The Shatzkin Files


More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/PeterTurner Peter Turner

    You comment that, “The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.” What do you think about the vast number of non-fiction, non-narrative: philosophy, religion, cultural studies, much of the history and science categories, etc.?–books that might be covered by the umbrella term of “serious non-fiction.” It seems like this vast category of books will be even more dramatically hurt by the loss of physical book retailers.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      They’ll be hurt, for sure. I don’t know about “more”. Those categories have significant online presences and ways to “get discovered” topically. Even if you discover an illustrated book “topically” online, it might require seeing the physical thing to be persuaded to buy it.

      But I take the point.

      Mike

    • John Andrews

      I have many old books in these categories which I can read either in the original print edition, from my shelf, or on Googlebooks. Usually, I go for the electronic editions because they offer full-text searchability. So I think non-fiction text is doomed.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        I don’t disagree, but the *facts to date *are that readers are gravitating to ebooks for non-fiction narrative much more slowly than they are for fiction.

        Mike

    • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

      Peter, you could look at that in a different way: precisely because there’s a “serious non fiction” category that is not either easily or pleasantly read online/digitally, there will always be a fundamental need for physical bookstores! That is the best guarantee that brick and mortar stores will never disappear entirely! Online sales cannot gobble up “serious non fiction”…

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Claude, you made a statement I agree with! You’re right that “brick and mortar stores will never entirely disappear”. But they *will* become trivial in the overall sales picture.

        And the problem for the illustrated books, which I agree don’t port to digital or merchandise wel online, is that they are currently benefiting from the traffic in bookstores generated by bestselling novelists. That is the situation that has changed already in the US and UK and will change everywhere over time.

        Mike

  • John Andrews

    The UK, which I believe has a higher percentage of its total retail sales online than the US, has just seen 3 major chains close. They sold photographic goods (Jessops), music (HMV) and electrical goods (Comet). The reason was the same in each case: a failure to respond to the online challenge. Other retail chains (notably John Lewis) are doing this very effectively.

    Despite the fact that illustrated books are holding out, so far, the only defense I can see against a medium-term decline and long-term eclipse is an effective online strategy. Is it possible that Borders could have survived if it had (1) developed the ‘Starbucks’ side of its operations (2) stocked only display copies of books (3) taken in-store orders to be sold at online-competitive prices.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I don’t think your suggested solution could have saved Borders and I doubt an online strategy alone (everybody needs one, of course) can save illustrated book publishers. Of course, nobody really knows…

      This is a hard problem. Answers are not easy to come by.

      Mike

      • John Andrews

        Was Borders doomed? Or is there anything they could have done?

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        In the largest sense, it was doomed because brick and mortar bookselling was going to have a dramatic decline no matter what they did. But the reason B&N is here now and Borders isn’t is because B&N was better run in many ways, but two were critical. One is that B&N was just better at locations: they got better leases in better places. I believe they exercised more care in location-selection than Borders did.

        But the big reason, as I’ve written, is that B&N invested in a superior supply chain and Borders didn’t. That meant B&N made much better use of a bookseller’s biggest investment — in inventory — and had the book its customer was looking for a much higher percentage of the time.

        Mike

    • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

      John, that’s exactly the right strategy for the future! If bookstores did that systematically, they’d be saved. And there’s plenty of evidence over here in Europe, especially in Germany but also France, that this approach can not only save bookstores but make them thrive! No real lover of books can be satisfied with just online outlets! One wants to gather together physically with other book lovers and not only in a book club, in a more open space that is community-oriented, i.e. like your neighborhood bookstore!

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        To suggest that this has “been done” is really premature. There are structural reasons why online bookselling and ebooks have been slower to catch on in Europe (price-setting and VAT differentials being two important ones.) This is now changing. Europe will not be immune to the convenience of online delivery nor to ebooks.

        Mike

  • titopaul28

    So do you think the problem with booksellers is systemic? Is this a slow death of mega chains or a slow death of book stores?

