Rock, Paper, Scissors

More bad news in the book world, for those of you following along. On the heels of bad news from the Big 5 publishers, we have yet another dismal earnings report from Barnes & Noble. Sales are down 6% over the same period last year, which probably explains why they just changed CEOs … again.

The previous CEO was around for just over a year, and this kind of turnover does not bode well. The chain is most certainly in trouble. But it’s a comment from Riggio, the new acting CEO, which makes me think they don’t understand why. Riggio blames the drop in sales to reduced inventory. He says the only way to stand apart from other bookstores is selection. This tells me that one of the handful of names synonymous with selling books doesn’t understand what’s happening in book retail.

I probably know the least amount there is to know about selling books, but from as many angles as humanly possible. I basically grew up in the Waldenbooks in Monroe Mall. It was the only reason I wanted to go to the mall. I lived on that nasty carpeting between those crowded shelves; it was where my mom knew to find me. My mom went on to become a B&N general manager, first in Spartanburg, SC. She would put me to work moving sections, and I’d help customers who figured I worked there. When I went off to college, I got a job with B&N and helped open their North Charleston store, stocking bare shelves according to planograms and selling books to customers.

Later, I helped run an indie bookshop. I did this for years while trying to make it as a writer. I also went to book conferences and worked as a professional book reviewer for a while. Then I became my own publisher, started working with several of the largest publishing houses in the world, dozens overseas, and went on a hectic travel circuit to six continents where I spent more time talking about the book trade and business of being an author than I did hawking my own books.

So while I haven’t done any one thing in the book trade for decades, for decades I’ve been doing all of them. As a result, I eventually observed and then came up with what I call the rock, paper, scissors model for book retail. I think I first gave this talk at a private conference put on by Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly publishing. The room was full of cutting-edge tech and publishing geeks. On a whiteboard, I drew something like what you see below (Later, I would use nifty slides, some of which you can see here):

The Rock, Paper, Scissors of Book Retail

On the bottom left of my terrible trackpad sketch, you have the mom and pop indie bookstore, which for a very long time was the only way to find and buy books. The factory there on the right is the big box discounter, which wasn’t a book phenomenon so much as a laser and database phenomenon. The advent of the UPC code and computers allowed for massively more inventory, and we got the Home Depots, Best Buys, and the B&Ns of the world. (Seriously; the laser did that shit)

In the above book version of rock, paper, scissors, B&N crushes Indie due to selection and price. This is what all the big box discounters do, and it’s what happened in the 80s and early 90s. Indies couldn’t compete on the vast selection and massive discounts, and they started going under. We even got a Hanks/Ryan film about this.

Then Amazon comes online, and Amazon destroys B&N in the two things they were really good at, which again was selection and price. We might say that Amazon smothered the big box discounters with their online web presence and global shipping. Borders shuttered, B&N languished, and indie bookshops began to increase in number. (I’ve given this talk a dozen times, and at this point I normally liken Amazon having saved indie bookshops to the way introducing Canadian wolves saved Yellowstone National Park by winnowing the deer population, but I’ll spare you.)

So B&N crushes Indies, and Amazon smothers B&N, which leaves the fact that Indies snip away at Amazon. And Independent bookshops do this by bettering Amazon in both presence and community*.

Presence means being able to pop into a local shop to browse for a gift for a friend, or see what the staff recommends, or because many of us can’t walk by a bookshop without buying something the way other people can’t pass a Starbucks or a Ben & Jerry’s without satisfying their addictions.

The other aspect, community, means a place for book lovers to gather*. It means author signings and book clubs and storytime for children on Saturdays. It means staff picks and local interest sections and a small shelf for area authors. It is the literary book hub of the community in the same way that libraries are. The good ones have a dog or a cat roaming around.

Which gets us to why B&N is failing and why Riggio doesn’t seem to understand the book trade anymore. B&N will never be able to compete with Amazon on price or selection. Never. No one goes to a B&N hoping they’ll have the backlist title they’re looking for. B&N has books 2 through 12 of the fantasy series that everyone is telling you that you have to read, and they’re sorry but they can special order book 1 for you, as they’re currently out, but it’ll take 3 to 5 weeks to get in, and they’ll CALL YOU ON YOUR PHONE when it arrives, and you can drive back to the store to … fucking kill me already.

Riggio, and whomever he hires, is going to run B&N like it’s the 80s when Amazon didn’t exist, and B&N is going to go under. What’s absolutely stark-raving mad about all of this is that Amazon understands the rock, paper, scissors model, and they’re diversifying by opening indie-style shops. Their new small footprint bookstores are giving them the presence they’ve never had. A third store has been announced for Chicago. They are moving into an area that B&N should have pivoted into, though it’s not clear B&N could have. Long leases were signed to lock in great rates, the way a noose helps lock life out of the brain.

I’ve blogged in the past about what I’d do as a Big 5 CEO (I still love all of these ideas). And I’ve written about the indie bookstore that I plan to open someday (it was going to be before my circumnavigation, but now it’ll likely be immediately following). So what would I do if someone forced me to be CEO of Barnes & Noble? How would I save the chain? Could I? Can anyone?

