Barnes & Noble on the Brink

You know you’ve had a rough time when flatlining is a sign of good health. That’s the news from B&N as same-store sales decreased a mere 0.4% when investors were expecting a 2% decline. Shares rose on the news. The loss of only $30 million this quarter was mostly made possible by slashing the investment in Nook, which B&N plans to divest itself of by next year. The latest Nook tablet is a modified Samsung device, in fact, as B&N has veered from heavily investing in ebooks, swearing them off, heavily investing again, and most recently . . . swearing them off.

I worked in a B&N while in college, and have spent many an hour in their stores as a customer. I’ve also watched them closely as a publisher, hoping they would help grow reading and the adoption of ebooks. In my view, they haven’t done much right in over a decade. Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that B&N used to be the bad boy who knocked the indie bookstores out of business (or the fact that indie bookstores have been on an amazing comeback over the past six or seven years). What could B&N do better? How can they turn this around without becoming a gift shop that has a few racks of books in yonder corner?

The first thing I’d do is bring back the comfy armchairs. Remember those? A big part of my job at B&N was gathering the piles of books left around the armchairs and reshelving them (this task fell just ahead of collecting the subscription insert confetti around the periodicals).

Go to a B&N now and try to find an armchair. They have been removed. Perhaps the thinking was that people were reading and not buying, but that’s never how I used those chairs as a shopper. Sure, I left a stack of books behind (much kinder than reshelving them improperly), but I also purchased a stack of books. As an employee, I watched customer after customer do the same thing. But management saw the abandoned piles without realizing many books on the receipts came from the originally larger piles, and so the chairs were removed. The stores became less of a destination. There was less pair-bonding between shopper and store. Not as much cuddling or foreplay. Might as well sit at home, naked in front of the computer, and go for the dirtier, quicker, and less satisfying solo act of shopping online.

B&N has a long history of making decisions like these that go against the needs and wants of their customers. Shelving books according to paid advertisement is the biggest sin. We used to receive strict schematics called planograms (familiar to many sectors of retail), that instructed us where to place each title on a display. Compare this to the indie bookstore I worked in, where we were able to shelve according to regional tastes, employee recommendations, and actual sales rates. B&N applies the same sort of silliness to their Nook bestseller list, where the books readers want are often forced down to lower rankings while paid co-op space is provided to publishers in order to promote books nobody cares about.

When the customer of retail becomes the publisher, rather than the reader, you have a problem.

Loyalty cards are another issue. These cost a yearly subscription, and being asked if you have one right at the moment of transactional copulation is a buzz-kill. Dreading the pressure of signing up is a great way to block the dopamine release that might get me to come back. It would be like my wife, in a moment of tenderness, asking me if I remembered to take out the trash. No? Well, would you like to? Are you sure? It’ll save you a guilt-trip right now and 20% off any future guilt trip for the next year.

Regular discounts on all books (even if only 10% on paper and 20% on hardback) would have moved much more product than a loyalty card. The indie store I worked in did frequent promotions like this, and the results were obvious. All hardbacks were discounted, all the time. All staff picks (and there were hundreds throughout the store) were as well. Both sets of books flew, as we reduced the incentive to shop online and provided real curation, not bought curation.

What could have saved B&N (and what might work right now if launched immediately and with gusto) is a plan to embrace digital, not just in product, but in customer connection. If B&N offered a free audiobook and ebook with the sale of every hardback, and a free ebook with the sale of every paperback, they could get people through their doors. More importantly, the perceived value of the purchase would go up without impacting the actual cost of the transaction. Buy a book, get some electrons for free.

Except it would be better than free for the publishers and the bookstore. To qualify for the digital freebie, all you have to do is flash your FREE loyalty card. In exchange for the digital wares, B&N supplies the publisher with data on shopping habits. People who bought this book also like that book. And if there’s an author event (I’ll get to that in a moment), the readers who like similar books are notified in advance and invited out.

Speaking of author events, why not have more of them? B&N seems to hate author events. Indie bookshops excel at these. Part of the problem is the ordering system. Have a weekly indie night where a local self-published author supplied their own books—these are then purchased through the B&N till—and the author is given a cash cut on the way out the door. No need to predict sales and stock books or return them. I tried this with my self-published books, and the B&Ns I talked to were unable to process how this would even work. No, they would have to order them in advance and return them. No flexibility or creativity. Meanwhile, coffee shops and art co-ops were able to manage this, and we all made out.

At my B&N in college, I organized reading groups and book clubs. What happened to these? And where are the writing groups or the affiliation with NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo? Where are the writing workshops? Turning B&Ns into the hub for all the aspiring and published writers in the community is a no-brainer. This is like comic shops having a gaming night. Sure, people don’t spend a ton during these events, but they make the store a hub of their social lives. We reward those hubs. Our lives orbit them.

All it takes is appealing to what the customer wants. Which requires remembering who your customers are. We’re the guys and gals draped sideways over the comfy chairs, piles of books at our feet, heads bursting with all we want to read, and often with all we dream of writing. Cater to us, not the stockholders. Cater to us, not the publishers. It’s what the indie bookstores are doing. And it’s why they’re going to eat your lunch.

96 responses to “Barnes & Noble on the Brink”

  1. The keys to stable success are pretty simple: Content, Platform, and Service. Right now B&N is trying to balance everything on a single leg, and they’re not going to be able to keep standing for very long.

      1. I was going to say content. It may not be all the content, and it may not even be primarily books any more (I enjoy their coffee regularly, and they have a lot of toys), but it’s clearly the bet they’re making.