    I’d argue that (Borders and) B&N have made some poor choices, allowed Amazon to lead, relied for too long on weakening advantages in scale, price and access and have been unable to find the best marriage of ecommerce with their existing business models.

    Human contact is still the ultimate recommendation engine. Better than a combination of logic served up on the software side and excess number of 5 star reviews. And book in hand is a more immediate experience than book instantly downloaded (or in the case of illustrated, eventually download).

    Perhaps if Barnes and Noble had gone down a franchise route, focused more energies on barnesandnoble.com instead of gamestop, partnered with MS earlier or embraced an independent strategy instead of often trying to destroy them things might be different.
    It’s difficult to parse out self-inflicted wounds from the shifting macro.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      The idea that recommendations work best person-to-person and face-to-face is borne out in statistics from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex, who has done more rigorous work on discovery than anybody else.

      But I’m not sure that changes anything from the bookstores’ point of view. The migration of customers and the efficiencies of online for books are inherent. And it isn’t just books. Have you looked for your local record store or video rental store lately? Soon you’ll be wondering why there isn’t a shoe store closer by.

      I think B&N made money on GameStock; I think it added resources rather than depleting them. Borders made tons of management errors, but B&N has mostly been pretty well run, what they’ve accomplished making up digital ground in the past two or three years is pretty amazing, and yet…nobody’s perfect. And even being perfect might not save a brick store from an online competitor, particularly one that sells across multiple product categories, not just one.

      Mike

  • illustrated book editor

    “we don’t even know what the replacement for [illustrated] books will be”. Sadly, I think we do know that. Non-fiction illustrated books generally fall into two categories. The first is “how-to and educational” (generally self-purchase or parent-for-child) such as cookery, crafts, gardening, travel, and children’s reference; the replacement for this is the World Wide Web, and to some extent, apps, at least the free ones. The second category is “beaux livres” (sorry, the English language seems to be lacking in a suitable term; this is generally gift-purchase) such as art books, large-format travel/photography etc; and the replacement for this is other types of gift purchase – often non-book.

    The existing digital formats for illustrated content are not bad – iBook Author, fixed-page epub, apps do the trick quite nicely. But the market does not want to pay for this content in digital form. Why not? The “how-to” stuff is available online for free, and a digital product does not make a good gift – you can’t display your new digital encylopedia of art on your coffeetable.

    It’s easy to see why illustrated book publishers are having an extremely hard time of it. Many have gone out of business (especially packagers), and the rest have reduced their programmes drastically. I think we are seeing the end of an era.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      There’s a view of the future of book retailing, which I share, which is that there will be one-xth as many bookstores as there are web sites: every place people gather is an opportunity to put an appropriate selection of books (or “content”) in front of them. I think this will prove to be the case in both the virtual and physical words. That will save some part of the illustrated *book* business for quite some time. (Physical tokens, like greeting cards, will still count.)

      While I’m not inclined to be as certain or absolute as you seem to be, the general direction of my thinking is in synch with yours.

      Mike

    • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

      What you say is sad but I don’t think its the case in Europe: people love “beaux livres” and they’re not about to disappear! They are beautiful objects to decorate one’s home and excellent gifts, two good reasons for their survival and even growth!

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Claude: check back with me on that statement in 12 months and then again in 24. I think you’ll be whistling a different tune.

        Mike

  • http://mindtherant.blogspot.com/ MindTheRant

    Mike: another sobering post. I’m with you on your comment below when you say “Have you looked for your local record store or video rental store lately? Soon you’ll be wondering why there isn’t a shoe store closer by.” Re: B&N: you didn’t mention the prospect of someone taking it private. Granted, your average private equity firm likely sees bookstores (like local record or video rental stores) as fossils. Clearly Len Riggio has no interest in coming out of retirement to give it another try.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I’m not a finance guy, but I think one of the attraction of taking something private is so you can do some fixes that would be hard to do with shareholders and then put it on the market again. It requires an exit strategy. That’s why I’m more inclined to think about strategic investors for the bookstores, but, as I said, I’m not a finance guy.