I normally can write my protagonists out of the most dire of situations. That’s what my brain spends a lot of its processing cycles doing: coming up with realistic escapes from certain doom. But in this case, I don’t think B&N has an answer. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried writing this blog post (the first time was a few weeks ago, when the new CEO was let go). I tried writing a long piece about creating a small footprint bookstore franchise, like the Waldenbooks that I grew up frequenting. I saw them being as ubiquitous in strip malls as Gamestop and GNC. A reliable place to see what’s new or bestselling, pick up a gift, grab a magazine or newspaper, or a picture book our kid hasn’t read yet.

Maybe it could work. I tried to make it work on paper. But it would require a rebranding that I don’t think B&N can pull off. They aren’t going to win the anti-corporate PR angle that indies manage with their patrons (shop here and pay full price to keep our squeaking, non-automatic doors open). They also can’t be flexible in scope, opening the occasional big-box (non-discounter) where needed, like we see in Powell’s in Portland, the Tattered Cover in Denver, and other massive indies around the country.

Independence means flexibility, creating the bookshop the community needs. B&N has been completely shitty recently about their commitment to community. When I worked in a B&N, I ran a book club and arranged chairs for a weekly meeting with loyal shoppers to discuss whatever we’d decided to read that month. There were comfy chairs everywhere! We actually did author signings.

Someone at B&N counted some beans a while back and didn’t see the point in author signings (they only sold 4 books?! We had to return 12?!) or the comfy chairs (they’re reading without paying!) and so they stopped competing with indies. Again, there is no competing with Amazon, not with the wreck of a website they’ve got (Amazon and Google hire computer engineers from MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. B&N gets a CTO from another physical retailer with a shitty website and tries to patch existing code. They’d be better off — I shit you not — if they paid one brilliant teenager a million bucks to see what she could come up with in a single cheeto-and-redbull manic month).

The problem with the franchise model that I kept going back to is that there aren’t enough readers to support it. We don’t have as many book addicts as coffee addicts, so forget the Starbucks model. And everyone needs a haircut, so SmartCuts will be everywhere, but reading physical books is dying. The avid readers have moved to digital, which doesn’t clutter the house or break the bank. Physical books won’t go away, but neither will vinyl records. The problem is one of growth. There won’t be any, not of the non-coloring variety. And most physical books are bought online now anyway.

So where the rock, paper, scissors comparison breaks down is that it was a model in motion. It wasn’t a permanent balance. The big box discounters only had their advantage in the pre-Amazon days. They got complacent, lazy, moved too slowly, and they won’t survive. The future will be a mix of indie bookshops and the big A. And if Amazon keeps figuring out the physical retail side of things, and gets author events, book clubs, and writing workshops going, they may be able to beat the indies at their own game. Perhaps they can become the franchise model that I tried to envision, the resurrection of the Waldenbooks of my childhood.

I certainly hope so, because the one unspoken thing here that Amazon does better than the other two is diversity. Amazon doesn’t blacklist books from self-published sources like CreateSpace. They also carry (naturally) the Amazon imprint titles that indie bookshops won’t touch. Limited space means they can’t carry everything, but their inclusive philosophy means that there’s nothing they won’t carry. Breaking out online won’t get easier for indie authors, but any who do will have a bookstore willing to shelve their titles. The impossible just moved to very, very difficult. That’s an infinite improvement.

I miss my days of working in B&N, and I miss the days when my mom ran a store and would put me to work moving the entire computer section one shelf at a freaking-hell-these-things-are-heavy time. But I’m not sure I’ll miss what B&N has become. I celebrate the increasing number of indie shops. I welcome the Amazon bookstores. And these days, I spend most of my processing cycles trying to figure out how to make reading as addictive as coffee and ice cream. That’s the protagonist hanging over a cliff. And nobody is talking much about her.

*I put an asterix on community twice when discussing Amazon, but I think this might be incorrect. The advent of reader reviews, and the way that book links are shared via social media, not to mention their acquisition of Goodreads, puts Amazon in a clear leadership role in the online community of readers. But this is physical community I’m talking about, and we have yet to see what Amazon has in store here (if anything).

58 responses to “Rock, Paper, Scissors”

  1. I worked in a Waldens through high school and college. (Those computer books were heavy as all get out!!) We always had people reading on the floor. And a line out the door on Christmas Eve for all the last minute shoppers. I loved it.

    I popped into B&N last week to grab a couple business titles after a meeting. (Wandered around for a full 5 minutes looking for a chair!!) They will never get it. The huge disconnect is that their clients aren’t readers, their client is publishers. B&N was amazing when I could get a 5 buck hardback–5 BUCKS!!–I filled my library. And moved those boxes everywhere. And just gave most of them away.

    Now B&N has nothing for me. It’s a bummer.

    A new indie store popped up in our neighborhood. I’m excited to hold a signing there, maybe a writing conclave some night. The owner is fabulous.

  2. Amazon is innovative. Barnes & Noble isn’t. That’s the bottom line. I too have spent time working at and hanging around in Barnes & Noble. All my manager cared about was selling memberships to their version of the Prime program. Except Barnes & Noble’s version of Prime sucks. Unless you buy $250 dollars a year worth of merchandise from their stores, you don’t begin to start saving. And BN has reinvented itself as a chain that sells kitsch. Books are almost an afterthought now.

