It’s been a year of speculation about Barnes and Noble and their future, which quite honestly looked pretty bleak. Essentially the old management and ownership weren’t ready to step into the modern publishing age and learn to compete with Amazon.
And the way to do that, it turns out, comes from Amazon and their physical bookstores and even Waterstones, acquired in 2018 by Elliot Advisors. Elliot Advisors is run by a former bookseller (owner of Daunt Books) James Daunt, who will act as the B &N CEO.
What is that pattern? How will they survive and what does that mean to the business of writing?
The Publishing Precipice
Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of B & N or of traditional publishing in the modern age. It’s not the path to publication for me, but at the same time, I see that they do have a place in the publishing industry.
The problem is, there has been a balance in the publishing world for a while now. Originally, the Big 5 lost sight of their real customer, the reader. Instead, they saw their customer as the book store. So instead of marketing to readers, their attention went to book buyers, who they counted on to sell books for them and for the author.
Because they were so tied to those large publishers, B & N was reluctant to work with smaller presses and indie authors. The more authors chose those routes to publication and the more resistant B & N was to them, the more it seemed that they were missing some kind of balance.
Readers could get books for cheaper prices on Amazon, and find their favorite Indie authors, the ones the giant would not touch. But some authors still needed the traditional publishing route. And to keep bookstores in business, so did other mid-list authors. It just seemed as other giants fell, B & N was next.
Without them, big publishing houses would struggle to support their massive overhead, often covered by large B & N pre-orders. It was a dangerous house of cards, and Barnes and Noble was a huge part of it. “The loss of Barnes and Noble would have been catastrophic for the industry,” said Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster.
A purchase was really the best outcome for the flailing retailer and for the publishing industry overall.
The Indie Experience
As the giants fell, the Indie bookstore and Indie authors started to rise from the ashes. Local, small bookstores bought into something Barnes and Noble tried to copy and failed. They provided the shopper with tastes tailored to the market they were in–and an experience.
Going to a bookstore became about attending events, author signings and talks, classes, book clubs, and more. The local bookstore, following the lead of libraries in the digital age, has become a community meeting place. Authors and readers alike love them. We have moved back to booksellers who know their inventory, the community, and can make real, relevant recommendations.
Amazon saw this, and armed with tons of regional data, started to open their own physical bookstores, each tailored to the areas they were in. They were able to offer books they knew would sell based on what was selling online in their area.
They were also able to demo devices like the Kindle models and even tablets, giving their customers a hands-on experience similar to that provided by Apple.
It was brilliant. The challenging thing about it? Barnes and Noble had similar data and failed to use it. Amazon is also, arguably for sure, more friendly to the indie author, at least ones who are doing well. They even have their own publishing houses now and pick up authors from their Kindle publications on a regular basis.
Waterstones is perhaps the B & N of the UK–a large chain, they were largely tied to traditional publishers and an old school model that like their American cousins, was killing them.
And what have they done to thrive and then survive? Each Waterstones bookseller is allowed to tailor their store to suit their community and provide an experience> That is what sets each bookstore apart from making purchases online.
It’s the same type of model that Indie book stores and Amazon physical stores follow. You have data on what people in your area like, what they do, and how they operate. Quite simply, you give them the experience they are looking for, and they come back. Real readers are regular customer, like patrons at a restaurant.
So what’s next for Barnes and Noble? Well, first, an end to the warehouse-like stores with toys, records, and other non-related to books items. They will probably get smaller and more locally focused.
What does this mean to local authors? It means another place to market books–another local outlet for your work provided it is well done.
It also means, in part at least, a reprieve for the traditional publishing industry. Do they still need to evolve to survive? Yes. Relying on a single nationwide, large distribution system for survival is foolish at best. But the purchase, for now, gives them a little time to determine what their next move should be.
The purchase of Barnes and Noble is interesting even to Indie authors and booksellers. But this is only the first step, and the changes in the large, traditional publishing scene have really just begun.
Follow along here at our blog for more developments and predictions, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions about Writing as a Business. we’d love to hear from you, or just leave a comment below.