Op-Ed: The Fall(out) of Barnes & Noble

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while now, but basically been bouncing back and forth on exactly how since while I have some insight on the subject … I really don’t have a lot compared to some others. Put plain and simply I don’t deal with Barnes & Noble. At least, not as an author. Very rarely, as a customer, but that frequency has dropped from a couple of book-buying visits a year to a visit every couple of years, and even then it’s rare that I walk out with something.

Which doesn’t paint a rosy picture of their business in the first place, if my and my friends experiences are anything to go by (or B&N’s own reports). But as an author, I don’t deal with B&N at all. Most notably because I’m indie, and B&N has never really had much to offer authors in that regard.

Oh sure, you could sell on their Nook service for a small royalty. But the Nook has always been such a niche market that it never really seemed worth it. Now that B&N has cut the Nook, that seems like a smart proposition (especially considering I heard nothing but mixed messages from it when it was around).

Right, I feel like I’m either getting ahead of myself or slightly off-topic. Only slightly, as B&N’s treatment of the Nook does seem to illustrate how we get to today. But let’s wrap that back in. Effectively, what I’m saying is that while I’m curious and intrigued about what the fallout of, well, we’ll talk about that in a moment, but let’s just call it “it” for now, is going to be … I’m on a side of the publishing industry that doesn’t rub up against B&N too much, so a lot of what I think could happen is mostly speculation—light speculation—about the shockwaves rolling through a side I don’t really know. I know there’s going to be a lot of fallout, just as one knows when a nation topples that the status quo has just been upset … but in the spirit of that analogy I’m on the other side of the continent, or maybe even across an ocean. All I know is that when someplace like Rome falls, everyone feels it.

That clear as mud? Okay? Well, then let’s talk about “it.” The big deal. I’ve talked about it before on here, but only in passing. To put it simply, however …

Barnes & Noble is going under.

Okay, it’s not official yet, all right? In fact, the company is doing everything it can to deny the fact. You know, the usual song-and-dance number of ‘consolidating’ and ‘refocusing on our core values’ and ‘trimming unneeded areas.’ The kind of stuff you tell the investors who aren’t paying attention while you quietly shuffle as much money you can into an offshore account and warm up the jet.

But what that boils down to, after the “translator jargon” is removed, is a lot more grim. For starters, B&N has seen declining profits for several years running now, and the latest report—which prompted some trimming—was a massive downturn during the holiday period. You know, that one period where just about any retail business can make money? Yeah, B&N saw a massive drop. Which prompted, among other things, a quiet moment in February where they let go every single full-time employee nationwide.

Yup. All at once. Unannounced. Most of them didn’t even know it was happening until they showed up and got the slip. B&N’s official reasoning was that full-time employees were costing the company too much money, and that replacing two-or-three full-time employees with a single part-time employee would save the company … Oh, I think the number given was around 40 million by years end.

Sound familiar? The last time a business tried this exact stunt (with very similar wording and reasoning, no less), it was Circuit City. When was the last time you saw one of those? As Circuit City found when they declared bankruptcy a few months later, firing all the full-time employees who actually know what they’re doing and were dedicated to the company is a bad idea.

Who got let go in B&N’s purge? Sales associates, those folks who help you find books and recommend others. Book stockers … Yes, as in the people whose job it was to figure out what will sell best at their location and keep it in stock. Which is now switching fully over to B&n’s wonderful (that is sarcasm) method of the corporate heads simply telling each store what will sell best based on a single location near them (probably New York).

Oh, it gets worse. Shortly thereafter, B&N also announced that they would be ‘shrinking’ a number of stores, opening up new venues that were half the size and carried a much smaller selection of books. While, of course, closing the old venues that had been much too big for the current market.

Oh, even better, they announced a new book club, that, well … Let’s just say r/books on Reddit summed it up pretty well with one person commentating that they were paying a large monthly fee to have a free cup of coffee and a cookie once a month. Personally, the “new” book club, and especially the wording in the announcement, seemed pretty much exactly like a form of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, investors! Look at this shiny new thing we’re featuring!”

Again, all actions that reek of Circuit City‘s inglorious, ignominious death, and just about every other failing company I studied in my old business classes. And when taken with B&N’s falling sales records and slow decline, points to one thing: they’re not long for this world.

Okay, got all that? Because now we get to the meat of this whole post. When that happens, when B&N finally admits they’re playing a holding pattern hoping for a miracle that isn’t coming (that generally happens when you burn your bridges) … what then?