        And if they were trained in selling what they were selling, it might even be a decent business, but the store isn’t a fun place to shop, and the staff is clearly disconnected from the product.

        The Nook and Loyalty cards seem bolted on, and when they speakers are regularly announcing a sale on a pound of Starbuck’s beans, you have to wonder if they even know what business they’re in any more.

    1. Content? Declining.

      Platform? Never solid.

      Service? Declining.

      “Quinn eats dirt.” – Lois Bujold, Ethan of Athos


  2. Free ebooks with real book purchase? Buh-buh-buh-but… but that would be awesome. Corporations can’t do awesome.

  3. The Loyalty cards were the start of the downfall. Not to mention that they punish booksellers who don’t sell enough of them.

    As far as the comfy chairs go I can do without them. But that’s merely my observing who sat in them and their gross habits. I would never sit in them after seeing what I saw and cleaning up what I did.

  4. Sadly, I think the NaNoWriMo hub in my area is centered around Starbucks. Talk about a lost opportunity. -_-

  5. All I know is that my nook sales were meeting or exceeding my Amazon sales, and then they suddenly plummeted a year or so ago and never recovered.

    It’s frustrating.

  6. The loyalty card is a drudgery of every place I go nowadays-there are literally times when I’m on the fence about purchasing something (not necessarily at BN, but I imagine this happens there) and forego it due to the inconvenience of facing off with the cashier. Or I simply avoid that store.

    1. CEOs can’t imagine that anyone has this experience. Look at Amazon’s 1-Click button and the ease of returns. That’s how you grease the skids to closing a sale. There’s no hesitation.

      What about a kiosk that asks you to rate your top 10 favorite books of all-time? Or the last three books you stayed up late reading? From these lists, you are given a recommendation. But also, B&N now has also-bought data to make future recommendations better. What if you could share those lists on the kiosk, maybe have it tied to your FB account, so if friends and family came in, they could get reading ideas from your list (or be given accurate gift ideas for relatives based on what you like and what they know you haven’t bought at B&N?)

      That’s how you embrace digital.

    2. I used to run a record store back in the 90s … small, local-owned chain in the midwest. Our loyalty program was free to join and actually encouraged frequent visits AND more sales. Customers began with a punch card… one punch for every $10 spent. You spend $15 that’s one punch. At 10 punches they got a free CD up to $17.99 and we converted them to a permanent card (plus 1,000 points). On the permanent card they got points—like frequent flier miles—for every dollar spent (we rounded up for partials). Cash in points for more free stuff: gift cards, music, accessories, everything but concert tix. Four times a year we had after-hours sales for customers on the permanent card, as well as special private artist in-store performances and/or meet-and-greets for the people at the top of the list. Overall, we were low-key about it. There was no incentive for employees to sell them and giving them out became part of the cash wrap exchange … a clerk grabbed a card pamphlet, punched it, and handed it over with the purchase. The program sold itself.

  7. All great ideas but none of which I bet the bean counters can get behind. B&N is in panic mode about now and the bean counters will reign supreme until the last breath. I remember being so excited when B&N opened its store in my town. Finally! A place where I can spend an afternoon browsing through the shelves to find a hidden gem! That was about 15 years ago, I think. I haven’t stepped foot in the place in almost a year. So sad.

    1. The bean counters know that if a firm is going to give away stuff for free, it has to get it somewhere, and usually has to pay for it. It’s reasonable to ask where the money for that comes from.

  8. B&N was also too keen on making the Nook an US-experience only. A non-US author can’t directly self-publish to Nook, but must use something like SmashWords. The same applies to readers: you can buy a Nook while in US and bring it with you to your home country. But, once there, you can’t buy anything: B&N won’t sell ebooks to non-US residents.

    1. Not quite true. I publish to B&N from the UK through NookPress, and my books are available to UK buyers online from

      1. You’re right, I stand corrected. NookPress now allows authors from “US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, and Belgium” (copied-pasted from their site). Still, very limited compared to Amazon, Kobo or iBooks.

    2. *nods*

      I recently tried to buy some books from B&N. After trying and failing with about 20 because Canada is apparently so alien to them they can’t sell to me, I gave up in frustration and bought my purchases from Kindle instead.

      I wanted to get books from B&N because my friend gave me a Nook, but now I’m just using my Kindle more. Good job, B&N.

      (I can theoretically buy ePubs elsewhere and transfer them to my Nook but I’ve yet to figure out how to make that work with my Mac. Besides, it’s not the point — the point is by frustrating me, B&N lost sales to their competitors. There is no good reason to refuse to sell *ebooks* to Canada if you’re based in the States. NONE.)

  9. I worked at Waldenbooks (remember them) back in the late 80s and early 90s and was there for the introduction of the “Preferred Reader” card. We were pushed so hard to sell those damn things. So hard in fact that I will always remember a conversation with my district manager about the tracking of your percentage of register transactions to cards sold. “Everyone must do above the average,” she said. “But, if everyone does above the average, doesn’t that raise the average making it that much harder for anyone to be above the average?” (I’m not a math wiz but this seemed a bit obvious to me.) “Just do above average” was re response.

    When I moved to a new city and went into another branch to see if I could be hired, the manager didn’t care about my decade of bookselling experience and author event running. Her first question was “how were your preferred reader card sales.”

    BTW: This focus on the ratio of transactions to card sales led many a bookseller game the system and avoid the register as soon as they got a few card sales under their name for the day.

