WTF IS HAPPENING TO BARNES & NOBLE?

You’re not the only one who has noticed the Twitter discussion over Barnes & Noble not carrying debut hardcovers. Recently, authors raised the alarm after learning from a variety of sources (including other authors, B&N representatives, former B&N workers, other business experts, etc.) that the chain’s stores will only offer hardcovers with established sales histories. The former bookseller portion of my brain that has been following brick-and-mortar news was alerted when I saw this topic take off since B&N has made a number of modifications to their stores in the last two years that are worth examining.

Let’s start with the most recent information: Although much of this is anecdotal, it’s unlikely that Barnes & Noble would publicly discuss this kind of policy, and Bethany Baptiste’s August 17th tweet received enough confirmations to show that many authors with hardcover releases, particularly in Kids and Middle-Grade, are not being stocked even in their local B&N stores. It’s not only first-time authors who are experiencing this; Kelly Yang, the bestselling author of the Front Desk series, made a video on YouTube in which she revealed that she had been informed directly that B&N will not be carrying the most recent book in the series. Many other people have shared the same tale, as you can see if you go through the replies to Baptiste’s tweet. Disruption Books, an independent publisher, chimed in to say that they have personally found this to be true.

A significant player in the realm of physical book sales is B&N. Despite the fact that Amazon dominates US book sales, everyone in publishing (even independent shops) appears to agree that bookselling as we know it would be doomed without B&N as even a little counterbalance to the e-commerce titan. Publisher of New Press Ellen Adler said, “It’s funny how the industry has evolved so that they are now a good guy… I would say their rehabilitation has been total.” And while highly selective buying practices are standard practice because no store can carry every book released because each store must be able to choose for what they believe they can sell Above all else, this is one of the factors making the idea of less demand for hardback books terrifying to so many authors.

There are a few things to think about here, and we’ll start with B&N’s recent sale and leadership revamp. We’ll get into discovery and the potential impact of this later, but first I want to talk about some pieces of “what’s actually happening” and “why now.” There are a few things to think about here. The chain’s CEO was ousted by the board in 2018; a summer later, hedge fund Elliott Advisors bought it and appointed James Daunt as CEO. Since 2019, Daunt has made progress for B&N. He was instrumental in bringing the UK retailer Waterstones from bankruptcy to profitability. Sales were up 3% in 2021 above pre-pandemic levels in 2019 despite the pandemic decimating foot traffic to several stores. Among Daunt’s tactics are:

!. reducing the size of the central office that used to place orders for all shops, keeping them to a minimum order, and giving store managers more freedom to choose what to bring in depending on local sales
2. Eliminating cooperative displays, or “pay to display” in more straightforward terms, where publishers might pay for premium placement for particular titles

Other targets, according to RetailWire, “include further limiting the mix to books, educational games, puzzles, and workbooks; store renovations with a focus on smaller tables and broader aisles; online sales expansion (only 10% of sales); and decreasing out-of-stocks.”

You mention smaller tables? The piles of brand-new hardcover books will have less area as a result. Additionally, merchants have more control over what they advertise, and if you didn’t previously know this, you now know that they use these places to offer books that, for example, are popular on BookTok. Without a doubt, it’s a wise business decision! Customers are now just as likely (if not more likely) to come in looking for a book they saw trending on social media as an older customer might be to look for a book they saw reviewed in the New York Times or heard about on NPR. This is especially true of teenagers whose dollars retailers are eager to acquire. And what about those bestsellers on BookTok? Not necessarily hardcovers or debuts, either! Many of these are old classics that new readers are only now learning about because of the wonders of algorithms.

Again, this is good news for writers who are fortunate enough to receive a BookTok bounce as well as for books in general! But let’s give this puzzle one more component. The pandemic has generally been beneficial for reading, with some book categories seeing enormous sales spikes (educational books for young readers, for instance), but it hasn’t necessarily been excellent for debuts or for hardcovers. Although many anticipated it (nothing gold can remain), a 12.4% decline in hardcover sales is not something that booksellers, publishers, or writers are likely to take lightly. Currently, book sales are down across all formats in Q1 2022 compared to Q1 2021. Given that the US is on the verge of a recession and continues to contend with rising costs, things are also not expected to get much better.

Let’s sum these things up for B&N: Less display space in shops, a reduction in central ordering, the inability of publishers to pay for placement, and a decline in hardcover sales. Panic is inevitable when these two factors are combined with anecdotal evidence that B&N buyers are even more reluctant to accept new authors.

We now come to the impact. The publishing industry’s eternal Holy Grail is discovery: how do you get people to learn about (and perhaps purchase) your brand-new book? Physical discovery, or entering a bookstore and seeing that book on a display table, has long been one of the key elements. Because of this, publishers have historically been willing to pay for those display spots. There is no one right answer (and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something). It’s what everyone who loves to visit any bookstore loves about being in a brick-and-mortar store: you can pick up a book, read a page or two of it, look at the synopsis, possibly see a shelf-talker by a staff member, and possibly take it home, even if you’ve never heard of it before. (Shout-out to independent bookstores, who do the hard work of supporting authors and discovery every damn day.) Online merchants have been making attempts to replicate that experience for decades, with different (usually poor) degrees of success. So far, physical bookshops are the only venues to get that experience. Superstores like Costco, Target, and Wal-Mart also sell books, although their main focus is on paperbacks.

All things considered, any decision by B&N to carry fewer hardback books is detrimental to author discovery. The chances of, say, a debut author from a marginalized community getting their book in front of your face long enough for you to see it and consider buying it are lower than ever if the only hardcovers you can find at your local branch are also the ones that are on the bestseller list, which are also the ones getting marketing dollars, which are also the ones that the algorithms are suggesting to you online. And let’s face it: writers from underrepresented groups are disproportionately affected by declines in discovery. As the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe shown, even when Black authors win accolades and/or hit bestseller lists, they still receive less money for their writing than authors of other races. Marketing budgets are frequently tied directly to advances, so the less a publisher pays for a book, the less money they are likely to spend promoting it. (And while there are many initiatives, organizations, and individuals working toward greater diversity in publishing, we’ve got a long way to go.) Your first book’s sales frequently impact whether you land a second book deal and how much you are paid.

There are no satisfactory solutions, and it is true that none of this is really novel; rather, it represents the next stage in the ongoing contraction of available shelf space. It becomes more difficult for physical establishments to remain in business as more people shop online (unless you are actually ordering from those stores, and most people are not). Less people purchasing hardcovers means fewer hardcovers will be ordered by those shops. I feel bad for purchasers who have to make difficult decisions regarding what they can profitably stock in order to maintain their businesses viable. However, I feel just as bad—if not worse—for authors who have yet another door shut in their faces, who hear from friends or fans that the B&N across the block doesn’t have any copies of their books in store, and who only want people to be able to locate their work. When your book is out of stock, how can you establish a strong track record of sales? Disclosure: You can’t.

There are positive things we can all perform even when there are no good answers. If you have any nearby bookstores, stop by. By seeking for a debut author’s book at your favorite retailer and requesting that they stock it if they don’t already, you can show your support for them. You should and may request it from your local library as well. Hardcover sales are largely dominated by libraries, and you personally pay nothing for it. Tell a friend in person, discuss it online, write a review, or place a copy in a Little Free Library to help spread the word about books. Look for writers who are unknown to you and give them a chance. The book eco-system is capable of surviving, and our decisions may have an impact.

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