Writer Wednesday: Capitalism Pt 2: The Hardcover Debacle
Good morning writers and welcome to another Writer Wednesday. The industry continues to burp out developments that make us all cringe but instead of talking about authors continuing to behave badly or publishing the most unaware self insert I've ever seen, we are going to continue untangling the complex knot at the top.
Now, some of you may be saying, wait, didn't the Barnes & Noble decision drop after the Anti Trust case? Yes, yes it did, but the two issues are intrinsically tied together and what is happening with Barnes & Noble circles neatly back around to the inner industry mess.
Capitalism Pt 2: The Last Brick & Mortar Giant
Under the shadow of the behemoth that is Amazon, we have watched the slow collapse of the great brick & mortar establishments...
Dramatic as that sentence reads, the truth is, much like big publishing, the book store chains were cannibalizing themselves. Walden was bought up by Borders, when Borders fell, Books A Million swooped in to feed on the carrion remains, but above them all, staring down their proverbial noses, Barnes & Noble remained the epitome of retail settings.
Until it clashed against Amazon. Call it business acumen, though the closer reality is savagery against refinement. Barnes & Noble had the refinement, the polished veneer, the nostalgic scent of bound paper and warm wood, the muted flick of pages and the quiet murmur of browsing clientele. But what Barnes & Noble underestimated, perhaps, was the worth of that experience. Amazon had the savagery, a cavernous digital horde where the consumer could purchase their books at the same time they could buy pipe cleaners, an exercise bike, and canned bubble tea.
Not only did Amazon offer the convenience of one stop shop and deliver to your door, but they had the savagery to undercut the competition. Before Big Publishing caught up to the demand for e-books, Amazon was there, offering a platform for authors to sell e-book versions of their novels for low, tantalizing prices. The lower the better, because quantity would eat up the loss.
How could the refinement of Barnes & Noble compete? Truth? It's been struggling ever since. Around 2009 or so Barnes & Noble launched the Nook, their own version of a e-reader with the same business acumen as their brick & mortar stores, and they've suffered for it, continuing to eat a loss in trying to compete to Amazon's cut throat market, losing over 39 million dollars to the endeavor in 2015, and despite this, they refuse to cut out the Nook. Fourteen years after Amazon's launch, back in 2018, Barnes & Noble was clearly getting desperate, closing 90 of its 720 locations, it seemed that the retail chain was teetering on its last legs.
Amazon even appeared to mourn the looming loss:
"We haven't mourned every casualty of the internet. We are upset about Barnes & Noble more than we are about Toys "R" Us. People didn't care about Toys "R" Us. They didn't hang out there on a date when they were 23." — Mike Shatzkin
Indeed, but a shift in CEO's and a push to revitalize their physical locations, Barnes & Noble stumbled on, and then the Pandemic happened.
A Fanbase of Sharp Metal Spikes
Barnes & Noble was willing to hurl itself off a cliff while trying to cling to the loyal consumer base it still had. The pandemic presented a strange, unique opportunity for booksellers. This was, in part, due to Amazon, and their shift in priority to essential packages during the deluge of online purchasing that happened. Readers were forced to look else where for physical books and this ended up sparking a resurgence of indie book stores, the unsung heroes of brick & mortar. Indie bookstores also saw a rise when Barnes & Noble revitalized their physical locations and many did fold in the early days of the pandemic, but the awareness of how hard businesses were hit allowed many others to thrive and survive, thanks in part to communities that came together and spread the word.
Barnes and Noble continued to flounder. They'd spent their resources doubling down on their physical locations and were wholly not prepared for the massive shift to online...again. Many of their locations were in malls which saw foot traffic disappear. Barnes & Noble reported their revenue fell by 50%. They managed to survive the initial drop, crawling their way through the last couple years and when businesses began to open their doors, B & N was ready. They doubled down on their physical spaces once more.
Lesson learned, I guess?
At its heart, Barnes & Noble does have a loyal fanbase, and it sits on a pedestal above all other physical bookstores, even our indie darlings, thanks to nostalgia and the author dream.
Yes, you read that right. Nostalgia and the author dream. Despite all its faults, Barnes & Noble has held onto that coveted title of author dream. Authors dream of having their book grace the front table stacks. They dream of walking into the nationwide chain, seeing their books on the shelf. There is a visceral reaction to seeing your book in a physical bookstore, especially a proverbial giant like Barnes & Noble. It whispers 'you've made it' in your ear. The idea is a teasing siren's song, and for so many years, Barnes & Noble has used that pedestal to their advantage. Indie authors were mostly barred from those echelons. Even now, most indie authors are still locked out, with exceptions for their local stores. The rise of social media power has slowly chipped away at that barrier, but getting your book into Barnes & Noble's physical locations remained 'a big deal', even when it might not be the best deal.
The reality is, your book might sell more copies at a big box store, like Costco or BJs. You may ultimately sell more copies of physical and digital versions of your book on Amazon. But the nostalgia is a strong pull, and the barriers made it all the more satisfying to achieve.
A Matter of Taste
This summer, Barnes & Noble's new CEO James Daunt made the decision to limit the buying capacity for Hardcovers across the chain. Daunt has been making strides to give more book ordering power to individual stores, citing that they understood their local customer base more than corporate. However, the limitation for hardcover purchases fell heavily on middle grade & young adult fiction.
B&N has implemented a new strategy that will limit the number of new hardcover editions of middle grade fiction the store initially stocks to expected bestsellers, and order trade paperbacks for books by all other authors.
This was a strategy that worked in Daunt's favor under his other flagship, Waterstones in the UK. However, the US is a different beast and the news was immediately flagged within the writing community for the impact it would have on midlist and marginalized authors. In an ill fated quote, Daunt infamously remarked:
“Far from abandoning hardcovers, we are determined to sell these with more vigor and more invention,” he said. “There is an irony, perhaps, that to do so we must exercise taste. We must champion the best and not simply pile up everything, irrespective of merit, and be content to sell very little of it.”
In Daunt's mind the best translates to: proven money pots. The problem? Big publishing has laid the bulk of the onus for best-seller contention on midlist and marginalized authors. For all the talk and push back in the past few years regarding inequalities in publishing and the harsh light shone on Big Publishing during the Anti Trust trial, this has been a massive slap in the face. And it exposes the largest knot of all where retailers clash with Big Publishing business decisions.
In choosing to limit the number of hardcovers ordered, Daunt is folding back on his own intention to give individual stores better buying power. Communities that would be empowered by stories of marginalized authors might never see them. He has made the pressure on authors even harder, when so much marketing is heaped on them that shouldn't be. The success of pre-orders and hardcover sales often determine future opportunities for midlist and marginalized authors. The unproven factor crippled before they ever have a chance to prove themselves. Big Publishing has no problem using those numbers against the author in their decision making.
Ultimately, what Big Publishing should take away from Barnes & Noble's decision is that it might be better to publish middle grade in paperback over hardcover to get more books onto shelves, to widen the exposure of titles that might struggle under this new policy, and give younger readers a more affordable buying option.
But as the coverage of the Anti Trust proves, Big Publishing has no idea what it's doing.
More on that in part 3.
Resources & Further Reading