  10. Hugh, what’s the matter with you? There’s no way these suggestions would ever be adopted. They make too much sense!

  11. A new indie bookstore went up a couple weeks ago at our local mall and I instantly fell in love. They get discount overstock books from the publisher and get other books in all sorts of other ways like estate sales, etc. Everything in the store was amazing and at ridiculous prices. I got a $30 hardcover graphic novel for $5. I got my son a juvenile graphic novel that Amazon sells for $18 (hardcover) for $6. I found at least a couple other books that I didn’t know about that went on my reading list (whether I buy them there or not, it was a fruitful trip). Their stock changes constantly so I want to go back at least every week. They do kids reading time with face-painting and other fun activities every weekend. THIS IS THE WAY YOU RUN A BOOKSTORE!

    1. I would be all over that. Meanwhile, Chapters here in Vancouver has completely eliminated their bargain book table, and is rapidly replacing bookshelves with overpriced household decorations of dubious utility and ‘American Girl’.

  12. And install some Espresso Book Machines – give readers the ability to POD out-of-print books, indie books, etc. So long as prices are reasonable, EBM will act like a magnet. (here in Australia, paperbacks can be $30-$40 which drives readers like me to Amazon)

  13. To continue the *coff* domestic felicity analogy, strong relationships require an investment of time and mutual respect. This includes an understanding that different people value different things as rewards. Some people just want a book, not an Experience. Some people love being part of the “book scene”. You shouldn’t force either to go though a program they hate.

    With the modern POS (that’s Point of Sale, whoever is snickering in the back of the room) there is no reason a physical store can’t do alsobots at the bottom of your receipt. They could even have a coupon for 10% off an alsobot. You could have a configurable membership with the (free) card that lets you select the services and bennies you want (alsobots, early notification of author events, free plastic gizmo with every $100 bought, whatever.)

    1. Ooh, 10% off alsobots? I love that!

      …is any bookseller listening?

      1. Our B&N does have alsobots on the bottom of the receipt. I love it!!

  14. My first job was in an indie bookstore when I was sixteen. I learned a lot about the industry. I recommend the experience to all writers.

  15. How happy a thing is it to write that Indie bookshops are on the upswing while the monoliths wane. Such a happy difference to what I saw a decade ago. Type a little quieter when you give the monolith a recovery plan :-)

  16. Curation, curation, curation. I love having physical book stores and I love Amazon. If I know what I want, its 1-click amazon. No brainer. What a great bookstore can do is hire true book lovers to select books to highlight and describe. Some local bookstores do an amazing job of this and get me to buy books I would not have seen otherwise. Let’s have Hugh curate the sci-fi section with some of the other bests (his FB posts have turned me on to several of my new favorite writers). Let’s have the barefoot contessa curate the cookbook section. Let’s have Bill Clinton curate the politics section. It would be awesome!

  17. I thought B&N refused to carry CreateSpace books, but I just saw an ad for B&N with my latest print book (self-pubbed on CS)! I couldn’t believe it. (Needless to say I was over the moon seeing the ad) When did they change?

    1. It was awhile ago Alice, maybe a year. The myth that indies can’t get into bookstores is a hold over from an earlier period. I’m not sure the mechanics of it all but people continue to be surprised like this. Dean Wesley Smith talked about it last year.

    2. If you’re talking about an online ad, it was generated by your own browsing experience. Whenever I go to my own books’ pages for whatever reason, an ad for one of them pops up later while browsing the Internet. It surprises me every time. No one else is seeing it. They’re seeing ads for the books, etc. that they recently looked at.

      1. I was wondering about that Dianna. Thanks for confirming my fear. Oh well. I should have known better.

        Thanks Uncle Jo. I guess I didn’t see that one.

  18. Granted I have not been in a Barnes and Noble for 2 days now but my chairs and benches were still there. I have been to a few author related things at mine as well but it is few and far between.

  19. I used to work at Barnes & Noble too. The planogram is the perfect metaphor for how they operate. They used to hire kids to man the store at Christmas who would drag customers into me the music dept (where I was placed despite my English degree) to answer book questions. One of the book sellers I worked with was the best read guy I have ever known. When he was done with a customer, they walked up to the cash rack with a stack of books in their arms. Did they promote the guy? No. They fired him. B&N is the McDonalds of books.

  20. A few years ago a heat wave came through, and I found myself in Borders with its A/C. So did a lot of other people. Most chairs / benches had been removed already, so people were sprawled on the floor, noses in books. The manager strolled around grumbling and asking people not to sit on the floor. After a while of this she got on the public announcement system and said, thanks all for coming, now either take your purchases to the counter or leave. I don’t remember ever going back.

    1. A smart manager would have started handing out water, or blankets to sit on. And encouraged people to stay and read and buy, and feel good about it.

      Ah, well. Seems a tidy store was more important to her than customers or sales.

  21. Individual Barnes and Noble stores may have some leeway in the signing events. My local B&N seemed willing to allow me to supply the books for a signing, though they do have a corporate hoop-jumping process which I have to go through, I believe, before they will let that happen.

    Overall though, I think your analysis is spot-on. I’d like to see them get back in the game, but don’t think it will happen anytime soon.

  22. Next time you’re in the tri-state area, Hugh, you should stop by the Princeton NJ B&N. They just redid it last year. Lot’s of comfy chairs and a huge (though often crowded) cafe. It’s a favorite haunt of mine.

    I agree with your assessment and fear that they’ve left it too late to turn the Titanic out of the path of the inevitable iceberg. :-/

  23. I was always surprised it wasn’t easier to add a book to your Nook wishlist, or purchase an ebook, in the brick and mortar BN. I love to browse the store, but read on a Nook. You gotta make it easy.