      Mike

      • http://mindtherant.blogspot.com/ MindTheRant

        Fair enough. Personally I’ve been waiting for years for B&N to split into a Nook entity and a store entity. That it hasn’t happened I attribute to the iron will of Mr. Riggio, who, I gather, holds the majority of shares with voting rights. I’ve little doubt that William Lynch, whose background is entirely in tech, would like nothing more than to run the Nook business and be rid of the store business. But given the thin margins the book business has always had — and the thinner margins bookstores enjoy these days — it’s hard to imagine the corporate overlords of the Big Five thinking there was money to be made taking over B&N and injecting the kind of capital into the store side that Microsoft and Pearson have injected into the Nook side. And you’re right that the standard procedure for a private buyout would be to fix what’s wrong and sell the co. at a profit. Still can’t help thinking that B&N needs a younger Len Riggio who’s passionate about books and bookstores, wants to remake them the way Riggio did in the ’90s, and figures the best way to do that is *not* to have shareholders (and analysts) complaining about the lousy dividends and stagnant share price.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Let’s remember that, as of now, the stores are contributing $300 million in EBITDA annually, which isn’t chicken feed.

        And it isn’t clear (to me, at least) that investment in the stores would improve the situation a lot. It is hard to ignore the anecdotal evidence (from customers and from publishers) that B&N has taken its eye off the ball somewhat on books. And I definitely think some creative strategies could be developed to get more inventory into the stores without increasing inventory costs that much (by clever negotiating with publishers), which would improve matters somewhat. But not materially.

        Mike

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  • Snow1985man

    This essay tacitly shows why B&N is struggling in the face of Amazon. B&N is no longer a business serving customers, it’s an investment opportunity serving shareholders, who have totally different demands. The former want to find the book they want at a decent price when they go into the store, and if they can’t find those books or the price is too high, they’ll go elsewhere. The latter want a specific return on investment, or they’ll take their money elsewhere. Yes, you could say that without the latter the former wouldn’t have anywhere to shop, but without the former there is simply no need for the latter. B&N is serving the wrong master. (One could say the same thing about publishers who are owned by huge media corporations who want huge growth each year from a historically slow growth business.)

    Meanwhile, Amazon is building a viable business, satisfying its customers with its stock and prices, while its investors happily take a smaller return than they might get elsewhere. That this shocks so many analysts shows just how messed up publicly-traded retail is; for them, stockholders are the only customers worth satisfying. Sure, Amazon’s investors may be hoping for a Standard Oil-like monopoly payday far down the road, but isn’t it possible that a small slice of a growing business is better than a larger slice of one that’s dying?

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I really don’t buy this analysis.

      First of all, show me the privately owned retailers that are doing better in the face of Amazon than pubicly-traded B&N. I don’t think you’ll find any.

      It is too easy to blame the incumbents for circumstantial change. Brick-and-mortar is losing share to online. Period. And Amazon’s online offering is what it is because they are a company dedicated to online sales — not of books, particularly, but of *anything*.

      I’m not suggesting that Amazon isn’t both strategically and tactically smart. They’re brilliant. But their razor-thing margins are a huge competitive advantage because their shareholders seem to recognize that building share and a customer base is the best possible investment of their money. I doubt very much that investors could be found to support two such companies competing with each other.

      B&N has the distinct handicap of being, at worst, a bookselling business and, at best, a media-selling business. Neither has the breadth to compete with Amazon, which sells everything under the sun including its own technology and service capabilities. The two companies really aren’t comparable except in a sector of Amazon’s space. And that’s precisely B&N’s problem, not greed or incompetence.

