Thursday, August 12, 2010

5 comments on "Quick Change in Strategy for a Bookseller"

There's an interesting article on the New York Times today by Julie Bosman about the problems and the unclear future of Barnes & Noble.

Here are five thoughts on the issues she brings up in the article (each comment starts with the relates quote from the article):

1. “The shift from the physical to the digital book can pick up some of the economic slack, but it can’t pick up the loss that is created when you don’t have the customers browsing the displays,” said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, a literary agent. “We need people going into stores and seeing a book they didn’t know existed and buying it.”

Laurence Kirshbaum is right regarding the importance of exposure - a survey of Zogby International for Random House from 2008 (The Reading and Book Buying Habits of Americans) shows that although most people know what they want to buy when they go to bookstores, they're still likely to buy more books that they didn't plan to buy in advance.

Here's the data from the Zogby survey:

Do you very often, somewhat often , or not at all often go into a bookstore knowing exactly what you’re looking for?
Very often 38%
Somewhat often 43
Not at all often 17
Not sure 2

When you go into a bookstore for a specific book, do you ever make additional unplanned book purchases?
Yes 77%
No 19
Not sure 4

Nevertheless, this added value is also provided today by many online channels, not to mention recommendations on books you find while searching Amazon or other online stores. I know it's not the same as browsing the displays, but still I'm not sure how much the decline of brick and mortar stores will actually hurt our ability to get exposed to new books we haven't heard about before.

2. "Whoever ends up in control of Barnes & Noble’s 720 retail stores will have to grapple with the fundamental changes in the industry — and if the shift to e-books continues, prove that Barnes & Noble can be as successful on the digital side of bookselling as it has been for print."

I believe being successful on the digital side of their business is the easier part. The real challenge for whoever runs Barnes & Noble is to find how to make their brick and mortar bookstores an asset for the company and not a liability that will drag the company down.

"William Lynch, the chief executive, said in an interview on Friday that the chain was retooling its stores to build up traffic, add products like educational toys and games, and emphasize its own e-reader, the Nook. “We think we’ve got the right strategy,” Mr. Lynch said. “The growth in our e-books business is about nine months ahead of our plan.""

What is exactly your strategy for the brick and mortar bookstores, Mr. Lynch? I certainly hope it's not just selling more toys and games and promoting the Nook. This won't be enough to sustain these stores.

4. “I’m in favor of anything that brings traffic in the store,” said Ms. Reidy of Simon & Schuster. “If it’s toys or games that brings a family into the bookstore, then I say fine.”

I am not sure how toys and games will bring more significant traffic to the stores, when these are already competitive markets with many established brands (Toys "R" Us for example) and a growing online market. I'm really skeptical if B&N can re-establish themselves as a games and toys preferable store that will attract enough customers to compensate for those who stopped coming because they buy books or e-books online. My suggestion to B&N? go for a green strategy!

5. "In a twist straight out of the movies, some publishers speculated that many of the independents that survived the big chains over the last 15 years might be in an unusually stable position... “Being small and privately held allows us to be more nimble,” said Chris Morrow, owner of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. “Our competitive advantage has been the curation aspect — knowing our customers and picking the right books"

Being small and independent has its own advantages and disadvantages. The problem is that many of B&N's fundamental problems (online sales, shift to e-books, recession) are the same problems independent bookstore are dealing with. What I'm saying is that independent bookstores also need to develop a strategy to succeed in the long term, no matter how good or bad B&N will eventually do.

My suggestion?
Couple of weeks ago I suggested here a model for independent bookstores that will provide customers with both personal benefits and the feeling that they're contributing to the prosperity of their own community. This model is based on creating a collaboration with other local businesses to enable these businesses to provide customers with discounts for each other.

More articles on the future of bookstores can be found at

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting sustainable reading!