  24. My B&N still has comfy chairs. The member card really killed a lot of my book purchases at their store.

  25. One big aspect that’s been left out of this conversation is their lack of friendly customer service. I used to love going to B&N but the last couple of years when I go I can’t find an employee to help me and if I do, thery’re surly and unhelpful. And would it kill them to smile at check out? Geez. Terrible service. That’s why I buy all my books now as e-books. On a different note, Wool was a great series!

  26. Listening to these stories of Barnes and Noble panoramas and lack of customer service is just sad. I too worked at BN in one of its first superstores. So many of the independent bookstores closed because of the low prices and the amazing selection. I think the comfy chairs started in our store. We brought in a few for a special event and were delighted when corporate let us keep them. Most staffers had individual sections they kept track of and stocked and I was given free reign to add titles to my section. Handling science fiction/fantasy as well as mystery, I kept my favorite backlist titles in stock and they sold well. As for customer service, it was policy if someone asked for a book to walk them over to the section and place the book requested in the customer’s hands. Phones were to be answered by the third ring and if you were on register with a line bigger than three deep, you rang for another cashier. Back then the lines were constant, and the parking lot was full to overflowing. As for the stacks by the chairs, I agree with Hugh. I know my habits as a customer were to browse the s tore, find somewhere to sit and check c k which books I wanted to purchase. Usually my basket was full when I got to the register. Gradually,the discounts decreased and shopping was no longer affordable. Now my shopping is done on Amazon which still gives me the opportunity to support my book buying habit.

  27. B&N hasn’t done all that well at impressing eBook fanatics such as myself, either. They bought fictionwise and learned NOTHING from them.

    1. My over-3000 eBook library at Fictionwise was *searchable*. I could look by author and title and then download only those books I was looking to get at the time. B&N? To get to “Smeds,” you have to go through about 40 pages of 60-per-page listings just to reach the “S” authors.

    2. Fictionwise regularly offered large (up to 100% of purchase price) store credit on popular books priced like hardcovers. If I wanted the book (hint: Tolkien Trilogy), I happily paid the $25, took the store credit, and spent it on other books. B&N lets the publishers set the prices, but the idea of giving credit for buying books, so you can buy more books? Unthinkable to them.

    3. Shopping Cart. I frequently bought whole series, just to have them when I got to them. It takes a shopping cart to do that, and Fictionwise had it. B&N (obviously) doesn’t have one for its ebooks.

    4. Bulk download. When possible, Fictionwise let you download an entire set of book orders as a ZIP file, at least, if they were decently DRM-free. Again, B&N fails. Incidentally, this also facilitated series buying. I got the first seven books of Kim Harrison’s “Hollows” series that way.

    For me, the result of losing Fictionwise’s customer-oriented focus and its replacement with B&N’s stockholder-oriented focus can be seen in my spend on books. The last year of Fictionwise’s independent existence, I spent over $2000 on eBooks. The next year, at B&N, the stump of Fictionwise, Amazon and Books on Board? $200.

    When an enthusiastic customer’s spend on your product drops by 90% as if thrown off a cliff, it says a business or an industry have fouled their own nest. My spending on ebook this past year is still at or even somewhat below $200.

    1. One other little goody I forgot to mention. Neither AMZN nor B&N nor Harlequin have a “tell me when something new by this author is published” button on any of the book or author pages. Guess where I learned THAT trick? All I’ve ever gotten from B&N and Harlequin is “These are the books WE want you to buy.” notices.

      To paraphrase Sun Tzu: “Supreme excellence in the art of selling is making the customer GLAD to have given you his money.” Neither B&N nor most publishers come anywhere near that standard.

      1. I’ve never opted in, but I’ve noticed several times on Amazon that a little alert will pop up telling me when a new book by an author I’ve bought books from before is out. The question is, how exactly does it work?

  28. Re: “bring back the comfy armchairs.” EXACTLY!! I was out and about and needed a place to write for two hours the other day so I went to BN because my ebook is sold in their Nook store and I wanted to support the bookseller. I walked all over that store and there was not a single available hard-seat chair let alone those old comfy armchairs. I ended up leaving (buying NOTHING) and going to Panera instead. So from Panera, I tweeted BN customer service to tell them to add more chairs, and they tweeted back asking me to CALL a number. I’m going to tweet your post to them. Armchairs! Armchairs! Might even bring more readers in. :-)

    Re: author events. Our local indie booksellers do that very well. Eagle Eye Bookshop, for example, hosts numerous authors every year. Just attended a James Rollins book talk there last month. Anyone remember Borders? The ones in my area, before they went bye-bye, used to hold poetry readings, local artist nights, and book club nights. People would come in, bring their kids, and everybody bought books. BN doesn’t have that kind of ambiance that the local Borders used to have.

  29. Here are some thoughts from someone who lives in North Seattle within ten minutes of both a B&N and a terrific independent bookstore (Third Place Books).

    #1 – when I want to browse, I go to Third Place Books….its got comfy chairs, and a great cafe
    #2 – when I want to buy, I go to Third Place Books….it sells used books alongside new

    Basically, the problem for B&N is that it has given me no reason to go to their store. It’s less comfortable than Third Place Books, has a mediocre Starbucks Cafe, and doesn’t sell used books. In economic terms, there is no element of the book-buying experience for me in which B&N has a competitive advantage.