    1. Yes, it takes $250.00 to cover the cost of their membership, but I am absolutely certain that as a member, I receive coupons (about every 2 weeks) that I wouldn’t get if I wasn’t a member. Most of them are 20%, with the occasional 15% or 25%. Even got a 40% over Labor Day. If I want one book, and I can buy it using those coupons for less than I can get it for and ship it for (I’m not an Amazon prime member; I buy mostly ebooks from Amazon) I find it easier to go to our local B&N. Especially if it’s a traditional publishers’ offering, where the ebook is the same as the paper version…until I apply the coupons and the membership discount, when the paperback becomes cheaper, even with the sales tax included…

  3. “And these days, I spend most of my processing cycles trying to figure out how to make reading as addictive as coffee and ice cream.”

    Common points for coffee and ice cream:
    – Well-loved
    – Readily available
    – Easily purchased
    – Quickly consumed

    For the reader, then: super-short stories (even shorter than “Beacon 23”)? Short-form poetry like haiku?

    And both are easily serialized, collected, and distributed via Amazon.


    1. I think short fiction is what consumers want, at least consumers who don’t consider themselves normally readers of fiction. Short stories, serials (WOOL and The Martian being prime examples of readers digging the serial format), and novellas are what I think have potential for grabbing readers attentions. I’m focusing most of my time on writing novellas and shorter novels (60k words), hoping that sooner or later my jump shots turn into a profession. Until then I just keep shooting.

      1. I love short fiction (maybe my most favorite stories ever is only 2-3 pages long), but I don’t like _buying_ stuff piece by piece, because the “buy or don’t buy” decision is a little stressful (even if the price is low), and there’s a limit to how often I want to make it. So for me, buying a short story collection would generally seem far preferable to buying stories one at a time.

        Of course this changes a bit for free material, but not completely… Even the “choose something to read next” operation has a cost, and being able to delegate some of that to an editor you trust is useful.

    2. With a few exceptions (Wool, Heinlein timeline, Scalzi universe, Nathan Lowell universe) I prefer big stand alone novels that I can get lost in. I’ve bought several ebooks chapter by chapter and really don’t like the concept.

      1. My personal favorite length is probably the novella, but if I had to pick between serial or novel, I’d pick the novel. Unless it’s planned out well, like WOOL or Beacon 23 (I really enjoyed reading Beacon as a serial) the serial format comes off as more of a gimmick people try to cash in on (I won’t name names, but I’ve read some serials that were like this).

  4. I live in Beaverton, OR – a suburb of Portland and we have a smaller (although still gigantic) Powell’s about 5 minutes from where I live. It’s located in the weird mall that can’t keep its other stores open.
    We had a large BN in a strip mall next to Washington Square – which may be the biggest mall in Oregon?
    At any rate, an Amazon bookstore is opening up in Washington Square soon. I was overjoyed when I saw it. I have also missed Walden books and am excited for there to be a bookstore in the mall. A place where people could buy a physical copy of one of my books at Christmastime instead of me ordering them and then selling them out of my house like a drug dealer. :) I feel as though Amazon isn’t going to dismiss me like Powell’s and BN both did when I ask them if at some point they could add me to a local author shelf.
    Powell’s is anti indie author and BN closed because “who can compete with Powell’s” in Beaverton. The snobbery is outrageous.
    I hope having a store in the mall gets people reading. I hope kids sit on the floors in the aisles and read an entire book.

  5. You are depressing me. And while I sit here hoping that you are so very wrong, I know you are right when it comes to bookstores. Two of the sadist days for me in Gainesville was when Borders and B&N closed their doors, leaving me with BAM and used book stores. I miss Borders and B&N desperately and so wish one would come back.

    Storefront bookstores aside, it’s the issue surrounding print books and ebooks that I question and worry about even more. For every article I read that support what you have stated, I read another that says the exact opposite. Who are we to believe? Have print books been killed by ebooks? Is there money to be made on ebooks? Are print books alive and well, rebounding and making a huge comeback? I have read numerous conflicting articles over the past year. Where is the truth in what is happening to the print market for books?

    I never read ebooks, and I hope I never have too. Maybe I am a romantic when it comes to books, but I want a print book in my hands, preferably in hardcover. I want to smell and feel the pages. I want to be woken up by the book slapping me in the face when I fall asleep reading at 2 am. Give me a print book any day!

    1. Ma’am, the problem you see in the different narrative is that there are (broadly) two categories of readers:
      1- dedicated readers for whom buying and consuming books is a regular ongoing activity year-round, which means reading dozens of books a year. Typically they focus on one genre or two and are always on the prowl for new experiences, new voices.

      2- casual, or social consumers of books who buy at most a handful of books a years, often just one or two to gift rather than read. And most of what they buy is highly publicized “bestsellers”.

      It is like the difference between movie mavens who haunt art house movie theaters and buy DVDs of classic movies by the dozen and the people who only show up for STAR WARS or MARVEL movies.

      The latter group is more abundant at a rate of three or four to one over the former. Maybe even ten to one. Their buying is concentrated. When they show up to buy a book they heard about, that book sells by the ton. And they aren’t typically price sensitive. It’s just one book–a buck or three price difference won’t matter. The brand or the buzz is what matters.

