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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.

Until later!

Featured Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

49 Comments
  1. I would love to see B&N flourish under the model that the hedge fund is planning.

    And hurray for unlocking the block!

    June 25, 2019
    • Honestly, I would too. I love bookstores…at least those where the staff is knowledgable and the store stocks books of local interest and not try to be the bookstore version of Walmart.

      June 25, 2019
      • The regional B&N is probably a semi-model for what the chain ought to be doing, and could do better. I have no idea how they manage it, unless we are so far out in the sticks that Corporate didn’t really notice or care if the local managers did local-author promos, big school-support things, and so on. Plus having a very large* (relatively speaking) selection of regional books.

        *If I were suspicious, I’d guess that little quirk goes back to when they were going head-to-head with Hastings. Hastings (RIP) always emphasized local-interest books and magazines, and I suspect the manager at B&N pointed that out to Corporate.

        June 25, 2019
        • Indeed – Hastings was always very supportive of local authors. So was Borders, and to a certain extent, the one local indy bookstore. But the local B&N? Dearie me, no.
          Anything that Elliot Advisors does with B&N has got to be an improvement.

          June 25, 2019
      • Even Wal-mart selections vary by location pretty heavily, even in the same town.

        June 25, 2019
  2. I hope it succeeds as well. Of considerable concern to me is – what about my NOOK books? I have so much vested in my NOOK library (although not exclusively) and it has been something that gnaws on the mind periodically.

    June 25, 2019
    • Download them and save them. I don’t think Nook is going to survive. It’s another B&N business that’s been mismanaged into failure. They went from challenging Amazon to irrelevance.

      June 25, 2019
    • Save them off on a hard drive and then archive to compact disk,

      June 25, 2019
    • Uncle Lar #

      Nook uses the epub book format which remains quite common in the e-book world. It’s one of several formats offered by Baen through their webscription service. And the iBooks reader app which comes standard on Apple devices handles epub quite nicely.
      And every e-book I own is downloaded to my hard drive and backed up on optical storage media.

      June 25, 2019
    • Going to reveal my true lack of knowledge here, but how does one do that? Most of mine are archived and not loaded on the device(s) themselves. I understand that “archived” is to mean that they’re stored at BN/Amazon depending on the format. Anyone interested in writing a post for the technologically lame among us (admittedly few in this group, I’m sure)? Or even just a step-by-step “here’s what you do” ?
      This is embarrassing.

      June 25, 2019
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        In this case, download the books from the online B&N library to a separate folder on your main computer and backup that folder elsewhere.

        The First Big Problem IMO is that too many of the Nook Books have DRM “protection”.

        The Second Big Problem is that the DRM Removal program that I used depended on a key that you could get from the Nook Study (or Nook For The PC) but B&N doesn’t support those programs anymore. While there is a way to download Nook Books to your PC (and find them), nobody knows (the last I heard) how to find that key from the Windows 10 Nook App.

        Note, if you found that key from the Nook Study, it works for Nook Books downloaded via the Window 10 Nook App.

        Personally, I’ve been purchasing my eBooks from Amazon & KoboBooks. It is easy to remove the DRM from Kindle ebooks and epubs from KoboBooks.

        June 25, 2019
        • Not that we are telling you to break DRM. Nope, not telling you that because it is against the law in some jurisdictions around the world. But, if you aren’t in one of those jurisdictions, there are sites online but we aren’t telling you to go there. Not at all. . . wink.

          June 25, 2019
          • Annnnnnd…. DRM?

            June 25, 2019
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management

              June 25, 2019
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              DRM = Digital Rights Management

              June 25, 2019
            • Maeve, DRM = Digital Rights Management. An evil bit of code that tries to lock the ebook to a format and/or prevent you from sharing it. Usually, it simply locks the format and is encoded with your identifiers so the publisher/seller can determine if you are acting as an e-book pirate. Some publishers, like Baen, don’t apply it. Most indie authors don’t apply it either. But many trad publishers just love them some DRM.