    That said, many people are not lucky enough to live near a great independent bookstore. For them, the choice is between B&N and Amazon, and Amazon is often cheaper and more convenient. Again, no economic advantage for B&N.

    Lastly, it needs to be noted that B&N is also competing against public libraries (as are indie bookstores). I refuse to pay more than $10 for a book. Why? Because I have a WTR list more than fifty books long. Therefore, I am never so desperate that I have to buy an overpriced hardback the instant a book is released. Either I check it out from the library, buy the e-book, or wait a year or so until I can buy a used paperback. All of those options cost me less than $10, and the first is completely free.

    The problem for B&N is that it is primarily focused on selling expensive new hardbacks…and expensive new hardbacks are rapidly losing popularity. Essentially, its selling a form of book that less and less people want. And unless that changes, B&N financial fortunes are not going to change either.

    Not that they’ll ever do it, but I bet they would become much more profitable if they took all the shelf space devoted to hardbacks and replaced it with used books.

    1. Here’s my thinking on hardcover books, and why I will not buy them except for… well almost pretty much never. Some of the books are done with a huge font, and huge margins, and all to make the book “bigger” so they can charge more. Seriously. We can see through that ploy, publishers.

  30. I miss my local Borders. Always liked then more than B&N. Is go there and study in their cafe. They had local bands play and free coffee refills. I’d always buy a coffee, a pastry or sandwich and a book or at least a periodical. They lost me when they cut out the free refills.

  31. Hugh said, “When the customer of retail becomes the publisher, rather than the reader, you have a problem.”

    I believe this is the key to why publishers hate Amazon.

    Barnes and Noble played ball with the publishers: selling them table space, selling places on the “bestseller” list.

    Amazon, on the other hand, weakened the big publishers by allowing small presses and indie authors to compete with them.

    1. “Amazon, on the other hand, weakened the big publishers by allowing small presses and indie authors to compete with them.”

      That’s a very good observation.

  32. I worked in two B&Ns (the first “superstores”) for four years in the early 1990s and none of this surprises me. You describe a disconnect with customers/readers that has always been there. The company is very centralized and top-down. Our regional director was an MBA from Laura Ashley and came to give us inspirational speeches about how she will get a trip to Tahiti as a bonus if we boost sales. There’s a motivator. There was a distinct line between the employees in the stores and corporate, who only had their MBAs in common. They were not emotionally engaged in books any more than the executives at Paramount are “movie” people. Our selection was very focused on the market in New York City, including a huge section for African American history. Where I lived, there were virtually no minorities and no demand. It took years to adjust to local conditions. Corporate security visited once to measure theft (which they called “spillage”) and when we gave them a number, they simply cut it in half because they didn’t want to report the real numbers to HQ. Ultimately, such rigid management style does not anticipate or adjust to things like the Internet. B&N used its bulk to offer a larger number of books and in the early 1990s, that was enough because buyers had no alternatives. Now they do and even arm chairs aren’t really enough. I’ve seen at least one study that showed around 40% of Amazon/online buyers go to a store first, thumb through it to see if they want to buy, and then return home to buy it online. I forget which study it was but it’s probably online somewhere. RIP, Barnes & Noble.

  33. A free ebook with every hard copy? B&N is a book seller, they can’t give a free ebook anymore than Amazon can give us a free hardback with every ebook purchase. Considering the price publishers charge for ebooks, B&N would lose money with this idea. They could try and force the publishers to let them do it, but Amazon sells ten books for every book B&N sell, they have no power to do anything. All they can do is do what the publishers tell them to, I bet they make more actual profit selling shelf space and advertising books ‘no one cares about’ than they do with actual book sales; in the same way youtube makes all its money through commercials the video owners have no control over.
    The only solution for B&N is to change their strategy and sell EVERY book from everyone, the same way Amazon does. Until they become book sellers again, they will continue to fail.
    As far as shelf space, every new book should be on display up front for 30 days, then go into another area. I always ignored the front displays, I go to the book store with a purpose, not to browse, not since Amazon…

  34. B&N, and other large corporations, go after the easy money. It is hard to convince a middle to lower income citizen to part with their hard earn money for some non-essential. It is easier to get a publisher or manufacturer to pay you for advertisement. That is why magazines are mostly adds, 25% of your TV show time is adds (not counting the in show product placements) and why book stores mostly carry the big 6.

    The internet is changing this for the better. The producers are able to get their products to the consumers without having to go through a middle man. In return, the consumer gets a better price and more access from the producers. As producers we need to make sure we only back delivery methods that do not hamper our customers from finding our products, and so far, Amazon is helping producers and B&N is not. B&N needs to make the consumer their customer again if they want to survive, I fear it may be too late for that though.

  35. That can’t even make the cafes inviting. Most. If not all, of the stores in my area (Triangle, NC) have the same puny round tables that can’t even fit one person’s laptop plus book stack plus coffee and scone. B & N was my destination for journaling two decades ago. I surely bought many books I never read. But not it’s a study destination of last resort. I kill time there before I need to be somewhere else. Since there’s no comfortable space to kill that time, I have no inclination to reward them by making a purchase.

    1. Agreed. I used to go to their cafes with a writers’ group a couple years ago. We wanted a place where we could chat, work, and eat without having to worry about disturbing others. The itty-bitty tables afforded me no space for my purse, let alone a laptop. My group and I had to constantly shift between holding our coffee cups in one hand, balancing notebooks and books in our laps, and balance our laptops on the table’s edge. Don’t even get me started about fighting for the electrical outlet. We also noticed that B&N’s sales associates were giving us dirty looks for spending more than 15-20 mins in the café. I found that rude, given that we were respectful, kept our voices at a level where others in the café couldn’t hear us, and we each bought a beverage or pastry. We eventually had to move our monthly meetings to the library. We sacrificed the atmosphere of B&N’s café, but at least we gained a large enough table to do our work on.