      The former group buys more books but they spread the buying around. They buy used. They buy backlist. They often wait for sales on popular titles. They will gamble on unknowns if the price is right. The buzz that draws in the casual readers? It comes from the dedicated readers.

      So, when you read reports of “print is still dominant” you need to look closely at what they are really reporting. Who they surveyed. What did they ask. How they phrase it. Typically they will ask if the respondent read at least one book but not what kind or why. So textbooks count. Homework counts. Cookbooks count. Travel books and art books count. There is little nuance in the typical survey. Most just ask about preference. Well, gee, if all you read (or buy) is one book a year then clearly the advantages of digital are no advantage. And print is going to be cheaper because reading ebooks requires a gadget: a smartphone, tablet, PC, or even a dedicated reading device running $50 to over $200, most typically around $100.

      Print doesn’t require a commitment like digital does. So of course cadual readers prefer print. And if you’re a publisher/bookseller looking for lots of easy sales, spawing a bandwagon bestseller and bringing in a horde of casual readers is what you want. And they won’t even fret the price too much! Perfect little consumption units.

      And since there are more casual readers than dedicated readers and not all dedicated readers are willing to commit to digital any survey looking at just the number of people who ever read will show a strong bias towards the old ways (that are slowly fading) and minimize the extent of the change that has already taken place.
      It is perfectly accurate data.
      But also perfectly meaningless in describing what is really going on.

      What is going on is that commercial book selling isn’t a single business but rather a collection of distinct markets. The market for cookbooks is not the market for romance or SF. The market for LitFic is not the market for mysteries. It never was. But in the old days when print was the only way to read, when submitting to the terms of traditional publishing houses and B&M stores was the only way to get a book to market, when you had to buy a book as soon as you saw it or risk never seeing it again… Well, those dsys are gone. Authors have options. Publishers have options. (Everybody know publishers gatekeep authors but many forget B&M retailers gatekeep publishers.) Readers have options. And “out of print” no longer means unavailable. In fact, out of print is practically impossible because of digital and online used book selling.
      The whole industry is in ferment because everybody has options and everybody responds to the options differently.
      Suddenly a book isn’t a book isn’t a book.
      It matters what kind of book.
      Non-fiction and children’s books do better in print, romance and SF&F do better in digital.
      Textbooks, the only rational choice is print so you can resell and recover some of the outrageous price.
      Art books? Coffee table books? Print of course.
      Every buyer behaves differently.
      But in aggregate there are trends and those trends don’t favor B&N. Or the old “bestseller” model. Because avid readers are spreading their buys best sellers no longer sell as much. Monster sellers are less common because the buzz stays dispersed, muted, and the badwagons don’t roll. And without bandwagons, casual readers don’t come out.
      Look behind the BPH numbers, look behind the excuses, look beyond poorly constructed surveys, and you’ll find a new normal emerging. And in the new normal the sales ceiling is lower and the sales floor is higher. The age of the blockbuster seller is ending. The new age belongs to the midlist and the backlist. It is an age of variety, of experimentation, of new rules and no rules.
      Whole new ball game.

      I mostly agree with Mr Howey: the successful B&M bookstore of the near future will be smallish, readily accessible to its customers (“few cathedrals of literature” hundreds of miles away) and backed by a fast and efficient logistics infrastructure. “We can special order it in weeks” won’t work. “We can get it to you tomorrow” will. An alliance of B&M and online is needed.

      A chain like that might emerge from B&N if Riggio admitted they need to go through Chapter 11 to tear down and rebuild. A network of indie stores might emerge if Ingram or B&T improve their service. Or…

      Well, Amazon seems to be building just that kind of store.

      There is a new normal emerging out there.
      Prepare for it.

  6. I worked in B&N for four years when it was booming, opening up “superstores” wherever it could and before it was caught blind by the Internet. But even then, it succeeded despite huge inefficiencies. Back then, it invested in infrustructure and bulk. It was the only way to beat the competition, but it’s a burden now. Managers above the store managers were all MBAs, but had little understanding of the book market, per se. Ours came from Laura Ashley, a clothing firm. Book buyers were all in Manahattan, so we got a lot of books that NYC readers would like, but in New Hampshire, not so much. Very top down, very centralized, very inflexible. And still, the company doesn’t seem to understand the world it lives in. The B&N website (for readers and writers) is a complete mess.

  7. Yes. And Yes.

    As I processed through this, I thought about *middle* stores in other industries. Home Depot / Lowe’s / Menards vs. Ace & True Value vs. indies. Ace & True Value figured it out and are still strong despite the fact that the big box stores litter their markets with cheap buys. 30% more for being accessible? People will happily pay it for what they offer.

    And then Wal-Mart vs. Walgreens vs. small-town pharmacies. Walgreens figured it out. Make it accessible. Be present. Be reliable. Have what people need.

    B&N’s loss will be huge. Indies can’t move into those locations fast enough to meet the needs of people who want an accessible book store. The *middle* book store market such as Waldenbooks needs to return in a hurry.