              June 25, 2019
              • Question…suppose someone should (however accidentally) remove the DRM (by some accidental process), would this mean that the publication could be read on any type of device? Or rather, how would one read it?

                June 25, 2019
                • It means you could then import the file into Calibre, if you haven’t already, and convert it to another file type and allow you to read it on another device.

                  June 25, 2019
                  • Noope – hadn’t heard of it. Guess I have (good) homework tonight. Thanks to all of you for the info.

                    June 25, 2019
                    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

                      Good Luck!!

                      June 25, 2019
                    • But remember, this is all purely theoretical, and none of us would ever encourage anyone to break DRM, even if it is to make a legal back-up copy of a purchased file, should such things be permitted by the seller.

                      June 25, 2019
                    • Of Course!

                      June 25, 2019
                • Uncle Lar #

                  Maeve,
                  E-books are simply digital files in one of several formats that a device or an app on a computer can read on the screen.
                  Kindle books are either the proprietary azw format or the public mobi version. They can be read with a Kindle reader or with the Kindle app for Mac or PC.
                  Nook uses the epub format.
                  When you read an e-book your device or app loads the file locally on your device of choice. The server you link to can and in rare cases has been known to delete books from your device without your permission in cases where the rights to that book have been revoked.
                  Personally, I only purchase e-books directly from Baen or Amazon and always select the option to download the file itself to my computer. I can then read the book on the computer with the appropriate app or crossload the file to my Kindle to read there.
                  the step by step mechanics of the process depend on where you get the file from and what you’re using to read it, and of course whether said file has DRM that may restrict your ability to manipulate that file in a number of ways.

                  June 26, 2019
                  • Thank you! I’m going to start archiving on to my tablet this weekend. This info will help tremendously 😀

                    June 26, 2019
          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

            Yep! 😉

            June 25, 2019
  3. They’ve already said that they’re going to close over 500 B&N stores. It sounds like they’re going to turn the remaining ones into coffee shops more than bookstores.
    What this means is that in a lot of states (like California) is that there will no longer be books stores, or at least, a lot less than there are now.

    The $15/hr minimum wage has put over 90 percent of the used bookstores out of business. ‘Books a Million’ at this point is the only bookstore chain that is left in existence after B&N. Will new smaller chains start up? Probably, but you won’t see them in any state with that $15/hr wage because brick and mortar book stores are not huge profit centers.

    All those laws which were aimed at fast food vendors (can’t control the population if they can still eat on the cheap) also targeted bookstores. Whether or not that was intentional, well you be the judge.

    But by this time next year, good luck finding a B&N store. There will be less than a hundred left.

    June 25, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Thing is, shutting down a lot of stores also deals with some of the problems that would make B&N’s market different from and more challenging than Waterstones’ in the UK.

      US is a large country. US has something like five times the population of the UK. A more regional firm, without business in insane 15/hr Blue States, might be more to the scale of what Elliot Advisors is equipped to handle. Downside is that if you aren’t selling in LA, Chicago, NYC and the Bay Area, there goes a hefty portion of the tradpub market.

      I’d say build in a reasonable state, with middle of nowhere property rates, if I thought you could make a bookstore viable with a long distance commute.

      June 25, 2019
    • As Bob says below, closing those stores will deal with a number of issues already facing B&N. It over-expanded and went into real estate footprints that it can no longer afford. The first thing it has to do is close stores that are no longer profitable.

      As for what Cali and a few other states have done regarding minimum wage, this is also why B&N did the mass firings of full-time employees a few years ago. With the new requirements under Obamacare, the company decided it was easier and cheaper to move to part-time employees wherever possible. They are now learning the dangers of doing that because stores are no longer being run as efficiently. Does this mean some states will see more stores closing than others? Probably. But that is a problem of the state government, not of corporate management.

