Friday, November 8, 2013

What Barnes and Noble Needs to Do to Stay Alive

There are very few people in the publishing industry that do not fear for Barnes and Noble's life.

I do not own this picture.

The bookseller has been reporting losses for almost every quarter for a while. Its stock prices have been falling, its sales have been dropping, and they're even closing many stores.

And there are very few people who believe that the cause of this destruction is anything but Amazon.

First, let's investigate the top three reasons why Amazon is beating B&N right now.

1. Price
2. Price
3. PRICE!!!!

Sure, sure, you can throw in things like a wider selection of books to pick from, ease of accessibility to the Internet (which makes it much easier to order online than to drive to a B&N), and the relative confidence that the book you purchase will be good (due to Amazon reviews and other info you can get online).

But the reason why people go into B&N, find a book, then put it down and buy it off Amazon, the reason why Amazon's book industry is doing so well, is because of its price.

It's simple economics. Amazon has three main advantages over B&N about its price:

1. Price Flexibility. 

Unless I am severely mistaken, Amazon price-matches most (if not all) of the books on its website, meaning that they match the lowest price offered for the book out there. However, books in B&N are of a fixed value. This means, even in a changing environment, B&N can not shift to meet the changing demand as quickly as Amazon can.

2. Production Costs per Unit of Production. 

 B&N has to pay for rent (and if you've seen their huge stores, you'll know this is a big cost). They have to pay wages to their workers, they have to pay insurance for their workers and for the stores. All this boils down to a higher price per book.

But Amazon... what are their costs compared to B&N's? Maybe they have some workers, but rent? Maybe for warehouses, but those warehouses are not only for books. Book-to-square-foot, B&N has a LOT more rent to pay. And thus, Amazon's costs boil down to a cheaper book.

3. E-Books. 

True, B&N has the Nook, but it's not as popular as Amazon's Kindle. As e-books are so much cheaper than hardcover or paperback, and since most self-published authors are going towards e-books to save costs, Amazon is receiving a TON of books. Since the supply of books is increasing with a relatively stable demand, the prices for the books fall (as economics dictates). This price fall is mainly present in the self-publishing part of Amazon, but it sometimes trickles into traditionally published books as well. Also, B&N carries very few self-published books.

So let's get one thing straight: Due to the brick-and-mortar aspect of B&N, B&N should give up all hopes of EVER competing with Amazon's prices. At most, they'll get close to the prices, but they won't beat it, nor will they be too competitive with them. It's economics.

So what can B&N do to stay alive? Should they give up all hope?


In fact, they are sitting on one of the biggest niches in the market: the desire for a physical bookstore, and everything that it entails.

Do you remember the craziness at the bookstores when a new Harry Potter book was about to be released? There were midnight releases, parties at the bookstores, and they sold a LOT: about 11 million, worldwide, in just 24 hours.

And most of this happened at bookstores.

People haven't lost the love for a bookstore, as proven by the Harry Potter phenomenon and the recent one when Allegiant came out. People want a place to gather and share their love for a book or series with others like them. Clicking 'Place Order' on a computer doesn't do that for them. I doubt the Internet will ever replace the feeling of a group of people actually being in contact.

But B&N, in their futile quest to be as Amazon-like as possible, isn't utilizing this niche as much as it can.

B&N has to find a way to justify the higher costs for their books. If they aren't offering anything new or exciting that Amazon doesn't, why would a consumer go to B&N?

Here are a few ways Barnes and Noble can stay alive:

1. Book of the Month Reading groups.

At the start of every month, B&N will pick a book to read (this book can be picked by individual stores, or it can be done corporate-wide (I think the latter would work better so there would be a more communal feel to the whole B&N community)). At the end of the month, the readers will gather in the bookstore and discuss. B&N can decide whether to force the reader to buy the book at B&N to participate, or not. Basically, I'm saying B&N should have a book club at the actual location and not online. I can't imagine running this would be too costly.