      Mike

      • snow1985man

        I wouldn’t say B&N is greedy or incompetent, just that its focus, shareholder value, is misdirected. I would also argue that B&N has handicapped itself by, like Borders, trying to become a media-selling business to compensate for its troubled bookselling business, but charging way too much for movies and music (a business now lost to streaming). Nonetheless, your main point is a fair one: one store can’t compete against a mall.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        As is so often the case in life, further dialogue brings us closer to agreement.

        Mike

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004628737284 John Andrews

    Does ANYONE have a happy story of a bookstore, other than one selling used books, which has found a niche and is really flourishing? Happier still if it profiting from the internet!

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I think you can find lots of indies with happy stories, frankly. Not enough to build a channel comparable to what we had five, ten, fifteen years ago, but quite a few.

      Mike

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JCDRRMFCXP3D2DU5BMIMVIOVZU edwards

      It mainly depends on their market and how much rent they have to pay. 20 years ago there were many small landlords sympathetic to bookstores, now the economics of scale has replaced them with management companies looking to rent to Starbucks or 7/11.

  • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

    Interesting debate, as always Mike, and your posts are so informative, I never miss one! I would just like to add a European perspective on the debate. Yes, I know, Europe is behind America in this digital race (nothing new there!) but there are several aspects to the race that should be taken into consideration and they turn up more clearly in the European context than they do in the US – still, I think these are aspects that count in America too (as I noted in the comments below)

    First, certain types of books cannot be easily (if at all) gobbled up by online book selling: illustrative books and “serious non fiction” as one commenter said. Both are a good reason for brick and mortar book stores to survive the digital onslaught.

    Second, there are survival strategies for book stores that have been shown to work, overwhelmingly so in Germany and France and the UK but even in America (like that store at Harvard): the trick is to link the book store in two fundamental ways: (1) to online outlets so people go there to buy their digital books ( that’s what’s behind the B&N philosophy); and (2) more important: to its community.

    Yes, the local community!

    A thriving book store is one where people want to go not just for a latte (Starbuck’s style) but for a chat, to discuss books, to meet an author, to have a “real” relationship. Being online always is a lonely affair, one needs to get away from the digital and walk in the real world. What is better than a walk to your near-by book store? Yes, I know, most Americans live in the suburbs – but many are gravitating back to city centers. Urban life is making a comeback even in America.

    And book stores will be part of this comeback. I see a resurgence of the real world against the online one. Not quick, perhaps not soon in many places, but inexorable…We are humans, not machines!

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      The trichotomy of the book business: narrative, illustrated, and children’s has been noted in this space. Much agreed that there are books that need stores to be sold effectively.

      But that doesn’t mean the stores can survive selling those books if the market for narrative goes digital.

      America has lost half its bookstore shelf space (I reckon) in the past five years. I would imagine Europe will do the same in the next five.

      Mike

  • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

    Um. Yeah. Mike, speaking as someone who’s been tracking the B&N stock (and stockholder reports) for several years now…? This is pretty clearly a sop to the press, so that as B&N closes more stores the press won’t really notice too much, and make too big a deal over it (as it will be “yesterday’s news”) and further degrade the B&N stock price.

    Let’s look at the reality.

    B&N has moved their .COM store and their Nook business to a new company. OK. Makes sense. These are digital, forward looking products, and having them hived off could be a smart business move. These elements of the company have been losing money, but they have good long term prospects.

    But they also hived off their college bookstores. Which have been VERY profitable for years, and in fact have been one of the big things keeping B&N afloat. The fact they added the college bookstores to the new company – which is otherwise an online business – really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Until you look at what is left in the main company: some 689 locations which lost money last year, the year before, the year before that, and the year before that again – and are probably going to lose even MORE money in 2013.

    Those brick and mortar stores that everyone thinks of when they hear “Barnes & Nobles”? Those are now an albatross around the neck of the profitable college bookstores and the forward-looking online elements. With the profit from the college bookstores fueling the online store and Nook, those can survive – even thrive. But the brick and mortar stores suck away that profit instead. The result has been years of a tenuous hold on their existence.

