors and, if so, will we be able to submit directly to the bookseller or be forced to go through a third-party platform like Smashwords or Draft2Digital? Time will tell but, until we know more about the reorganization, caution is called for.
That said, B&N isn’t without hope. Keep that in mind as well.
Before you start calling for the men with the fancy white jackets with the really long sleeves, I haven’t changed my mind about the bookseller. Not yet, at any rate. But Elliot Advisors isn’t a stranger to bookstores. It is the same hedge fund that bought Waterstone’s in the UK. From everything I’ve seen, it’s taken the British version of B&N–a once proud and profitable bookstore chain that was failing miserably–and turned it back into a profit-making enterprise.
And isn’t that what we all would prefer for B&N?
I’m not going to go into a great deal of depth about the sale. It’s been covered elsewhere, but I do want to point you to an interesting post written by JC Simonds earlier this month. He has insights into the sale, and into what’s been wrong with B&N not only as a writer but as an employee. The key, in my opinion, is this:
The hallmark of his turnaround method? Something American indie booksellers figured out 10 years ago: your bookstore’s community is what’s important. Focus on what your area wants in a bookstore and do that. Specialty scones and math books in one town? Do that. Harry Potter nights and kids books in another? Do that. Which makes buckets of sense.
So, the model is a collection of independent bookstores run overall as a chain.
How often have any–all–of us here at MGC said much the same thing? The problem with B&N, especially over the last 10 or more years has been it focused too much on expansion and streamlining of processes and less on what its customers wanted. It worried about the bottom line but went about improving profits by cutting costs and not in pushing merchandise that would move in a certain market.
It is telling to read Simonds talk about how few full-time employees the company has in each store, a response to Obamacare requirements. I wrote about the wholesale firing of employees when it happened and warned it was yet another nail in the coffin of the chain.
If the hedge fund can turn the chain around, more power to it. But it will be an uphill battle, one that has to start at the top. The corporate culture built by Riggio and the revolving door of COO’s and CEO’s has to change. It will be a tall order and, to be honest, not one I’m sure can be solved.
But what happens if the hedge fund manages to do just that? Will it maintain ownership of the company or sell it? My money is on making it profitable once again and then selling it. At least that’s the aim in my opinion. The danger is it could go the way of ToysRUs and other companies where hudge funds failed to turn a company around and bankruptcy followed.
Traditional publishers are scared and should be. They have failed to adapt to the changing marketplace. They continue to rely on the Ever shrinking number of bookstore chains as their major outlets instead of taking advantage of the virtual marketplace. When they started realizing how badly they’d missed the boat, instead of forging a healthy relationship with Amazon, they decided to break the law and try price fixing with Amazon’s competitors. We all saw how well that worked.
They have failed to set up viable virtual marketplaces of their own. They continue to treat the publishing industry as if this was still the 1990s. And they wonder why more and more readers are turning to indie authors to find books they want to read.
As authors, those who publish traditionally should be growing more skeptical as well. If Simonds is right about inventory tracking, the numbers authors are being told they sold are even more suspect that we thought. Let’s face it, Bookscan is nothing more than handwavium disguised as inventory count. It estimates what has been sold. But if the tech being used by the stores is inferior and you are using an inferior inventory control system, then the ones being screwed are authors.
And publishers know it but do nothing about it.
Nor will they as long as they are getting paid and authors don’t start rocking the boat.
Here’s the thing, it isn’t going to be the authors who will be the big losers if B&N goes under. It will be the publishers. We know we have alternative routes to the readers. We have digital platforms available for us. But publishers are still placing emphasis on pushing out those hard copy books, feeling that is where their money is. If the nation’s largest bookseller goes under, we’d better be ready to see the number of publishers diminish greatly.
So, no, I don’t want to see the chain fail. I just don’t hold out much hope for it unless the new ownership imposes major changes at the corporate level.
Now, as for my evil muse. . .she is very, very evil.
I know, that’s not news. But she’s being more evil than usual. I’ve been focusing these last few weeks on getting rough drafts of Betrayal from Ashes and the next Eerie Side of the Tracks books. Add to that, getting print versions of all my books updated and ready to go and looking at changing the covers on some of them. That should be enough to keep a writer busy and out of trouble, right?
Apparently Myrtle the Evil Muse thought not. She woke me the other night when it was still much too early to be up with a plot that had to be written NOW! I tried to go back to sleep but nope, that wasn’t going to happen. So I got up and a number of hours later, I had over 5k words written.
And then I realized they seemed familiar somehow. I grabbed coffee and read back over what I’d been slamming out. It was familiar. It was a rewrite–a major rewrite–of something I’d started and abandoned five or more years ago. The names had changed and much of the background. But the opening section was very much the same. Better written–I hope–but whatever had blocked the story before had broken free.
With that freedom came the demand to write the story NOW! Not after the other two books are finished and certainly not after the next fantasy book comes out. Now!
Because the story was so loud, I spent the last couple of days letting Myrtle have her way. The result is close to 20k words as well as probably close to that much in background notes. Now I’m going to try to put it away and get back to the books currently on the schedule. Fingers crossed she lets me do so. If not, next week’s post may be a string of gibberish caused by a mental break with reality due to the evil muse.
Wish me luck because I have a feeling this is not going to be an easy battle to win. Myrtle doesn’t play fair.