Someone actually gets it. . . maybe

It should come as no surprise to any of us that one of the biggest problems facing traditional publishing is the declining number of bookstores, especially chain stores. Part of the reason is because publishers still cling to the old ways like a drowning sailor will cling to a life preserver. Unlike the sailor, however, publishers could change their retail chain with a little innovation and a desire to adapt to the changing market. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, we’ve seen little willingness from major publishers to do anything out of the norm. We’ve also seen the same from chain booksellers and that is one of the reasons why so many of those chains no longer exist. Barnes & Noble, facing extinction sooner rather than later, may finally be getting a clue thanks to new head, James Daunt.

Or is it?

According to Duant, B&N must ” rip out what’s boring—both in stores and online—and find its character if it’s to succeed.”

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? After all, one of the things that’s been hurting B&N is the loss of its soul. It went from being a bookstore to one that sold books and music. Then books and music and videos. Then all that and games and toys. Then gifts. Well, you get the picture. Somewhere along the way, the chain lost its soul and its character and books because a second–or third–thought there.

Daunt lists three elements of successful bookselling, and personality comes first. Second is also critically important, he said, the presence of an aggressively curated inventory, responsive to each store’s consumer base. And third is engaged and capable staffers, the employees many people in publishing like to believe are in each bookshop, enthusiastic and adept at helping a customer find what she or he is looking for.

Again, sounds good. It also sounds very much like what the stores used to do. I remember a time when I looked forward to going to the local B&N and wandering the aisles, looking for a new book. I knew the store would be well stocked. More than that, I knew it would be stocked not only with books from the best sellers lists but books of local and regional interest.

But there was more. I could count on the staff, even the part-timers, knowing the stock and being able to make well-informed recommendations. Sure, some were more versed in science fiction than they were in mysteries, etc. But there was also someone who could recommend a new book or new author and I could almost always trust their suggestions.

Somewhere along the line, all that was forgotten by corporate in order to lower the bottom line and that is where the company started losing customers to the few locally owned bookstores and online sites. After all, if I could go to Target and Walmart and get the same books I found at B&N, and for a lower price, why make the trek to the bookstore? If I could order a book from the comfort of my own home and have it delivered for free, why drive to the store?

But the question becomes, does Daunt really understand and have a plan or is this all just talking points that sound really good but will never be implemented?

“Unfortunately, Barnes & Noble degraded the career of a bookseller,” as he put it, and he sees part of his mission to be re-establishing the importance of booksellers in the American stores and giving them the authority of local curation, something he’s known for doing at Waterstones.

I will agree with Daunt, at least to a degree, that B&N degraded the career of a bookseller. But B&N wasn’t the lone player in doing so. The now defunct Borders played a role. So did publishers who enabled B&N and the other players as they went down this road. This local curation Daunt talks about is something B&N managers once had, something that was taken away from them by the corporate bean counters. The question becomes not only can Daunt reintroduce it–and do so successfully–but find booksellers and managers to fill this new (shall we say return to the old?) way of thinking?

At least he is honest when he says it will take time to turn the corporate culture around and to implement the changes. But my question is if B&N can survive long enough for those changes to take hold and for it to win back the loyalty of the book buying public. I have my doubts. It will be interesting to see how the company fares during this holiday season and what happens after the first of the year. Are we going to see more store closings? How will Daunt keep public interest in the stores–hell, how will he build any sort of interest in them– as his changes take place?

But, as the article notes, Daunt is facing more than just regaining the public’s confidence in B&N. A law suit was filed last week alleging the company fired a worker because of her age. The plaintiff is attempting to get her suit classified as a class action. If she manages to do so, the company will be facing even more scrutiny and it will bring into question Daunt’s plan to “youthify” the stores.

And that brings us to something else. How many young adults are going to bookstores these days? Most of those I know, young people like my son, read most of their books on their electronic devices. Or they listen to their books while in their cars or on trains commuting to work. In other words, they make their purchases online and don’t step into a bookstore. How is Daunt going to bring them in? I don’t know about you, but I sincerely doubt having younger workers will do the trick.

Daunt has a lot of good ideas–and notice how many of them go back to what made stores like Borders and B&N great when they first burst onto the scene?–but is it too little, too late? More importantly, is it just giving lip-service to what he thinks consumers want? Only time will tell but, I for one, am not going to hold my breath. Turning B&N around is going to be a much greater challenge than doing so to Waterstone’s. Here’s hoping he can do so, but I have my doubts.

