Does Barnes & Noble Need to Think Like an Indie?

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Barnes & Noble former flagship store, closed in 2014. By Beyond My Ken (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses-SA/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Barnes & Noble just fired their CEO, Ron Boire, hired just over a year ago, as sales figures for the chain continue to decline, attributed to store closings, poor NOOK sales, and declines in sales at BN.com. At the same time, Barnes & Noble is experimenting with “concept stores” with larger cafés that serve alcohol.

I wonder if Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking much more like the indie booksellers, who are actually opening stores, seeing at least modest sale increases and are surviving the greatly exaggerated “death of reading.” First of all, I don’t think they are ever going to compete with the uber online bookseller. That despite the fact that BN.com has, in my opinion a much cleaner look and integrates well with its local stores, where you can order an item to be reserved in your local store (if it is in stock) and pick it up in an hour. Prime Now, which involves a Prime subscription and will deliver in two hours to homes in many areas has very limited selections in books eligible for such delivery, although they offer many other items not available through BN.com.

From all I can tell, indie booksellers work hard to draw people into their stores, particularly repeat customers. It seems that there are several key components to this:

  • Quality service from booksellers who love books. These are people who help you find a book, call you when a book you might like is in their store, and recommend books that fit your reading tastes. There are some of us who find the human touch much more appealing than an algorithm. I have to admit, the booksellers I’ve dealt with at our local Barnes & Noble stores have fit this description in many regards, although it seems I rarely deal with the same person twice.
  • Author events. Surveying our local Barnes & Noble store websites, only one of the stores in my area had any author events scheduled. This store had three posted between August 18 and mid-November 2016. The other events at all stores were events for children–a lot of events for children. I will give them credit for encouraging youthful readers, but what about events for teen readers, for young adult readers, for graphic novel readers? What about events for plain old adult readers?
  • Host book clubs and help launch and source community-based groups. According to a Publishers Weekly article, such groups have been an important part of indie stores bottom line. I could not find any evidence of efforts to encourage book clubs on local Barnes & Noble store websites, nor have I seen this in stores.
  • Host other fun reading events. Admittedly some stores have capitalized on parties around the latest Harry Potter release. Silent reading parties have become trendy in some places, a place to go and read quietly with others, perhaps with wine and cheese (which may be part of the idea for stores serving alcohol and having expanded cafés).
  • Use the web and social media not just to sell stuff but to relate to customers. Many indie stores, particularly used and rare stores in out-of-the-way places have a significant percentage of sales online. I think of one store I’ve ordered from on several occasions in an out-of-the-way part of eastern PA whose owner I’ve interacted with regularly via blogs and Facebook because of shared book interests. I’m a customer because of those interactions and even promote (with no personal benefit) his store on this site.
  • Give managers and booksellers a stake beyond just keeping their jobs. For indie sellers, this is their livelihood, lucrative or not. I could not ascertain from online searching whether Barnes & Noble provides any kind of sales or profit-sharing incentives. With that, I would also give a certain amount of creative latitude to these folks to market to their particular community’s needs and interests. There should be rewards for creativity and hard work beyond salaries or hourly wages, if it benefits the bottom line.

I don’t know what to say about Nook. It strikes me as the Betamax of the e-reader world–superior in many respects to Kindle in both hardware and software aspects, but a loser in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is the leveling off and decline of e-sales in general. Unless they can create the marketing cachet enjoyed by Apple products by combining elegance and technology innovations, I personally think they need to cut their losses and support existing e-readers and users of their phone and tablet apps.

I’d like to see Barnes & Noble make it. They occupy a niche distinctive from used bookstores as the only seller of a deep and wide selection of new books physically accessible in many communities. I just hope that they will decide to focus significant attention on the core of their business, and not just on fancier cafés. The indie sellers seem to understand that outstanding customer service and relations are key to their survival. I hope Barnes & Noble has not gotten too big to understand the same.

So Who Will Help Barnes & Noble?