    Short form: the only reason for moving the college bookstores out of the main company and into the new one is to protect them from impending bankruptcy.

    Prediction: there will be no brick and mortar B&N stores left in ten years; and no brick and mortar B&N superstores left in two years.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I don’t claim to be much of a stock analysis, but I have trouble with some parts of your analysis.

      First of all, B&N just said in the WSJ piece that there are only a very small number of stores losing money. I don’t know on what basis you’d claim otherwise.

      Secondly, they attribute more than $300 million in EBITDA to the stores in 2012, up from 2011.

      Third, the reason the college stores went with NOOK in the new organization is, undoubtedly, that Microsoft wanted them here before they made their $600 million investment last year.

      If I were a betting man, I’d happily take the wager that B&N will have superstores operating in two years. I expect a faster fade than they do, but something that drastic seems very unlikely.

      Mike

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  • http://twitter.com/shamrabooksrule Barry Hoffman

    From real-life experience as publisher of a specialty press I find the problem with B&N is they cater too much to mass market publishers without any regard for the small or specialty press. I publish trade paperbacks by the likes of Richard Matheson, Jack Ketchum and Poppy Z. Brite. I am NOT allowed to speak directly to my “buyer.” I obviously don’t have the money to fly to New York to wine and dine my B&N buyer, even if she would see me. Richard Matheson is a well known author. Ketchum and Brite have massive cult followings. I get loads of orders from Amazon.com for their titles but less than half a dozen orders (for one title apiece) from B&N. So, I have no sympathy for a company who is so beholding to mass market publishers. If B&N crashes it won’t effect me as a publisher one iota. On the other hand if they were more small press friendly they might find more customers flocking to their stores and they wouldn’t have the need to fill their space with music, games and other non-book related items.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      As we’ve said, “buying” is an expensive and difficult function for booksellers. In troubled times, it is a place where they cut back (as B&N apparently has) and simply can’t review as many possibilities. But I don’t think that reviewing more titles would result in more books in the stores. They’re reducing book inventory to match the reduction in consumer book purchasing in their outlets. The orders you are getting from Amazon are coming directly out of B&N’s hide, and they don’t believe (and neither do I) that the Amazon customers would (even largely) become theirs if they stocked more books.

      Mike

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com hypermark

    I’d argue that the real story behind the numbers is that B&N will evolve away from big box, and more towards the B. Dalton sized units.

    Why? A simple view of floor traffic suggests that they will not be able to do the sales to support big box square footage.

    If you think about it, the indie chains that are most successful have 1,000-3,000 square feet, and differentiate based on curation, high touch sales and support and product mix beyond books (i.e., calendars, games, chotchka).

    Very different than what B&N is known for today.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      I’d be amused if what you predict actually happened. Eight or ten years ago, when B&N was closing down the B. Dalton stores, I suggested to one of their executives to whom I was consulting that they should be figuring out how to make the 30,000-title store work. (Superstores had 100-125,000 titles.) He said they were moer likely tackle making the *million*-title store work!

      I think the zig-zag you call for might or might not work, but I don’t think it is what they’ll try, even though I wouldn’t accuse them of holding on to ideas for a decade ago.

      Mike

      • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com hypermark

        The logic at the time sorta made sense. Big box crushed mom and pop.

        But today Big box delivers a less than the sum of the parts experience relative to a more intimate sized store. It’s why many big box retail concepts have died.

        IMHO, it’s hard to see a scenario where ‘stay the course’ is a winning path.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Big Box was a great idea when there was no “infinite shelf” as there is online. But it can’t compete effectively now that there is.

        Mike

      • Peter

        A million title store! Well now there’s an idea worth revisiting!

        Movie theaters have survived disruption every time by going bigger and bigger.