    1. These are great examples

  8. Quick thoughts arising from your insightful blogs on BN, indie bookstores, and the publishing industry.

    When blogging book reviews, I’ve on many occasions tried to Do My Civic Duty by linking to Indiebound rather than Amazon, my appeal (and motive) being, “Support your local indie bookstore!” But I’ve never made one affiliate cent doing so, and when I’ve asked myself why, and why so many of us resort to Amazon in spite of our distrust of huge corporations, I come up with the following:

    1. Indiebound’s online affiliate system is clunky and hard to navigate–Stone Age compared to Amazon –and there seems to be next to no reporting system, no accountability. My links seem to evaporate into the ether.

    When you think about it, the only people who would click on an Indiebound link to begin with are people who a) can afford to pay full retail price, and 5) actually have a local indie bookstore within spitting distance–one that happens to be affiliated with Indiebound. That probably eliminates the vast majority of readers interested in purchasing a book by way of my blog.

    2. While I love my own local indie, three blocks from my house, for scanning the magazine rack or the new titles, and certainly for gift buying, most of what I buy for myself is digital, backlist, non-mainstream, or OOP. (Is this not the case with most avid readers?) We turn to Amazon because it’s just about the only place we can (easily and quickly) get what we’re looking for at an affordable price. To see what it used to be like for those of us searching for unusual books, see Helene Hanff’s classic 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD.

    3. Since (as you’ve pointed out so eloquently) local Indie stores can’t promote themselves by way of price or selection, what’s left is the “community” angle. Unfortunately, some of the “literary communities” surrounding any given store may be more a freemasonry, complete with secret handshake, than an open-door forum for people who love books in many genres. The atmosphere is not welcoming.

    Worse, the owners of some indie bookstores exude a certain “We tolerate customers to keep our store open” attitude of entitlement, as if their business model is not to serve the customer, but to persuade the customer that civilization will fall, like Rome, if they don’t buy the books the owners think they should read.

    1. Excellent point about certain indie bookstores riding high on their horses. Most don’t offer a romance section, and given that there are some REALLY GREAT indie romance novelists out there these days, they’re missing opportunities to bring those authors and readers in.

    2. Indiebound is even worse than you realize.

      Not only is it hard to use, in my area it ignores the half of indie bookstores which aren’t ABA members and includes a lot of stores which are not bookstores.

  9. I think you bring up some really good points. Back in high school there was a B&N close to the school that the students would go to and, since they still had chairs, relax with a book. Now, I step into a B&N and it feels so sterile and cold. I miss Borders where I’d often find people hidden among the shelves reading if the chairs were taken. I think now that B&N doesn’t have any big box store competition they’ve gotten their heads wedged a little too deeply in the idea of profit.

  10. I laughed out loud at your little reenactment of ordering a back title at B&N. I’ve so been there. I usually just tell the clerk never mind and go order it online.

    I do love going there because it’s just FULL OF BOOKS, but getting there is such a hassle, especially when I have to spend 20 minutes looking for parking. Sadly, that store is the only big bookstore left in Honolulu. I wish for a Waldenbooks-type store again too. My aunt used to work at the local one in Hilo, and I spent so much time sitting on the floor in front of the Baby-Sitters Club section, then later in front of the sci-fi/fantasy section (which was just down that same row). I can still picture the entire layout of that store in my head 25 years later.

    1. I could walk blindfolded through my old Waldenbooks right now, reaching a hand out to brush the single comic book rack, making my way past the magazines, all the way to the second-to-last aisle where SFF was shelved.

      1. .

        Your blog description of the Waldenbooks experience was the same as mine. Mom knew where to find me. That store was there when I had just enough of my own money to buy some titles. A few titles I still own and my oldest child is reading them.

        The one in the mall I went to put the SF/F in the middle of the store across from the checkout counter – a huge long section of it. I suspect the local manager liked SF/F more than the typical genre shelved there in the other stores. I still remember most of the layout of that store too.

        Our town didn’t have a cool little Indie book store and the nearest one, other than the Waldenbooks chain, was forty or fifty minutes away. In the days when inflation adjusted gasoline was likely $8-$10 per gallon and cars only got a dozen miles out of one; we didn’t venture that far.

        Thanks for the reminiscences!


  11. Ebooks part of the market seems to have solidified at 10% of the market. It’s not gaining nor reducing over the last several years. The last half decade has shown ebooks are not a repeat of the music or movie market. How does that change your calculations ? If you remove the anomaly years where ebooks were raising their percentage of the market, physical books have proven to be a large stable market. That gives someone smart heading B&N an opportunity.

    1. I’m not sure where you’re getting your numbers, but it’s not a good source. Ebooks are already over half of all fiction sales.

      1. But fiction sales are actually a relatively small portion of overall book sales. I recently interviewed the General Manager of our local indie here in Seattle, Third Place Books, and was surprised to learn that fiction makes up only about 30-40% of all sales.

        Non-fiction books are huge, and many of them do not translate well to electronic formats since they contain images or charts.

        My wife, who is an artist, probably spends 5x-10x buying print books about artists she likes than I do reading 80-100 fiction books a year.

  12. Barnes and Noble stores remind me of the last Blockbusters before they went under. I did some trading (mostly shorting) of their stock and would chuckle when the CEO made statements about how people would get tired of Redbox and Netflix for the high levels of customer service offered at Blockbuster as well as a staggering number of options of popcorn. By the end, half of their shelves were devoted to T-shirts and memorabilia rather than movies to rent.

