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.