  36. When people ask me where to go to purchase my books, I never send them to the area B&N stores, but to their competition. As an Indie writer, I’m not even on the B&N radar for a signing, despite that I could put 40+ local buyers into their store on a night. Imagine that multiplied by 2 writers a week for 50 weeks. Think that could help the bottom line? But their level of cluelessness about readers and writers is mind-boggling, so yes, I also predict their demise ere long.

    The scary thing is, at my last writer conference, I looked around at the happy crowd of traditional-publishing industry pros. And I realized that the day B&N closes, probably 90% of these people will lose their career in an instant and be devastated. They’re relying almost exclusively on one remaining brick-and-mortar distributor, and few are looking at that terrible day.

  37. If B&N really wants to stay vital they would invest heavily in print on demand technology. Imagine you come in to a B&N, find a selection of staff selected and local centric books on the shelves, find one you like, take a product number up to the machine, input it, select size, hardcover, paperback, ebook etc, pay for it and then enjoy the cafe or shopping while it prints.

    No inventory, no shipping woes, no slave mentality to the Big 5 Paper Pushers. They could come to dominate the print self publishing market and become the destination we readers are begging for.

    Add in all the events we’ve been discussing above and you can rejuvenate the company and the industry.

    1. This!

      And I bet that it will be indie bookstores that discover this route and take it. I would love to shop in a book store like this.

      (Truth is, I have rarely ventured into a book store in the last two years, unless I already knew which book to buy. Browsing is no longer fun, even in Germany. Even in indie books stores. I buy books by authors mentioned in blogs, on Twitter and on FB most of the time.)

      1. The problem here is that it just isn’t economically viable. AFAIK the current machines will do one book at a time (maybe with many copies), they cost north of $200000 and
        they take multiple minutes to produce a single book.

        If you want to serve 100 customers in a reasonable amount of time you need a lot of them and a large amount of space for them (they are BIG).

        That’s a large amount of capital and the space will cost a lot in rent.


        1. That’s why I say they need to invest in the technology. If the tech can get to the point where it is feasible it can save the bookstore and oust the paper pushers from their perch atop the mountain.

    2. ^This.

      On a related note, in anticipation of B&N closing, I’ve riffed off a half-joke that William of Ockham which is to ask libraries to dedicate part of their space as a coffee shop.

      Then you can browse books without harming the host, have a social hub that draws new readers in, and the library gets a cut of the profits in a world where local city councils have them at the top of the defunding list.

      1. The main branch of the Pittsburgh Public Library has a coffee shop. They also have a huge window looking onto the dinosaur skeletons in the Museum of Natural History, which is harder to match. Still, more libraries would do well to emulate the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system. They are way more crowded than the local B&Ns.

        1. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system should be the blueprint for every library.

          B&N, as seen with Borders, is a result of being oblivious to what is important, what the customer wants and needs while chasing a fast buck.

    3. Actually, this is the Espresso book machine (, but they’re so hella expensive that unfortunately they’re rarer than unicorns (though Mark Lefebvre of Kobo tells a story about making one pay for itself in under two years).

  38. The problem B&N has, I think, is that the folks in the offices—the ones who make the decisions—are used to dealing with publishers, not readers. In fact, they’re pretty much used to DICTATING to publishers what they are and aren’t willing to stock on their shelves and what price they’ll be charging to do that.

    Now that the ebook revolution has shifted the emphasis toward virtual shelves and pleasing the reader, both bookstore CEOs and big publishers are at a loss. They don’t quite know how to relate to the people they depended on but had little interaction with.

    And while they’re yearning for the days when they could wheel and deal over shelf space, the business of bookselling (and publishing) is slipping out from under them.

  39. I hope they don’t do any of these suggestions–the sooner they fail, the better. It will open the door for more independents with staffs that actually care about the books they sell, interesting venues and money going to the local economy.

  40. […] while reading my feed, I came across Hugh Howey’s recent post: Barnes & Noble on the Brink. In it he talks about B&N recent flat line and the celebration (hooray they aren’t […]

  41. Finally!! Finally, somebody (well, Hugh, you’re actually a Somebody) called B & N and their ilk out! You are a bad customer if you actually want to rest your feet a minute. When I noticed the bookstore chairs were ALL gone, (even the step stools!) that’s when I realized: No trust. They don’t want my kind here. The kind that needs a spot to decide how to whittle down the 18 books I want into the 5 that I can afford this week. No longer can you trade recommendations with others and their stacks, either. And loyalty cards should not only be free but give you free ebooks at quick and low point levels. And yes, used books should be available! Starbucks has unofficially told the customer to scram, too. No comfy chairs, just hard metal interrogation perches and TInkerbell pedestals that can’t support a book, a laptop, AND your coffee. Info/story lovers are desperate for a place they can catch their breath informally without being told, ‘Hurry. Give us your money. Now, get out.” Time for some Shift Thinking: Somebody start Rent-A-Living Room spots in the downtowns: $5 to hang out for 5 hours with free coffee and chewable ice (sorry,I’m addicted. Zaxby’s is best), couches, tables and bathrooms. With books, ebooks and free computer access, too. Hey, sounds like a re-imagined library. Hmmmm.