        The smaller concept stores work for independent booksellers who have a strong personality and a personal touch, but I don’t think Barnes and Noble can find enough really talented store managers to pull that off. But they do have the location scouting and construction contracting abilities to pull off a couple really impressive megastores.

        Sometimes, survival is more about differentiation than competition. Realize that they’ll never be the most efficient or cheapest way to do things anymore, so instead they need to create something that’s actually worth a premium. Something FUN.

        Also, they should have a hair salon. Women love to drink coffee and read while they get their hair done.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Can’t see more than a handful of them. Maybe a few would work but not enough to save the channel.
        Mike

  • John Andrews

    BBC Radio 4′s In Business program broadcast a good discussion of The Future of the Book today. It was hosted by the BBC’s Business Editor (Evan Davies) and his guests were senior executives from Kobo, Harper Collins and Curtis Brown. He began by putting forward the view that with regard to the retailer, agent and publisher ‘one of them is no longer needed but I don’t know which’. The publisher, from Harper Collins made the valid point that with so many more books available there is a need for brands to act as guarantors of quality. She said that fiction print sales were down to 35% but, generally, she expects the book market to stabilise at 50:50 print:online PROVIDING bookshops can survive. The best hope here was for specialist bookshops rather than generalists. Also, stores should do much more than sell books (coffee, author talks etc) and it may become necessary to charge customers for consulting books, as some US shoe shops do for trying on shoes. She predicts that DRM will go, making two points (1) the worry is more about book-sharing than piracy and mentioned the idea that ‘piracy is better than obscurity’ (2) DRM favours those, like Amazon, who operate walled gardens.

    The Kobo executive said that competing with Amazon on price was as foolish as competing with a fish in a breath-holding competition – because they are uninterested in profit.

    The Curtis Brown executive argued that agents perform many useful services for authors – and that trying to take over somebody else’s job is difficult. EL James was reported as saying that she only wanted to be a writer, not an agent or a publisher.

    • John Andrews

      Correction: the name of the broadcast, on 9th February, was The Bottom Line: ‘The view from the top of business. Presented by Evan Davis, The Bottom Line cuts through confusion, statistics and spin to present a clearer view of the business world, through discussion with people running leading and emerging companies. Like the music industry
      before it, the print book industry has been turned upside down up by the digital revolution. As sales of ebooks continue to grow, bookshop sales are down from a peak in 2007. So what does the future for hold for the bricks and mortar bookstore? Will physical books become a thing of the
      past? And what role will traditional players like publishers, agents and retailers play in this brave new world? Evan Davis and guests examine what the landscape might look like once the dust settles.
      Joining Evan in the studio are Jonny Geller, literary agent and joint CEO Curtis Brown; Victoria Barnsley, CEO of publisher HarperCollins UK & International; Michael Tamblyn, Chief Content Officer at Toronto-based ebook retailer Kobo.’

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Thanks for the report. I find the notion that the print share will rise in relation to where it is now particularly hard to imagine.

      And I agree that big publisher names can — for a while at least — be brands for “quality”. But if that’s what there for, they have to stop with all the imprints that nobody can remember and just go with their big corporate brand, like HarperCollins or Random House, that has widespread consumer recognition.

      Mike

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  • Peter

    And now the truth comes out.

    Riggio wants to buy his own chain.

    That means the companies recent reported “troubles”- plans for future store closings and voluntarily lowered nook guidance- may have been nothing more than a rope-a-dope PR campaign to knock down the stock price.

    I noticed in the original holiday sales press release that physical book sales actually exceeded expectations. The same store sales decline was primarily due to lower nook hardware sales- which is actually a good thing from a long-term profit perspective as the units were selling at a loss and self-cannibalizing book sales. They could have easily spun that as a positive.

    But they chose to spin it negatively. Now we know why.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Wonderful, if true.

      The most important thing for trade publishers is for there to be a healthy brick-and-mortar bookstore presence for as long as possible. If somebody with some wherewithall and some capability is committed to making that happen, it’s a good thing.

      Mike

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