I ask because B&N is the last major player in the physical retail space. No, seriously, look at this list of current physical bookstore chains in the US. Most of them are regional. Some of them I’ve never even heard of. The only two on that list that have a massive presence just about everywhere are Amazon (which isn’t technically physical, as they only have a few bookstore locations, and they don’t play by the traditional publishing rules anyway), and B&N.

So what happens when B&N falls? Besides go pick up cheap furniture when they liquidate.

That’s the real question, and one I’d not really been considering (nor, I think, were many others) right up until the ground it was built on started shaking. B&N is, though I myself didn’t realize this until a few weeks ago, a titan in the book industry alongside the big five publishers. For many, they are the book market … so much so that—and again, I didn’t realize this until a few weeks ago when I caught first-hand accounts of it—they were able to dictate to publishers what a book would and wouldn’t do. Straight up. They were the biggest seller in town, so they could just tell someone “do this, or we won’t sell your book.”

Okay, now they probably didn’t do it often. At least, I hope not. But it certainly put a lot of power in one institution’s hands. And that power certainly played back into the hands of the big five (as power between large, co-dependent organizations often is, especially when both working together would stave off a larger threat, like Amazon and indies).

And now that power’s about to be up for grabs. And diluted.

Which is the real question behind this post, what’s been bugging my noggin for the last few weeks ever since this whole development really started to roll downhill. When B&N—and I say when, not if—goes under, what happens to all that power. And those tight connections between them and the big five? And what does that mean for the other, rising “nations” of the book world, like the Indie groups (both bookstore and authors)?

Honestly, from my perspective I really can’t say with much clarity. Again, I’m on the other side of the “continent” here. But I can make some guesses. First and foremost is that the fall of B&N is going to shatter one of the last power blocks of the big five trad pubs.

See, B&N? They’re not putting indie books on their shelves. They’re a bastion of the big five. They’ve got an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship with the big pubs that the big pubs like.

But indie bookstores? They don’t have that same relationship. They’re happy to stock a book that sells, regardless of the source. And that’s what they want. Indie or big pub. Amazon is the same way: they don’t care where the book comes from as long as it sells. Which means that the big five, relying on a place like B&N to keep them from facing competition, won’t have that edge anymore. They won’t have a single retailer that can say “sure, we’ll stock all these books, and make sure what we sell is from one of you.”

And that’ll be devastating to the trad pubs who’ve relied on that kind of solidarity. Losing B&N might mean they have to actually compete with smaller pubs and indie authors that are already proving to be a difficult form of competition in the marketplace.

It could mean a lot for indie booksellers too. While B&N is seeing failing sales in the book market, independent book stores (which, unlike B&N, have the power to tailor what they sell based on their clients rather than corporate) is seeing things stay either the same or even rise. With the collapse of B&N, a lot of independent stores could see their clientele grow as well as find themselves much more “vital” in the eyes of the big publishers.

Will there be more from this? Of course. I entirely expect that a number of these closing B&N stores could end up as Amazon bookstores. Some will likely languish empty.

But what else will change? Well … I don’t know. But one thing is certain: the fall of the last big phyiscal book retail chain will bring with it a lot of fallout. It’s inescapable.

So I’m ending this with that question: What do you think is going to happen? Barring some extreme, last-minute measures, B&N going down is at this point a near certainty. They’re definitely not playing by any other book than the “dead businesses of the 90s” playbook, which is ironic given that they’re a bookstore. Maybe their CEO should try reading some of the business books they sell?

But that aside, what do you think the fall of B&N could mean for the book industry. Are you a reader? An author? An editor? What’s the change you see coming from this, and do you think it’s good or bad?

See you Monday, folks.

2 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Fall(out) of Barnes & Noble

  1. Hmm. This may be good for Indie publishers. But I’m wondering what it means for writers.

    If you managed to make a big-name title and sell it to one of the big five publishers, you could expect to see decent profits. Now, there’s not going to be a “best sellers” table for you to sell thousands of copies on across the nation.

    I suspect making a living as a writer may become more difficult. But when hasn’t it been hard?

    Beyond that? Sad to see so many jobs pour down the drain.


    • True … but at the same time, it means that those same authors will actually have to try rather than just relying on a name and marketing to sell a book.

      As a commentator pointed out in a cross-post, bookstores and the big publishers right now are working a “push” strategy, where they tell you what’s popular and what you’re going to read. You don’t get to decide for yourself whether a book is good or not, it goes in the best-seller rack regardless of whether or not it is with the goal of forcing it to be one.

      Amazon and other booksellers operate on a “pull” market, where they sell what the market wants to buy.

      An author who can sell on their own merit, I would think, shouldn’t have a problem even with B&N gone. An author who really only gets attention because the publisher throws mad marketing dollars at them though … Well, if they’re really not worth it, the market will find out.


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