    Barnes and Noble employees have the same desperate, sad look in their eyes as the Blockbuster folks back in the day. They know their company is dying around them. What are you going to do? Right out of high school I worked as a travel agent before online travel booking put us out of work. These things happen.

    As for making books more addictive, I think that’s always going to mostly be up to individual authors and the publishing teams they employ. I’m going to read a Hugh Howey book as soon as it comes out because I know I’m going to be engaged from start to finish. Other authors may lose me after a few chapters. If I stop reading to see what’s on Netflix, it’s over. That’s always been true. The big difference is indie authors can’t blame their publisher for messing up their book.

    I’m publishing my first series and the first book is free, so if I don’t hook readers and convince them to come back for books 2-5, I’m not getting paid and I have no one to blame but me.

  13. B&N failed to get anywhere in the UK, so I don’t really consider them at all.
    My nearest bookshops are a good 30 miles away in the city of Norwich (there is another a bit closer, and it also sells a lot of other stuff, has a cafe, and doesn’t try to sell the big sellers and focuses on the quirky and the niche stuff) where the chain Waterstones hasn’t seem me go in since last Christmas but the indy place The Bookhive has my wallet quaking each time I go in. The big store NEVER has any books I want to read but the indy place (endorsed by Stephen Fry) has too many books I want to take home.

  14. I have wondered as little communities like mine lose their small independent bookstores and have no big box booksellers if the libraries will pick up the slack and start holding author signings. What happens to those communities with such a void? I have also ponderd why you couldn’t have author events or book discussions held in other places like small wine bars?

  15. June 28, 2016 Barnes and Noble launched a new paperback publishing arm of Nook Press which promises to -consider- stocking the paperbacks of indie books which sell well through Nook Press, right along with author signings in the author’s local stores.

    1. And this will work really well since they are already killing off the Nook.

  16. I can’t believe none of these monoliths have figured out how to monetize The Game Changer in publishing—Print On Demand. That is the only way for anyone to compete with the big A, as it would give B&N the selection it lacks at a reasonable price (and would open hundreds of thousands of ebooks to the general reading public).

    1. Except Amazon is one of the two major players in POD. And any innovation used against them can always be copied.

    2. There is a very finite limit to the amount of books a single POD machine can print in a day. My local Christian bookstore has an Expresso. It takes 15-30 min to fill an order. 4 books an hour. After materials, at Amazon book prices (because, why pay more when you can have it tomorrow in 80% of the US?), The bookstore walks away with $6 per book. $24 an hour. Per $15,000 machine.

      It’s not a game changer. Not for a bookstore. You have to have a warehouse full of machines, constantly running, to make money in POD.

  17. I really appreciate your analysis of the book industry. I too experenced misspent youth in Walldenbooks at the local mall. I worked At a Michigan Borders store in college, published my first book with Random House New Zealand (where I live now), and am now working on self publishing. You’re dead right on this one, and you’ve got a great way of connecting all the threads. Today I’m a huge fan of indie bookshops and Amazon both, and I see no contradiction there. There’s no room for big box bookstores like B&N today.

  18. My generation remembers B&N and Walden as the enemy that sucked the life out of our locals and hired people who didn’t read.

    But even after all this, there are locals that thrive; Tattered Cover in Denver being a good example.m, City Lights and William Stout in San Francisco.

    Now I live in the great beyond and do business through Abebooks selecting not the cheapest, but an independant book seller.

  19. I get that Amazon is trying to break new ground by opening up new indie-style shops, but I’m not so sure they will actually pull off the indie style presence that many local shops have. I just went to the opening of one of the “Amazon Books” locations here in San Diego (the store hasn’t even been open for a week) and it just felt like a small, cold, meat market. There was barely any standing room in their small retail location, and I think there might have been one chair in the entire store! I also don’t think that Amazon’s physical retail locations will be the kind of boon to self-published authors that many of us would hope they would be. Take a guess how many self-published books I could find on the shelves of the store, ZERO – there was nothing to be found other than books that had been released by publishers or had been reprinted by publishers. Perhaps I’m wrong, maybe I missed something in one of the corners of the store, however to my surprise the manager I talked to didn’t think they were carrying any either. When I asked him why that was, he just looked at me blankly and thought “that might be a good idea”. Suffice it say, I was more than a little surprised.

    All of this makes me question the notion of Amazon challenging the presence of local indie bookstores. I’m sure they will carry self-published titles eventually, but I really think there is a good chance that those offerings will be limited to nothing more than a few token examples of what’s truly available out there. Just to put things in perspective, when I asked one of the managers why they didn’t carry any novels published with CreateSpace, he replied with “wouldn’t we need some kind of machine to print those out in the back or something?”

    1. Amazon’s new store are more like local versions of airport bookstores, except with better selection, prices, and stories you can’t find anywhere else. (Plus, showrooms for their gadgets) I can’t believe what a huge advantage B&N and indie bookstores have given them by boycotting indie and Amazon-imprint bestsellers. I can almost see the tag lines, “Five star stories and bestsellers you won’t find anywhere else!”

      The may just be me, but does it seem like a lot of big 5 books areas coming out with smaller fonts? I wonder if there’s any way to track that? I swear some of the books I perused the last time I was in B&N and indie bookstores had 9 point font. No matter how good the curation at indie bookstores, if the book font is killing my eyes, I’m going to have to go with the ebook version.