There are so, so many authors in every city in the country!!! I'm shaking my head at how wonderfully this tactic would work: if B&N actively seeks out authors in the area to come and sign stock, sit for a while, and even do a talk (although that might get too hectic), they would make a LOT of money with very little effort. Everything other than the talk, the author would handle themselves. Also, it's simply natural for an author, when invited to sign stock and sit at a table to talk to readers, to invite people to come to the bookstore. THEY WANT PEOPLE! They'll call their friends, their families, saying, "Hey, I'm signing my book at B&N, come over!" The publicity and marketing will be done by the author themselves; B&N will simply have to sit back and watch.

Quite honestly, only the big B&Ns are getting many author visits. The one near me has gotten none as far as I've seen (and that's a problem). It doesn't have to be big, Rowling-fame writers. Almost all books published are by the 99% 'not famous' authors; doesn't make them any less of a writer.

3. More interaction from the workers. 

Get them to wear signs saying, "Hey, want to hear about a book I've recently read?" It's a psychological trick, but an honest tactic as well. By getting the workers to recommend books to the customers, the customers leave with a better book. Also, the customers have a much less chance of leaving and buying the book off of Amazon. They'll feel indebted to the worker, and they'll feel bad about 'wasting' the worker's time. So they'll buy the book, feeling content all the same.

The key is to have charismatic, passionate, and non-pushy workers (meaning, they'll ask what the customer's looking for, will know what to recommend, and will know how to pivot if the customer doesn't seem to like the recommended book. This doesn't mean more expensive workers; in fact, the best workers will be the ones willing to work for normal wages, since they'll want to work with books, their passion and love).

There are many, many more tactics that can be put into play, such as having the workers wear name tags listing their favorite books, or setting up much more vibrant and fun displays, or even having a 'Published by Authors in Your Area!" case which contains books by self-published and traditionally published authors near the store.

And it all boils down to this: utilize your advantage as much as you can, and also, utilize your combatant's weakness as much as you can. Meaning: B&N: YOUR PHYSICAL LOCATION IS A GIFT.

I just want to add, this isn't an attack on Amazon. Amazon has done AMAZING things for the publishing world and for us writers, so I want to thank you :) This is simply an attempt to revive B&N. The enemy of my friend does not have to be my enemy. The world isn't that black-and-white.

Well, I hope someone from Barnes and Noble reads this and at least gives it a thought! Otherwise, I've done what I can do. After that, it's up to them. But I hope they do at least give this a try.


  1. I hear they are still trying to sell and get rid of their physical stores.
    Most of the Barnes and Nobles in my area aren't very open to author visits. Maybe they really need to change that policy.

  2. You got that right. PRICE is indeed their problem.

    Good post, SC. Thanks :)

  3. Since my local B&N moved to the mall and into a smaller store, I pretty much stopped visiting. It was cheaper and easier to order from Amazon. Who wants to go near the mall at Christmas time? Especially as most book purchases I make are from my own family, not as gifts.

    I was also saddened to see them go with a smaller store. They got rid of so many books and did so again when they redesigned to make their Nook section the center of the store and giving it a lot of floor space. I used to love browsing for books, but now I do that at the library. Their books are free.

  4. We visited our local B&N, and I was saddened by what I witnessed: no longer could I lose myself in aisle after aisle of books, half of the shelves were gone, gone were the little areas where you could sit for an hour and read part of a book. And the next thing I noticed? They are kind of snobbish about what they will sell on the physical shelves. It was all the Big Six presses, nothing from smaller presses, and certainly not a self published book.

    They could certainly up sales if they loosened up, let more authors say hi and find readers, but by taking in books from other than the big presses. They failed with the Nook, and are shoving it off to a third party, to be eventually phased out. They aren't keeping up with the changes in the industry, and not just pricing either.

    If they are going to survive, they need to take a look at what readers are asking for, not their stockholders.