      Whether the UK operating philosophy will work or not waits to be seen. But it isn’t all that different from how Borders and B&N operated in their early days, days when they were successful and when they didn’t have a store in every mall or on every corner. It is, imo, the only way I can see them having any sort of survival short or long-term.

      June 25, 2019
  4. Bookstores becoming coffee shops with comfortable chairs, small tables that groups can gather around, good wifi, and a pleasant atmosphere.

    June 25, 2019
    • Uncle Lar #

      So what you’re saying is that B&N is trying to reinvent itself by moving into a market that is already fairly well saturated? Hey, there are Starbucks everywhere and they seem to be doing well, why not just imitate them?

      June 25, 2019
      • The way I see it, they are looking at turning the clock back on some things and returning to stores where a customer felt comfortable coming in and browsing for hours on end. Where there were chairs you could sit and just read. But, as noted elsewhere, time will tell about what really happens.

        June 25, 2019
      • Have you been in a Starbucks lately? They’re -horrible- places to sit and read in. Horrible. Hard seats, tiny tables, and obnoxiously noisy. Just loud as hell.

        Cities generally are really uncomfortable these days. Lately any time I’ve had a couple hours to kill waiting for someone, I’ve usually spent it sitting in my truck.

        If B&N cut the size of their locations down and started print-on-demand service, they might make a killing just by being the comfy place to spend a couple of hours. Or, they might be swarmed by the homeless. That’s what happened to Ikea.

        June 25, 2019
  5. Uncle Lar #

    For the British solution to work here a certain amount of autonomy would have to be relinquished by corporate and given to individual store managers. This would be anathema to every middle management wonk with a shiny MBA degree from our finest institutions of socialist brainwashing. Employees and customers as well are just interchangeable parts that can be used up, worn out, and discarded for an identical replacement.
    Regional differences and individual preferences are a foreign and highly distasteful concept for the typical modern business manager.

    June 25, 2019
    • Luke #

      I knew a guy who had been the branch manager of a Waldenbooks in Wyoming. It was a top store, until corporate took control of ordering inventory.
      And corporate got upset that the store wasn’t selling at nearly the same rate.
      I’m not sure if he quit in disgust, or was fired for “underperforming”. Either way, he was driving a cement truck when I knew him, and was still bitter as hell towards the company.

      June 25, 2019
      • And yes, that’s the other difference. Great Britain’s booksellers never went over heels for push and computer numbers.

        June 26, 2019
    • Also, let’s be honest. NO OTHER COUNTRY IS BEING HIT BY EBOOKS AND INDIE AS WE ARE. Not even England. Amanda, the solution England has might work here… in 1990. Now? sorry. Apples and kumquats.

      June 26, 2019
      • Sarah, I agree. I never said it would work. I did say it was their best hope to save the bookseller in the short term. But, let’s be honest, it is more than just the corporate culture that’s involved here. It is publishers as well. They bought into the big box bookseller idea and backed it to the near destruction of the indie bookstores. If B&N has been slow to adapt to the new tech and consumer demands, publishers have been as slow, if not slower. They aren’t going to accept smaller orders and fewer stores and will do all they can to convince the corporate suits to leave things much the same.

        That said, however, we are seeing a resurgence in many areas of the country of the indie owned bookstores. They aren’t many, not in the grand scheme of things, but they are returning. Why? Because they know they need to cater to the local audience. People will pay a little more for a good customer experience. The challenge for us, as Indies, is to figure out how to not only get our physical books on those shelves but how to get our e-books there as well.

        That is the missing part of the market, one I wish someone knew how to tap at a reasonable fee.

        June 26, 2019
  6. Wolfie #

    Helloooo…have I not been saying these self same things for the last 2 DECADES? As far as the bookstores go? What Simmonds proposes is what he HAD in walden and b Dalton until B, B&N came along. The problem with B&N is, was and always WILL be unless they change formats is the sheer size of the store. til they go back to the smaller more intimate format…where the staff are as much avid readers as their customer base. If they don’t do that and as you point out Amanda….butcher upper corporate like hogs squealing in a slaughterhouse? Otherwise Elliot’s hoped turn around will end in failure.

