Friday, July 08, 2016

[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

Good ol' Barnes and Noble. There is one left here in Ann Arbor (ironically, Border's home town). Back in the old days, they had these big comfy chairs you could lounge around in (they have since removed them in favor of hard wooden dining chairs) and I would suspect a solid percentage of my second and third books were written while slouched in one of them. B and N, having pretty much smothered the small independent bookstores is now shivering in the cold shower of reality that is Amazon. They have managed to outlast Border's but every attempt they have made to compete directly with Amazon has failed miserably -- their website, Nook, and so forth.

Over at New Republic there's a somewhat confused article lamenting B and N's potential inevitable demise for what appears to be two reasons.
  1. There are people who feel the need to see a book before they buy it as part of the discovery process. Out of kindness, we don't accuse them of buying it based on the cover. Without Barnes and Noble, these people will have no choice but to buy at Target or Walmart where the selection is stiflingly small. Well, I'd suggest that the market of people who require a tactile experience to "discover" any book beyond those on the bestseller lists is vanishingly small and which and Walmart and Target and various airports is good enough for them.
  2. B and N is responsible for making large orders of books which provide a financial cushion for publishers which they use to support taking risks on unknown authors or risky books. Restated, that's a lament for the current revenue model. Which is a disaster for unknown authors. It supposes the people pulling the strings are the ones who know the audience and what they value, but if they did, the industry would be getting its clock cleaned by Amazon. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend an argument that choice for readers will be minimized in anyway when Amazon pretty much takes the cost of publishing to near zero. The publishing industry is a broken mess with none of it having to do with losing big orders from B and N. The problem with the publishing industry is that nobody knows how to sell books in the new world.
For their part, B and N aren't braying about how unfair the worlds is being to their noble cause of hawking books old school style. They are evidently going to begin testing an entirely new experience for shoppers, involving access to digital content, restaurant style food service, and alcoholic beverages. I like it. The whole slouched-in-a-big-comfy-chair-with-a-yellow-legal-pad aesthetic is even more appealing to me if I do it with a glass of bourbon over ice. But bear in mind, the extent of that market might not go past my own skin. Look at it this way, digital access aside, if you have a profitable restaurant combined with an unprofitable bookstore, you really just have a restaurant with an added expense. That is to say, unless the bookstore/restaurant combo creates some sort of synergy where the bookstore gives the restaurant enough added business to cover its own losses, you're better off burning the books and opening a Chili's. On the other hand, the fact that Amazon is dipping its gargantuan toe into brick and mortar suggests there might be a model that works, but it's important to remember Amazon is a tech conglomerate, not just a bookstore, and they have many more potentially profitable tributaries to exploit.

Which is why I am skeptical. It seems to me, a bookstore almost has to be a mom and pop shop to survive. It will never be big time profitable. It has to be a labor of love that makes enough money enough to keep mom and pop solvent. We have a couple of those in Ann Arbor; the owner/operators work their butts off out of love and pride and they just get by. B and N can't do that. They have shareholders who don't much value the image of the noble booksellers over, say, quarterly earnings. Best to leave the bookstores to mom and pop.