Saturday, January 28, 2012

As Barnes & Noble Goes, So Goes the Future of Publishing

A New York Barnes and Noble Location
Not all that long ago, I was able to choose between buying a a recently published book from Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton, Borders, Book Stop, Crown Books, and even a handful of really good, but much smaller, booksellers.  Now there are just Barnes and Noble and the Books-A-Million chains, the latter of which has never had much of a presence in Houston.  When they first appeared, all of the national chains were harshly accused of running out of business all the little guys that had been selling books locally for decades.  The chains were most definitely cast as the bad guys, and they probably were.  Now, however, I would kill to have them back because even the last standing giant, Barnes and Noble, may not be long for this world and the little guys are not likely to return even if that happens.

The CNBC website has posted a heartbreaking, and terrifying, New York Times article clearly presenting the predicament that traditional publishers are in today.  The publishers recognize that the survival of Barnes and Noble is now closely tied to their own future survival.  This is true, despite the fact, that the bookseller is walking a very fine line itself as it tries to compete with Amazon in the e-book market while not, as a result, entirely killing off so much of the demand for printed books that it has to close its brick and mortar bookstores. Without Barnes and Noble's bookstores, the future of printed books will be much different than today - and many experts are already predicting that Barnes and Noble has started down the path of a long, slow death spiral of its own.
Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense, suddenly seems a reach. Marketing books via Twitter, and relying on reviews, advertising and perhaps an appearance on the “Today” show doesn’t sound like a winning plan.
 What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.
While publishers’ fates are closely tied to Barnes & Noble, said John Sargent, the C.E.O. of Macmillan, it’s not all about them.
“Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.” 
If, as a true book-lover, any of this scares you or makes you nervous, you should read the entire article. It will terrify you and make you wonder if Jeff Bevos, head of Amazon, is on the verge of killing off the industry dearest to our hearts...and yet, few of us can resist the lure of Amazon's cheap prices and quick delivery.  Are we nuts?


  1. The industry itself will not be killed off. There will still be authors writing good books—which is at the heart of the publishing industry, and makes it what it is.

    Storytelling isn't about brick and mortar, publishing offices, people in suits deciding what books should and shouldn't be published. It's about words on a page, and that will continue to exist, although in a different form.

    Yes, we'll be losing a method of delivery, but we'll still be getting what we, hopefully, love MOST about books—the words and ideas expressed by the authors we cherish.

  2. A world where books are some sort of artifact, a throwback to a bygone era -- yes, I guess I can think of nothing sadder. I bewail the speed at which the industry seems to be shifting toward the closure of physical bookstores, etc.
    I understand what the above commenter is suggesting, and yet, for some people [like me] it isn't even just about the reading. It's about the BOOKS! The feel and weight of them, and all of that. I am so not an e-reader. And so, again, this may already sound dinosaurish of me to say -- but, I want books, and book STORES to stick around. Yet I also buy a majority of my books online. You ask a good question, Sam.
    "Are we nuts?"
    Schizophrenic? Is the lure of a better deal just too hard to resist? Why are we hastening the extinction of something we love so much?

  3. Rob, I dread the world where every novelist is forced to hustle and publish his own books. I understand that this opens the door for those writers who have been unable to publish in the traditional manner - and I applaud this fact. I have fallen in love with the work of several independently published books in the last couple of years and I look forward to hearing more from their authors.

    But most writers cannot afford to publish and market physical books on their own. Nor can they really afford to write for a decade or so while hoping that the reading public will finally discover and appreciate their work.

    Publishers can afford to nurture and support new writers to the degree that, if they close their doors, many worthy authors who would have found an audience will simply disappear before it happens. They have a system to print and distribute books that works. It might not be the most efficient system in the world, but it works.

    I want physical books. I love the feel, the smell, and the reading experience of physical books. E-books cannot come close to duplicating the experience, nor do we really own them. There are too many competing formats, e-readers, and the like to make me happy about owning them. I do own a Sony Reader and I have the apps from all the other major readers on my iPad. I must have over 200 e-books at my disposal now...but I don't read them unless it is impossible or too inconvenient to read a physical book. And, when I do, I seldom enjoy them as much as a physical book or retain as much detail.