James Patterson captured a great deal of attention in the book store world as he announced his intent to give away $1 million dollars to a variety of independent bookstores. A PW Daily story chronicles the first round of these grants, totalling $267,000, given after he meticulously reviewed grant requests.

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The question is, what knight in shining armor is out there to bail out bookstore giant Barnes & Noble? They just announced a 10% drop in revenues during the third quarter. They say  EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) increased from $59 to $173 million over this period, but many consider EBITDA a clever accounting ploy to dress up a balance sheet. Revenues dropped in retail (including BN.com), college, and e-book and Nook sales. Were it not for draconian cuts in the Nook division (with more reportedly to come), things would have been even worse.

This is troubling news to me. In our market (Columbus, Ohio) they are the only significant retail outlet left, apart from some small indie stores with limited selections (none near us), grocery stores marketing the bestsellers, and a healthy segment of second hand stores. We’ve often been helped by book and media sellers when we have visited their stores. Sometimes that in-person assistance is far easier than searching around online when you have an idea of what you want but don’t have a particular title you are looking for.

For so many, this is just a market and convenience driven thing. Amazon is so easy to order from when you have a good idea of what you are looking for. E-books are incredibly easy to download and nobody beats Amazon’s selection, although I’m told by many that the Nook is actually a better reading device and doesn’t confine people to the proprietary format Amazon uses. Sadly, many thought Sony’s Betamax a better video format as well.

I suspect we are at a cultural tipping point. Patterson is helping indie operators attempt to innovate to stay in business. I actually wonder if some of these will survive longer than B & N, because they will figure out how to market to, attract, and serve a loyal clientele who still enjoy hanging around physical bookstores and value the service of booksellers and will pay for that privilege. I wonder if B & N needs to take a hard look at which stores in their operation are achieving this same kind of customer loyalty and both learn from them and figure out what the demographics are that make this work.

What troubles me is what will Amazon become if they face no serious competition? What I wonder sometimes is if one of the other new media giants like Google or Apple (I’m not convinced Microsoft is nimble enough) might join forces with Barnes and Noble. Apple has actually figured out how to use brick and mortar outlets to sell its products. It scares me at the same time to write this for fear of whether they might preserve physical book stores, but in some very new iteration alien to many of us.

What I wonder above all is that in turning so much of our commerce over to the virtual world, will we lose the physical spaces that add a richness to life and exchange them for our personal caves with our electronic devices that connect us to this brave new world?

You Know You Have Too Many Books When…

We stopped by our favorite used book store the other night. Only bought one book–a biography of Henry Stimson from the History Book Club’s Parkman Prize series. It cost me only $2. Was feeling pretty good about that until I had this niggling feeling that I already owned a copy of this book, yet unread. Turned out, I even knew exactly where to find it. I think I may have too many books!

What are some other signs that you have too many books? Here are a few I can think of–although for my own sense of self-respect, I won’t say how many are true for me!

You have too many books when…

1. You will not be able to read all the books you have in what life remains you–even by generous measures.

2. You’ve run out of shelf space for your books.

3. Book piles are sprouting up on the flat surfaces in your house.

4. You can’t find a book you know you own.

5. You have boxes of books squirreled away in secret places.

6. You’ve considered adding onto your house to make room for your books.

7. Alternatively, you’ve considered asking someone in your house to move out to make room for your books! (I will say I’m not guilty of this one!)

8. Children visiting your home ask if this is a library.

9. You have  more books than the local library!

10. Your Nook or Kindle overfloweth!

The funny thing is, even then, we remain suckers for “that book I’ve always wanted to read”, particularly if we find it for a bargain. And our unread books never trouble us too much. After all there is the reputed counsel of Winston Churchill who encouraged friends not to trouble themselves over unread books but just to “fondle them”.

Can you add to my signs of having too many books? If you are a bibliophile and not in denial (or the spouse of a bibliophile!), you probably can.

Sigh…