If B&N goes down the tubes, or if it starts shuttering more stores, publishers are up the proverbial creek. They still operate under the old system of bookstores first, everything else far down the line. They have yet to understand the importance of adapting to changing tech and changing reading habits. Instead, like much of the mainstream media, traditional publishers feel it their role to “educate” us and shape our opinions. If they lose the bookstores, they don’t have a backup plan in place. More important, in so many ways, what sort of concessions will publishers give B&N over the next few years to “help” it in this transitory period and how much money will that cost the industry?

Any way you look at it, the traditional publishing industry is going to be up the proverbial creek if anything happens to B&N. Here’s hoping Daunt manages to pull off a miracle. I just don’t hold out much hope. I do hope I’m wrong, but I won’t hold my breath.


Featured image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

24 thoughts on “Someone actually gets it. . . maybe

    1. Sure, you just have to wade through the aisles full of games and toys and go past the cafe to get to the pitiful selection of books that remain.

  1. A brick-and-mortar store that sells an undifferentiated commodity will always face a disadvantage against an online retailer who sells the same item at the same or lower price. The eBook makes matters worse, as Internet delivery can be immediate. The only thing a physical bookstore can do is to offer something that raises the shopper’s experience above that of an Internet purchase. What is that something? I don’t know. B&N tried integrating a limited restaurant and incorporating seating areas for readers. It doesn’t seem to have been enough. “Event nights” haven’t gone over terribly well, either. If the brick-and-mortar bookstore is to survive, someone will real insight must come up with something more — and soon.

    1. If they had good book sellers, discovering new books and authors.

      The thing I love about the good used books stores with eccentric collections is wandering about, and just seeing what’s there. I’ve bought a number of books I love, that I would never have discovered otherwise, that way.

      Amazon’s suggestions aren’t even in the same ball park.

  2. Alan, of the Authors’ Marketing Guild (formerly the Texas Author Association) had a meet a year or so ago with the then-head of B&N. Alan’s thing is getting marketing opportunities, building awareness, and making it easier for indy authors and small regional publishers to sell their books through the bigger retailers. He had great hopes for the meet … but alas, came away from the meeting with the sad realization that B&N just wanted to keep on keeping on like they always had.

  3. The other problem for the publishers is their love affair with DRM. The result is that if the store involved quits, you lose your library. All they’re really doing is encouraging piracy since the SOBs can’t be trusted and the pirated copies can be kept forever.

    1. This is where I wish Jerry Pournelle’s estate would put out his “Adventures In Microland” on Kindle. We went through this with software, especially games, until enough people, including myself, said they were only buying games after we cracked them and made sure they would install and run. Which is when game companies went to playable demos so we could do that. Jerry was actually somewhat sympathetic, because people were getting ripped off by bugfest game companies.

  4. > someone who could recommend

    Up until the mid-1990s my main problem was thinning the “do want” stack out to “have enough money to pay for it all.” After that… no, I don’t want some SJW screed or Yet Another Elf Quest or a reprint of something I already have…

    In 2019, there may be a handful of authors or books I might buy new, but that would presuppose that A) there was a physical bookstore (there was a B&N 35 miles from here, if it’s still open, and a used book store at about 20 miles; the dozen-odd ones that were closer are all gone now) and B) that they would actually have any of those books on the shelves, something which I consider so unlikely I wouldn’t even bother pulling in as I was driving by.

    1. There was a time when I’d drive 35 miles to “just browse” a large book store (even if I knew that I couldn’t get anything).

      Now, I wouldn’t “walk across the street” to visit B&N. 😦

      1. Oh, absolutely this. Me too. I’d make a special trip just to hang out at the bookstore, and another separate trip to the comic book store.

        The comic trip ended around 1992, the bookstore trip around 2011, 2012-ish.

        I did make a trip to Chapters here a couple days ago, where I did purchase several lovely books for the Young Relatives. Zero of them were SFF, sadly.

  5. The regional B&N has managed to hang onto having a goodly number of books (as opposed to stuff, although there’s more than enough of that), especially books of regional interest and genre books. I suspect 1) being out in the sticks and 2) being regional rather than really local has made the difference.