      1. Chong, I noticed the occasional smaller font too. It’s part of cost-cutting, but if I open a book and my first thought is “unpleasant,” I’m not going to read that book.
        Part of the vicious circle: not selling enough books, must cut costs, make book shorter by shrinking the font, no one wants to read the book…
        Another rock, paper, scissors game that indies can take over.
        I have to say that one of the nurses opened my novel Terminally Ill and said, “I can read this without my glasses!” Charles de lint also said that his indie print books are made to look like the best, classic books that are no longer sold.
        Go, team!

  20. Know what stands out as wonderful and overwhelmingly positive about this post, to me anyway? The pronouns. It’s hard to explain, but something that simple and rare still brings tears to my eyes. Thank you, Hugh.

    1. Keri – That still gets me every time, too…including us in the pronouns. I try to say thanks when I see someone do it (especially a man) because I’m not sure they know how much it means to some of us. And it’s always a surprise.

      Thanks, Hugh.

  21. Thanks Hugh, I never did get to work in a bookstore, I’m retired and still a beginner. I did a lot of telemarketing – I once flogged the Canadian Who’s Who at Financial Post. Maybe I could read my stories over the phone? MobileMysteries? CellularCake? You can pay from your mobile, here it is just 2 bucks. (New installments every week, just like Cervantes and Dickens!) Here in Canada, the Toronto Star and the Montreal Gazette built huge printing plants in the 90’s, the Montreal plant is closed. They should have developed tablets and a mobile market. I’m thinking of turning short stories to screenplays, but maybe a weekly mobile serial, Buck Rogers, Three Stooges, could it happen print style?

    1. Try podcasting.
      The financials are not clear-cut, but some are earning a living.
      Try Dan Carlin Hardcore History as an extreme example.

  22. When you brought up Walden Books, it brought some great memories. I lived in a small town on the Texas, Mexican border. We were 2 hours from San Antonio. The town had a small Walden books. I swear I was the only kid in there reading all the time. I had to save my money because my dad wouldn’t buy me a freaking book. But I digress. It was fun just sitting on the floor reading the crap out of those books. Oh, and about B&N, I don’t even go there anymore. My 13 year old daughter is a crazy book reading monger and she also hates that store. On our trip to Michigan, we found a mom and pop book store in a town called Petoskey off the coast of Lake Michigan. I had to drag her out so we could get to our destination on time. When we left the store she looked at me and said, “Dad, I want to be a writer”. She took me by surprise. I said, ok. So I went back into the mom and pop books store, bought her an expensive Detroit journal (because that’s all they had) and told her she had until the end of Summer to fill it with stories. If she did, I said I’ll do everything I can to support her. Well, she filled it and has filled another one. The magic of that little books store really made an impact on her. I hope you’re right Hugh. I really hope those stores start coming back.

  23. By far the best analysis I’ve seen of the recent evolution, present day, and future of book retailing, I’m adding it to my list of references in the next revision of McLuhan in an Age of Social Media, which should be up on Amazon in about eight or so hours.

  24. Thank you for this, Hugh. Awesome as always.

    In regard to Amazon and the online community – any thoughts on the review purges? Many bloggers have had 100% of their reviews removed by Amazon without explanation or recourse.

    1. I’ve asked some people at Amazon about this, and one of the responses I got that interested me the most was: “Our data is very, very good.”

      What that suggested to me is one of FOUR things:

      1) Amazon’s data really is that good, and people who say they haven’t received improper reviews have received improper reviews

      2) Amazon’s faith in the veracity of its data is dangerously overestimated, which has them throwing out babies with bathwater

      3) The intermingling of indie authors with blogger, beta readers, other authors, forum friends, Facebook friends, has created a web where one bad apple can spoil a whole bunch (which is a combination of 1 and 2)

      4) The scammers who are paying for reviews are creating a situation where the paid reviewers are having to sprinkle in other fake reviews on non-paid-for items in order to make their accounts seem legitimate, so innocent bystanders are being taken out in the side effects of the paid review marketplace.

      Where would I place my money, if I had to bet? I would take them in reverse order: 4, 3, 2, 1.

      1. A commenter mentioned 2 types of “bookish people” and I just wanted to add 2 cents for a big/small market: library members. Being on a low income (because I don’t work hard enough selling my amazing stories), I volunteered at Atwater Library in Montreal to get free membership. A private library, quite small, but very old (originally the Mechanics Institute in 1800’s), the buyer likes particular non-fiction that directs me, sometimes, into new adventures, like “A Canadian Climate of Mind” about native spirituality and environment. I hang out in the new non-fiction, which is only a number of shelves, and I can tell you which ones I have read. From the DVD’s, I just watched, mesmerized, “I, Claudius”, which I cannot afford to buy. I got half through “Dark Money” but abandoned it, looking for light. They do have an e-book section which is mostly romance. I guess I should check their source for e-books, who pays what, etc.