  42. Here’s another idea: If I go online to find a book and choose the “Pick Up in Store” option, honor the online price. There’s a small disclaimer that the price in the store may be different than the price online, but what I’ve found is that the in-store price is usually full retail. The actual store price is not displayed online before you go. What happened as a result was that I walked out of B&N, angry, and ordered the book from Amazon. Now that I have Prime, I don’t even have to worry about the shipping.

    A totally missed opportunity for B&N because, as long as I was there, I was probably going to browse and buy more books. Instead I bought no books.

  43. I hate to propose gatekeepers, but I think the salvation of big bookstores like B&N will be a heavily curated selection. Physical stores will never, ever be able to compete with Amazon (or even their own webstores) in terms of a varied selection, so it needs to provide a solid selection that reliably gives you something good to read. That’s going to involve crunching data, though, so I wonder if bookstores will be willing to do it.

    1. Not going to happen, Jim.

      If you want store people to recommend books, they’re going to have to be educated and well-read – and the store wants to pay them minimum wage.

      You get what you pay for. And they leave as soon as they can find a better job.


      1. Hi Alicia!

        I agree with you, and I think that’s what they need. I don’t know enough about B&N’s retail operations to know what they do, but they need a staff that’s informed and familiar with their selection top to bottom, at the very least so that they know what to highlight, what to get rid of for a new book.

    2. Unless things have changed remarkably since my Waldenbook days, there are already gatekeepers selecting what is and isn’t sold in B&Ns. The corporate book buyers were/are the folks who decide what books get stocked in stores. The staff in the bookstores rarely have any input as to what products are sold in the stores–they’re just the customer-facing folks stocking the shelves and running the registers, and, sometimes, hand-selling books they’re familiar with and want to recommend to customers, assuming the book is even in stock and available to them to order.

  44. Obviously B&N was wildly mismanaged and it is so sad. I can recall sitting with dates and wives and kids and all by myself in a B&N and feeling as if killing time was not wasting time. I can’t count how many times, in advance of meeting someone for lunch or dinner at a restaurant near the mall, I showed up hours early so I could walk through the B&N! I miss it!

    BUT, I think they were dead anyway and I suspect they knew it.

    The high-water mark for B&N was the day before went online. The beginning of the end was the day the Kindle was released.

    I’ve probably read 150 books in the last three years and I don’t think I’ve healed a single book in my hand during all of that time.

    Disintermediation. Killa.

  45. Hugh: Your ideas, as well as those in the comments, are all ways bookstores could flourish. I suggested some of those ideas in my blog posts (one in July 2013) but as others have said, it won’t happen. Isn’t there a quotation about “none so blind as he who will not see”? The in-store Book Machine which prints while you wait is a no-brainer. By the way, I also suggested the aroma of chocolate in the stores, but I’m flexible on that.

  46. I grew up in rural Tennessee, so a trip to a bookstore always meant a trip to Nashville. I never experienced the “hanging out” in bookstores like a lot of people here are talking about. We had the drugstore, the grocery store, and, later, Wal-Mart…those were our bookstores. Going to Nashville, if you were a devout fan of certain mystery series, like Rex Stout or Agatha Christie, that was your opportunity to add a few titles to your collection.

    When the Internet became standard in most homes, book availability became standard. Somebody, somewhere always had a title that you needed to add to a set. Then, Amazon came along with the Kindle, and popularized eBooks and indie authors.

    Barnes and Noble could have done that, too. They could have embraced indies as enthusiastically as Amazon did. But, instead, they chose to embrace the big publishers, and basically sell off any reputation as a “bookstore” that they ever had.

    I will not miss them.


  47. It will be a real shame if bookstores were to disappear. I love browsing through books on the shelf, perusing the back or inside cover and enjoying the ambiance created by being among books. I buy 50% of by books electronically and 50% paper in store. I would love to be able to browse through a book then buy it electronically within the store. This to me would be competing with the online environment and give people more options on how to purchase. I know there would be a colossal amount of price point negotiation in the background between each of the behemoth corporations regarding who gets a cut of what but when I see a book for $35 (Aussie dollars) I feel not only could it be a cheaper electronically but could also be profitable for book store, publisher and writer. Maybe I’m making it far too simplified but there has to be a way forward where physical stores and online stores survive.

  48. Do you have a Barnes and Nobles card?

    Do you want one?

    Are you sure? You’ll save X dollars and bla bla bla

    Okay well if you change your mind you can bla bla bla
    They rely on the fact that saying ‘no’ takes some small personal effort, it is annoying, it is easier to say ‘yes’. They rely on this yet do not go one step further and realize how horribly annoying it is.

    There is a gas station that does this here a well. Circle K I think. “Rewards card? Red Bull two for four?”

    It’s like getting spare changed everywhere you go, but worse because you are already giving them your money, already buying something. Gah!

  49. […] Howey, in a post entitled Barnes & Noble On the Brink, lays out the imminent demise of both B&N and […]

  50. If you want comfy chairs and time to decide you can always use the Library! it supports the community and has been around a lot longer than any retailer. You lot are spoilt these days moaning about your shop being a shop, How dare they!


    1. They should dare if they want to be around in 12 months.

      The retailers who ran businesses that didn’t adjust to customer want and demand are now studied in business school under the heading “Failed Experiments.” It’s silly to berate a customer base that wants amenities that will encourage them to spend money — and, in many of the cases Hugh cites, amenities *that they already had*.

  51. My $0.02.

    A couple of things that I think could turn it around for them.