    Yes, part of the reading experience IS about brick and mortar bookstores. Does anyone actually claim to enjoy browsing the kindle bookstore as much as wandering around inside a brick and mortar bookstore for a few hours? If they do, they are pulling your leg.

    I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love the idea of writers controlling their own destiny for the first time. On the other, I appreciate what publishers have to offer to the process and I will miss most of what they do.

  4. Cip, I agree with you. Two years ago, I could not have imagined that we would already be to this point. It's like a snowball rolling down a hill, and I don't think it can be stopped now. I'm hoping that B&N and Books-A-Million (although I hate that chain) survive.

    I will never be able to embrace e-books with the same passion that I embrace physical books. I have been reading real books for 57 years now. They are in my blood. E-books are just not ever going to cut it for me.

  5. I've never bought a book from Amazon. I LOVE bookstores and the years I spent working in one were like working in my happy place (altough customers kept coming in and messing up my happy place ;)). I don't want a Kindle or a nook. I don't want to read e-books. I want real books and I want real bookstores. I'm very nervous about the future of books; this is an issue where I don't think technology is an improvment.

  6. Yeah, Annie, what's with those customers coming in and messing up your happy place like that?

    I only went to a Sony Reader when I was doing so much traveling (and staying in isolation when I got there) that I could not possibly carry enough books to last me for a month at a time. Now, publishers are going to e-books for review copy and that irks me because most of them build in a six-week period after which the file corrupts and becomes unreadable. What's with that? I enjoy collecting the books that I've enjoyed, and I think that should be one of the perks of reviewing (the only one there is, really). I get a kick out of ARCs because they are the most scarce edition of any book...anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of thousand, or so.

    I figured you would agree - as the ex-bookseller you are. It just gets in your blood, doesn't it?

  7. The possibilities of where this trend is heading are certainly depressing, Nan. It's all happening so much quicker than I would have ever imagined possible. That's what makes me especially nervous.

    Support your local bookstore, even if it's the big chain B&N. We need to help ensure that we still have a choice between printed books and e-books when this finally plays out.

    I collect books, not bytes.

  8. I hear you, Sam. [re: your reply to my comment].
    I'm all for forest conservation, but I truly rue the day when books are not able to have anything to do with trees.
    -- Cip

  9. Support your local bookstore, even if it's the big chain B&N. We need to help ensure that we still have a choice between printed books and e-books when this finally plays out.

    This is precisely what I've been telling my customers all year long. As a B&N bookseller, avid reader and blogger I couldn't agree with you more. May I re-post your post on my blog, Sam? Of course, I'll give full credit (and provide a link) to you.

  10. Absolutely, Les. Anything I can do, little as it might be, to help get the message out to other avid readers, I'm happy to do. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. The thought of someday not having a Barnes and Noble to go wander through on a gray, rainy day with my daughter or my future grandkids makes me unbelievably sad. Although I have a Nook, I almost never use it, because if I end up hating the ebooks I buy I can't return them. Plus there's nothing worse than dragging around a power cord!

  12. Completely understand, Pam. I can't really believe something like that will happen, but I've been surprised already by the rapid decline in bookstore and publishing health so I'll never say never.

  13. Now that this is happening, I'd still hope there is an avenue to buy printed books. As an aspiring author myself, I'd still like to see my book on print rather than an electronic file since it just won't make difference for me if I just export the MS word document to PDF. But the more important thing is the feel of book's weight, the texture, and even the opportunity to go out to the bookstore and meet other avid writers and make new friends. I get that the reason for transferring to ebooks is for convenience and even saving trees, what about batteries? Don't those devices use such toxic things? It would be nice for Barnes and Nobles to stay alive, I'm sure there are book lovers out there who would want to read books in a tangible form.

  14. About Me, you hit on a good point that a lot of newish writers seem to be forgetting. On the one hand, e-books make self-publishing affordable and easy for the first time. On the other, if actual bookstores bite the dust the books of these same authors are very likely to disappear into the netherworld of the internet unless the authors spend most of their lives promoting them. Then, when do they have time to write the next one?

    I discover books every week in bookstores that I would have missed in my online shopping efforts. Bookstores are the one place I can meet likeminded people for spontaneous conversations about books and writers. Lose bookstores and the world of publishing does more than change - it becomes a flaccid shadow of itself.