Guest post by Steve Moore:
Recently an edition of the NY Times featured an article on Barnes & Noble bookstores in the business section. A summary of the article: B&N thinks that it’s doing everything it can to survive. My observation: No, there are things it could do but doesn’t want to do. Since we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in the publishing world, I wouldn’t dare make predictions on how eBooks and indie publishing are going to affect legacy publishers. I can warn them to look out, though. I remember opting for betamax because it was technically the best option, but VHS won the day (and now, no one uses either one!). Predicting the fickle fate of modern technologies is best left for people that don’t eat enough protein and can use the egg on their face.
So, what things would I do if I were B&N? (I’ll ask the same question of small mom and pop bookstores below.) First, I’d bring out a competitor to the Kindle. Check that off. I don’t like the Nook, but I know people who do. When I say Kindle, I’m referring to the e-ink low glare screen version I have, the one where you can only read books and newspapers. The Fire is a Nook is an iPad-I don’t like any of them because I’m not an apps-icon pusher. Apps are baby computer programs, the computer version of drug addiction. I get along just fine without them and probably always will.
My Kindle, on the other hand, has turned out to be indispensable for my entertainment (dominated by reading books, of course) and my reviewing (also reading books). I don’t use any of the bells and whistles-my fingers are too large for the little keypad at the bottom. I seem to remember when I bought the Kindle that there’s a way to mark up text, but pencil and paper still work just fine for that. And I love it that I can download an eBook for myself or be gifted one for review and it’s all there in a gizmo that weighs less than a normal hardbound. I just finished Lee Child’s The Affair in hardbound (= Christmas present-I’d never spend that kind of money anymore on a pBook, and the eBook is almost as expensive). It was heavy and cumbersome.
B&N, consequently, was smart in bringing out the Nook. I don’t know if they have an e-ink version-if they don’t, that’s not smart. Nevertheless, eBooks and eReaders are here to stay. A dear old friend was a longer holdout than I was, but his wife bought a Kindle, wouldn’t let him use it, so now he has his own. Consequently, the real question is: What should B&N do with those huge stores? One obvious answer is to dedicate more space to selling the various versions of the Nook. Another is to increase the sandwich/pastry/coffee space for people who like to sit down and soil magazines and books for the rest of us. It seems like B&N is doing just that. Nonetheless, there is a more important thing that B&N should do: eliminate their parasitic dependence on the legacy publishers.
Speaking of the NY Times, other parts of the country aren’t slammed with those large (full- or half-page) ads that list all the “book activities” people will find at their B&N. Well, maybe in other big cities, but Times readers, living in the corporate center for most legacy publishers, receive a steady barrage. B&N charges a pretty penny, I’ll bet, to Random House, etc, for hosting these activities-they have to pay for the ads. It’s not like the mom and pop bookstore that sells coffee and a few scones and hosts a small discussion section or book signing, content with receiving the profits from the extra books or edibles they sell that day. This is part of the B&N business model that seems to be taken from a galaxy far, far away.
Moreover, legacy publishers for years have agreements-not only with B&N, but most bookstores-where books can be returned with reimbursement from the publisher. For B&N, this allowed them to expand into warehouse-size Walmart-like stores that offer everything under the modern media sun-books, maps, magazines, music, videos, snacks, coffee, and now Nooks. As a consequence, B&N drove many smaller bookstores out of business, not a good thing for two reasons: service and versatility (a third is the economy, but that’s a labor problem not particularly related to books).
B&N does NOT carry everything-never has, never will. I don’t how many times I’ve walked in and asked, “Do you have X’s novel?” where X is a Spanish, French, or even English author. I’m talking about a book in the original language. (Almost all bookstores only carry “classic” English authors-probably to allow high school English teachers to continue to bludgeon their pupils with the likes of Silas Marner.) And you will NEVER, NEVER find that old edition you’re looking for in the B&N store. Even bargain books and used books go in those high entropy carts at the entrance where you feel like you’re in a flea market.
Consequently, B&N is not versatile. Smaller bookstores are even less versatile. Sure, the salesperson will say they can order the book for me. Well, no they can’t, if it’s a discontinued edition that’s out-of-print and only available in used bookstores and online. Moreover, if I can find it online, why would I order it through that salesperson? Just so they can add their errors to the process? Same goes for foreign language books, including recent books in English not sold in this country.
No, B&N is not that versatile. They only stock what moves in large quantities. Moreover, they send the books back to the publisher too quickly. This is not only bad for authors (publishing house to newbie author: “Sorry, but you didn’t make contract because your book didn’t sell 10000 copies in N months” where N is generally less than six); it’s also bad for readers (B&N salesperson to reader: “Sorry, we no longer carry that book-it’s over N months old. Let me find you something more recent.”)
There is no doubt that you will find better personal service in a mom and pop bookstore, if you can find one where the salespeople aren’t snobbish wannabe literary critics. Moreover, you meet interesting people there sometimes, people who enjoy books as much as you do. One Spanish book I recently read, Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (see my bilingual review in the “Book Reviews” section of my blog), contains many delights, but one I share is the writer’s obvious love for musty old bookstores and his portrayal of various book loving characters. I bought my copy via Amazon, knowing that searching for it locally would be a fool’s errand (this was before the English edition came out and it became a fine example of “literary fiction,” whatever that means).
Finally, there are the sour grapes expressed by many indie authors, including myself. Of all the people who still have a low opinion of and even prejudice against indie authors and indie publishing, I seem to find a higher percentage of them in bookstores, especially small bookstores-not your specialty bookstores, mind you, but the ones still trying to compete with B&N by being everything for everybody (elbow jousting at the coffee tables included). As an ex-scientist and a writer, I observe human behavior as if it were under a microscope. There is often a snobbishness and outright bias against the indie author and the indie publisher. Some of this disdain is earned-I’ve seen some terrible books come my way as a reviewer (but not all of them are indie). Nevertheless, many a best-selling author started out in the indie world and more and more authors are recognizing that indie publishing is a better deal for them, since legacy publishers scoop up more than their fair share of the book’s price.
My warning to B&N and all the bookstores trying to compete with them: The times are a-changin’. The old publishing paradigm will disappear and become-who knows? Digital, for sure. However, there will still be niches to fill. Authors, readers, and bookstores must evolve to fill them in a way that’s not only fair to everyone but offers everyone versatility and service. There are readers and there are writers. Everything that stands between them is up for grabs. Those institutions and services that connect writers to readers and vice versa, in a more effective manner, will be those that survive. I don’t know what form they’ll take-probably nothing either B&N wunderkinds or I can imagine right now.
In libris libertasâ€¦.
Steve Moore writes sci-fi thrillers, short stories, and book reviews. He also has an active blog where he comments on current events and posts opinions about writing and the publishing business from the perspective of an indie author. Visit him at his website http://stevenmmoore.com