        1. I’m also a library user in rural Ontario. On the one hand, if I bought every book I read I would have enough to fill a bookstore and no room for anything else in my house. On the other hand I feel a bit guilty about not supporting the authors I love by purchasing their books myself. As a compromise I have begun taking advantage of the “suggest a purchase” option that my local library offers. My most recent suggestion? “Sand”. Most of the time my suggestions are approved and I’ll be the first to get the book. And then it goes back to the library so more people can read it.

  25. I think that it would be very interesting if we got you over to give a talk on the state of the book industry .

    Rick Lightstone
    PR Director
    The American Book Center /

  26. Excellent analysis of B&N and how indies can compete with Amazon. I disagree, though, regarding how Amazon can compete with indies. They are, by design, impersonal and data-driven. They don’t care about love for a book, only sales. In fact, I’d argue they don’t sell books. They sell ISBNs. If one string of numbers is selling, they promote. If not, they don’t. Caring would only get in the way of the data. Thus stores with codes for you to scan as if you’re online. Maybe they’ll hire attractive peole to smile at you, but handselling will be beyond them except on the downlow.

  27. Is there any evidence that Independent bookstores outside of major metropolitan areas are, or have a path to becoming, profitable? Every recent store opening I’ve read about seems more like a labor of love/vanity operation than anything else. As in, the bookstores associated with Judy Blume, Ann Patchett and the truly bizarre operation of Ralph Nader. They all strike me as being heavily subsidized and unsustainable long-term, though I’d be curious to find out otherwise.

  28. B&N has created an unpleasant shopping experience and your analysis is spot on – they’re doomed. They provide no value, experience, or convenience and thus have no competitive advantage.

    I recently brought my kids so they could pick out a new book (usually we stick to the library) and we had to navigate the toy gauntlet just to access the kid’s book section. It was a nightmare. Somebody in Finance likely figured that the average transaction amount INCREASED by including the toy gauntlet. Sadly that analysis failed to capture the % of shoppers who simply stopped coming because parents don’t want to fight about toys while encouraging their kids to read.

    The indies are cornering the high-quality/service model. Amazon owns low-cost. B&N does neither and wonders why they can’t meet their sales targets.

  29. I’m sure you’re right, and that B&N is doomed, but I think in a way, Riggio is right too: if you’re really interested in books, B&N is not worth visiting anymore. They don’t have anywhere near the selection in each store that they did when they first opened, and it’s all bestsellers and popular books; there’s nothing interesting or unusual. These days, if I go to B&N, it’s generally for the cheesecake.

  30. Laughed out loud at this – “….to see what she could come up with in a single cheeto-and-redbull manic month” !

  31. “B&N has books 2 through 12 of the fantasy series that everyone is telling you that you have to read, and they’re sorry but they can special order book 1 for you, as they’re currently out, but it’ll take 3 to 5 weeks to get in, and they’ll CALL YOU ON YOUR PHONE when it arrives, and you can drive back to the store to … fucking kill me already.”

    I lol’ed pretty damn hard at that. WP sir. Great read, it certainly makes the mind turn over about what the writing world will look like the day Amazon is the undefeated heavyweight of the world.

  32. Our largest B&N here in Seattle (at Northgate Mall) still has quite a few comfy sofa chairs and is quite good for browsing….every time I swing by, I discover some new books I would not have otherwise encountered.

    There problem is that they don’t control their pricing (which is largely set by publishers), and that they only sell new books. Best move B&N could make at this point would be to get into the used book business, since used books often have very high profit margins (think bought at $1, sold at $6-7).

    Our local indie, Third Place Books, stocks both new and used, and according to the General Manager (who I interviewed a while back), used books have the highest profit margins of any items they sell in the store. They buy from the community at $1 and sell at 50% of the retail “new” price, and while used books are only about 20-30% of sales by volume, they are over 50% of profit.

  33. I fondly remember Waldenbooks and how I actually liked going to the mall when they were still in business. As a computer science major I had a ton of those heavy tomes and hauled them around with me when I moved. Now with the advent of O’Reilly’s Safari I no longer have to haul around outdated boat achors. But for the other content at Waldenbooks – somebody good was working there selecting things to put on shelves that would grab the interest of avid readers.

    I fondly remember the past, but at the same time I love that I can take my tiny, svelte Android tablet with me on the train and read whatever book I can find.

  34. I really love your articles. I just spent several hours reading your blog and all the comments. I feel like the things you described in you last two blogs are bureaucracy at its very slowest and worst. I am an indie writer, first book published january 21st, 2014. I have 25 or so books out now. I don’t even know how many, my husband keeps track. Hubby was able to quit his job within 6 months of me first pubbing and now we are looking at a move to the coast. Yes, I spend 6K a month on facebook and other ads, and yes, I spend 3 or 4 hours of my day on marketing and reader interaction, but I feel truly blessed to do so. (I am in romance, and all in KU, and I just breached the top 100 paid for the first time yesterday. I made it down to 97 on a book that’s 32 days old. I feel on top of the publishing world right now ;) ;) )

    We indies are the little ants moving around so quickly the traditional publishers and book stores can’t even see what we are doing. Seriously, if Amazon changed something tomorrow (like they did with KU 1.0 and 2.0) I would focus all my energy on how to get ahead of their change and continue to thrive. Adapt or die, that’s mine and my best author friend’s motto. No reason to be nervous to go indie. It’s really the best way to live right now. So fun. So free. So lucrative.

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