    June 25, 2019
    • Wolfie, you and me both. And I agree about having to ditch much–if not all–of the upper corporate management. From what I’ve gathered, they pretty much did that with the UK stores. Hopefully, they will do the same here. Hell, if they stop the ever revolving door of top execs, that will help.

      June 25, 2019
  7. The “joke” that has “location, location, location” as the punch line applies – and yet so many place seem to figure locations are interchangeable. They ain’t.

    June 25, 2019
    • Part of the problem is that is entirely possible that the corporate boys, deep down, think that all readers are alike. Mostly because, I suspect, very few of them actually read for fun.

      Book selling is one of the few professions where being a consumer of one’s product should be encouraged.

      June 25, 2019
      • Mary #

        It’s all business, and therefore MUST all be the same.

        June 25, 2019
  8. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Interesting.

    I attempted to post a Wiki link for Digital Rights Management but the post hasn’t posted.

    Workpress Must Die! 😀

    June 25, 2019
  9. “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.”

    I’ve been one of the people complaining of going into B&N and coming out empty handed. Same story in Canada, walk in to Chapters, walk out half an hour later with nothing. Maybe a car magazine. A lot of that is probably stupid marketing and push model, but looking at the awards season this year, a lot of is is just crappy books being printed.

    I would venture that aside from the obvious problems with staffing and real estate that B&N has, another huge problem for them is that they’re trying to sell product that people don’t want to read. TradPub’s output has swung so much harder Left in the last 10 years we’ve all been bitching about it. That’s fine for New York and San Francisco, but how about Sioux Falls South Dakota? They don’t have the product that Sioux Falls wants to buy.

    B&N is going to have to bypass TradPub and go direct to the content creators (that would be us) if they’re going to have any hope of staying alive as a national chain.

    Meaning, there’s an opportunity there. Maybe y’all might want to consider marketing “Sad Puppy Adjacent” or “Sad Puppy Approved” marques so retailers can easily find reliably salable product for red-state bookstores. If that actually got traction you guys could make a shit-locker full of money.

    June 25, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Love the idea. Started trying to plan it out. Then realized I wasn’t quite feverish enough to take the risk of convincing Larry to skin and crucify me alive by my thumbs.

      The backlash over Sad Puppies was not enough to make him quit, but was enough for him to want to control the branding, and not have others choosing to rile up the puppy kickers.

      June 25, 2019
      • Yes, absolutely. Which is why I mentioned it here, where the brand-owners live.

        Not my place to take that ball and run with it, but I can offer the idea for free and maybe somebody else can make it go.

        However, Bob, there’s nothing stopping you from coming up with your very own RegisteredFoolBrand ™ stamp of approval.

        What does a haystack of a million books need more than anything else? Sorting.

        June 25, 2019
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          Phantom,

          Problem with my own brand idea is that I have an idea I already like, that I’ve liked for a long time, that I originally created when Sad Puppies was ongoing and I thought an obviously derivative knock off for trolling would be acceptable.

          On the other hand, I’ve not used it yet, so I might possibly keep the symbol as long as I don’t label it with the pun that would infringe on the branding of Sad Puppies. Still, I don’t want to make trouble for Larry or any of the other Sad Puppies folks. They’ve paid some heavy prices, and I’ve no right to run up a bill on their accounts.

          Alma,
          Thanks for the heads up.

          All,
          Reminder that a lot of MGC associated and adjacent folks have published qualifying works this year. Take a moment to think about what you’ve read. Maybe the folks you would nominate could really use the exposure.

          June 26, 2019
    • Oh, yeah. Which reminds me… Dragon Award season is coming! Nominations are open – http://application.dragoncon.org/dc_fan_awards_nominations.php

      June 26, 2019

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