    1. Used books. As mentioned by several people, buy books back and resell them.
    2. Free wifi to access an “in-store” website. Discount on eBooks bought “in-Store”. The in-Store would also allow users to preview books to get readers in those “comfy chairs”.
    3. As mentioned, bring back the comfy chairs.
    4. Rebrand the stores as a walk-in media hub. Host artist, author, publisher nights more frequently. Board game nights since they carry decent hobby board games. Open mic poetry, local music artists, etc. Children’s story times for the mommies needs to be advertised more. There’s tons of stuff they could be doing to get people in the door and buying books, ebooks, music, etc.

    Just a couple on my ideas.

    1. They USED to have live music and open mic nights at Borders and B & N stores. I don’t know why that fell out of favor.

      Otherwise, they do have plenty of author signings/book fairs and such. My main problem is that some of them are, as the article said, getting rid of comfy chairs!

  52. […] It’s fascinating to think about but you don’t see the concept mentioned much is non-science writing. Thus I was pleasantly surprised at this passage on author Hugh Howey’s blog. While discussing Barnes and Nobel’s use of “loyalty cards” (basically a tool to provide discounts to frequent buyers) he states… […]

  53. Unless I missed it, Books-A-Million has not been mentioned in this discussion. BAM appears to have the same symptoms as BN, and likely has the same ailment. I’ve been an employee and a customer at the local BAM. I hope they seek treatment to overcome this debilitating condition before it becomes terminal.

  54. There is no solution for B&N. Paper is losing market share. Recliners won’t stop it. The forces are far too powerful to stop. Notice all the music stores with recliners and free coffee?

  55. I’ve often lamented the fact that B&N doesn’t do local author events more regularly. Local authors are usually avid readers as well, and making them happy is one key to getting them to buy more books in your store. As you mentioned, the store is out no money (other than paying some staffers who have to rearrange tables), and can make 40% of the income for every sale. I’d call that a win-win for them…

    I still maintain that Borders died because they stopped doing local author events after POD became more widespread. I’ve been around long enough that I still remember having managers who weren’t being told they couldn’t as a matter of corporate policy…

    Local indie stores, too, are not immune to harming that store-author/reader dynamic. One of our stores here has begun charging authors to stock their books and to hold signings. I’ve read their consignment contract, and it costs $50 PER TITLE to do so (and they still take 40% on top of that for every sale). Given that I have six books in paperback, there’s no way I can make that work financially. I’ve sworn off visiting that store to buy books, and tell everyone that I know to avoid the place. Do they see the grave they’re digging themselves?

  56. Your log lists exactly all the reasons why I have not visited a traditional bookstore in the last ten years (and most likely never ever will visit one again).
    Yet, last year ago while on a trip I stumbled onto an indie bookstore by accident. Guess what, it was only a quarter the size of any of the bookstores I know, but I bought 4 books in it, in the 20 spare minutes I had before my train arrived. That bookstore did it all right: Comfy chairs, complete lack of “bestseller” books, no loyalty card and a quirky but very talkative (and friendly) salesperson.

  57. I remember when the local BN used to let my writing group meet in a sideroom. For free. Once a month. Of course– you get a bunch of writers there, and they’ll all walk off with a bagful of purchases. But then the local store got word that they were supposed to charge for the room, and we decided to go to a library instead.
    Give something away, and you build loyalty.

  58. Is the upper management an B&N still trying to do things the traditional way, this is a question they need to sit and ponder. I see in many large corporations the one size fits all mentality, it seems they believe that this is a cost savings, but in the end it stifles business and the creativity to generate new revenue.

    They send out coupons for 15% off, these are not valid on nook books. This is a sales killer imo. It seems like they try very hard to get people into their store by always promoting physical products, they have failed to get creative and find ways to generate revenue with their electronic stream.

    They have Nook Press, how are they positioning it? If I were to consider self pub, why would I consider Nook Press over Amazon? They need to market the authors more, I do not see a section on the main page showing pride in the authors they have published.

    With the number of well known self published authors out there why have they not made an attempt to take advantage of working with them. They have brick and mortar all over the place, can you imagine if they worked with epub to not only promote them but to provide print on demand.

  59. All true, and thank goodness we have the marketplace to clear out the losers. The indie shops are doing everything you suggest, and the market is rewarding them. In closing down the final Barnes and Noble shops left, the market will reward indie shops even further, driving whatever business B&N still had to the smaller players.

    And to the big publishers who are fighting a losing war with Amazon at the moment: What Hugh is suggesting about giving away an ebook and audio to people who buy in a brick and mortar store is a great way for you to team up with indie shops all over the country. Repurpose Bookish (a mostly useless site at the moment) into a way to team up with indie booksellers to get downloads of ebooks and audio for people who buy a hardback. I guarantee you the indie shops would be happy to play, and everyone wins! This would be so much more productive than demonizing Amazon!

  60. […] Barnes & Noble on the Brink | Hugh Howey […]

  61. B&N took over the student book store at Washington State University. When I called about scheduling an author event (I’m a WSU alum and a local), the woman in charge was so excited to have me. Then she discovered my book wasn’t sold by Amazon. She was honestly disappointed, and directed me to the process of getting my paperback into their system. I jumped through all the hoops only to be told on the other end, B&N couldn’t carry my book because I used Create Space instead of Lightning Source. Really? At that point, I just threw up my hands and walked away from the whole thing. I’m super bummed that I couldn’t share my work at my alma mater. They wanted it. I wanted it. But, B&N cock blocked us.

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