    That said, I went in earlier this year after the Great Staff Firing and the black clouds floating over everyone’s heads sort of obscured the view of the shelves. I hope Daunt is able to bring the chain back, because there are places where it still works.

  6. “Youth” aren’t the main market for books. Younger employees seldom know as much, and seldom have much personal investment in the company. Hence given a choice, I’ll seek out the older employee, and come to think of it, I cannot remember having ever seen a successful bookstore operated by the younger set.

    We have a large B&N storefront here on the main mall drag, but I never see more than a couple cars in the parking lot, and for all I know it’s just the storefront with no bookstore inside. Nope, haven’t been arsed to stop in. Stopped going to bookstores when they stopped being bookstores.

    Conversely, when I still traveled regularly… I’d seek out every usedbook store along the way. Amazing how many podunk towns had good usedbook stores.

    1. And what odd and interesting volumes could be found therein. I hit a small used bookstore in Arizona once and found several collected volumes from the New Zealand “Footrot Flats” comic strip. They left with me.

        1. For a couple of years when I worked for a large multi-national company, I had a deal with a co-worker in Australia. I’d buy O’Reilly computer books for him (at half the Aussie price) and he’d buy an equivalent amount of Footrot Flats for me. Then we’d ship them using the inter-office mail system, avoiding (ok, evading) postage and customs charges. I’ve still got them – close to 30 books worth.

  7. A good lil indecent bookstore is a treasure. Nawlins used to have one on Dauphine, (one block north, parallel to Bourbon) in The Quarter. Door so narrow you might need to enter sideways, cluttered ceiling to floor, books in boxes on the floor for lack of shelf space, run by a wizened old man who could accurately place any volume in the store. Been a long time since I moved from there. (2006) and I dunno if it’s still there. One book I ‘m writing is in Nawlins. I oughta find a reason to write it in.

    Also a big bookstore in Coffeeville, Kansas, extreme SE corner of the state, specializes in old, rare, first editions, collectibles, and the like. Kinda like the FQ store, only 100x larger. My last trip there I bought so many I had to have them shipped home, they wouldn’t fit in the SUV. Need to see if that one lives as well.

    1. That Nawlins store sounds like one that used to be in San Antonio, TX in the 1970s. Brock’s, I think it was called, somewhere downtown. Aisles so narrow that you had to go sideways, stacks of books on the floor because the shelves were packed full, and two or three stories (counting the basement). I loved it.

  8. We go into the mall Barnes and Nobel quite often, have for so many years we may never stop. But where it used to be get a coffee and look at books it is now just to get the coffee and walk through into the rest of the mall. Good coffee and good parking make for a lot of potential customer flow but we see few stopping to shop. There are two closer B&N stores but they have poor parking and multiple floors making shopping there aggravating as well as nothing else close to draw us into the area.

    Their book selection in areas that interest me is poor and the spouse kept finding less and less until she gave up too. Add in the staff that barely know where the various categories are shelved, and nothing about what is there, and then shopping becomes frustrating and time consuming. With little B&N in-store help Amazon’s blurbs, Look-Inside and reviews really trump the B&N experience. Twenty miles to the mall or 10 to the closest, less driving too.

    We looked at the Nook a few years back and decided to pass on it, DRM issues, selection and not as nice as the free Amazon Kindle app. We have now migrated almost entirely to electronic books for new purchases and have downsized our print library from several thousand books to under a hundred. A print purchase is rare these days.

    I don’t see anything B&N could do at this point to recover our business outside of a few non-book trinkets or games for Christmas gifts.

    1. Even before B&N made it almost impossible to down-load Nook books, I stopped shopping the Online B&N.

      They ruined their site for browsers like me.

      My ebook purchases are from 1), 2) KoboBooks (not good for browsing but good for downloading) and only then the Nook Store. 😦

  9. My kids scream for book stores– most of the time, we hit Goodwill.

    They get boxes of books, most of them are series they already know and love via handmedowns, and I don’t need a second mortgage for it.

  10. “I don’t know about you, but I sincerely doubt having younger workers will do the trick.”
    Hire the pretty high school girls. The boys will come.
    The girls would rather not run a fryer at McDonald’s.
    The boys will happily purchase things to try to impress the girls doing the selling.
    And maybe somewhere along the line, someone actually reads something and discovers a different sort of love.

  11. I was a Walden’s fan and when they merged with Border’s and went only big store was the start of their ending!

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