As a writer I often feel that I was born into the wrong time. The reading proficiency of most Americans has declined over the past two decades. Borders Group, Inc., which operated Borders and Waldenbooks, went bankrupt and shuttered its doors in late 2011. Traditional media as a whole has struggled to adapt to a digital world of low overhead, free content, and instant gratification. The Christian Writer’s Market Guide – 2012 begins on this unenthusiastic note: “We began work on this edition with a myriad of mixed feelings. Would publishers or publications report going out of business or closing their doors to freelance submissions – given the economy? Thirteen book publishers and 21 periodicals dropped out of the guide…” What is an aspiring author to do?
I remember my first exposure to Barnes & Noble. The largest bookstore I had ever seen (with what seemed at the time to be an odd name) opened in my hometown of Burbank, CA and the store and window displays of books, books, books were intoxicating. From that day I could not see a Barnes & Noble and resist going inside, browsing the aisles and savoring that sweet new-book smell. I knew then that I would successfully achieve my dream of being an author on the day that I could walk into a Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of my own book off the shelf.
But will that dream ever be realized? Barnes & Noble’s stock price is hovering around $9.20 per share, down from a high of $46.25 in March of 2005. The company is on its third CEO in as little as two years. Nook sales are down and the company had to drastically stop the bleeding of its e-reader division. I am not a businessman, but as a longtime fan of the brand and lover of books, here are three suggestions for how Barnes & Noble can adapt (or die):
I have encountered many smaller, independent bookstores that are thriving in their communities. Quail Ridge in Raleigh, NC, Malaprops in Asheville, NC, and FoxTale Books in Woodstock, GA are just a handful of award-winning and profitable local stores with a loyal customer base and active community presence. Barnes & Noble needs to go small – opening concept stores that eschew having thousands upon thousands of books that people don’t want while focusing in algorithmic fashion on the books that sell or that can be highlighted and effectively introduced to readers. You don’t need a warehouse with twenty versions of Monopoly, $50 Blu-Rays, and off-brand Starbucks coffee. Dramatically reduce your overhead while focusing on high quality products sold by a handful of employees with degrees in English and Library Science. Look at how the successful local bookstores are staying profitable and adopt their strategy.
If Nora Ephron were alive today, she could make a sequel to You Got Mail where the Fox Books corporation is being outgunned by a savvy book web-seller, just as Fox Books forced The Shop Around the Corner out of business. My common experience is that Barnes & Noble carries a million different books… except whatever one I happen to be looking for. I inquire with an employee, if I can find one, if they have such and such in stock. A quick computer check will confirm that they do not have it in store, but I can order it and come back later! Do I ever take them up on this offer? Of course not. I can go home, order the book at a significantly lower cost, avoid sales tax (depending on the state), and have the book arrive at my front door in two days with free shipping. There is no contest. Oh, and would I like to sign up for a paid Barnes & Noble Membership Program? Uhh… no thanks. How can Barnes & Noble beat Amazon at its own game? Here is a radical suggestion: free one-day shipping of any book not currently in stock to the customer’s front door.
The Hunger Games trilogy has sold over 65 million books. Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 60 million. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has sold 80 million. There is an incredible amount of money to be made with the right books. Publishers now days are more risk-averse than ever, and yet the three examples listed above were all unknown quantities at one point. I have always thought it to be the height of stupidity that the publishing industry takes such a passive role in finding, developing, and promoting talent. Sports agents attend the sporting events of children and teenagers to find the next big thing. In contrast, aspiring authors hammer against the closed and indifferent doors of literary agencies and publishers for years, trying to get noticed. This is nothing if not a market inefficiency – untapped talent wanting to let a struggling industry sell their potentially profitable products. Amazon and Netflix have found great success in getting involved in the production side of audiovisual media. Amazon and Netflix both have produced popular and award-winning television shows. Barnes & Noble should scout untapped talent, nurture that talent, and use its massive platform to promote these new books. As first-time authors are happy to sign a publishing contract for very low compensation, Barnes & Noble could reap massive profits.