How I Would Start to Fix Barnes and Noble

They announced more losses at Barnes and Noble. And of course the suggested plans of actions seem like pages from the standard playbooks of business (mainly protect the higher-ups salaries) without doing a damn thing to really move the needle.

It feels like the 4th quarter with only a few seconds left and the whole field to pass to score. Football not your thing? Bottom of the 9th, two outs. Down by 3 runs with no one on base. It feels impossible, demoralizing.

The executives are trying the Hail Mary pass or to swing for the fences. Both are possible, but more often those approaches fail. Bad.

To be Barnes and Nobles right now would not be fun.

But I don’t see it as out yet. It’s only after the 1st half, and while BN is down, it isn’t out. It can still make a comeback. The problem is, to do so it will have to swallow its pride and think a little differently to do change the tide. When one is behind the 8-ball as BN has been for some time now, it can be a monstrous task to attempt such a massive shift in what I am suggesting. It’s not only trying to change an organization but the egos and minds of the scores of executives throughout that organization.

Here’s how I’d start to fix them if I were in charge.

  • Stop looking for the big hit.
    We can’t count on JK Rowling all the time. In fact, you really can’t count on her unless she releases a Harry Potter story, and I don’t see many of them coming any more. Movies, yes. True books… no.
    This is part in how Indie stores and Amazon has been succeeding. But a little more on that part later.
    The fact is, mega-hit books are not always going to be there. Foster more niche audiences. Push a lot of mid-list writers. There are a wealth of writers out there that are just a pinch away from mega stardom. Many I would are better than the current best sellers, but they haven’t been found yet. Help people find them.
  • Put back the couches.
    Seems silly, but one of the things I loved about Barnes and Nobles in the beginning were the couches. I could go, hang out, pick out a few books and figure out one that I wanted to buy. Or it was comfortable to sit and chat with friends. Or I’d sit and write. Either way, it was a nice feature.
    By getting rid of them in the first place, it sent a clear signal to us readers: BN cares more about sales than the customer.
    At least that is what I hear when talking about it. “Oh BN obviously just didn’t want people to sit and read books rather than purchase them.” I hear that in almost perfect response to every mention of that former BN characteristic. Ever think that a lot of those sitting and reading were maybe trying to decide if the book was worthwhile? And maybe they were just trying to be cheap, but not like you are selling many books now anyway. (Burn! *coughs* Sorry… something got caught in my throat.)
  • Downsize but expand.
    The mega stores? Close a bunch of them. Not all of them, just a bunch of them. Then open smaller, more specialized stores. What do you put in those stores? I’ll tell you:

    1. Kiosks – around the holiday put up kiosks in malls featuring a handful of hot new releases. Maybe even books in genres known to be successful in the areas the malls exist. It’s a small footprint, minimal inventory, minimal labor, and supported by the larger network. Some of these might even work year-round. Malls are dying, so this may not survive, but you could also look into springing them up in other stores instead where books aren’t normally found.
    2. Bookstores – I remember Waldenbooks and some of the others. Now there’s BAM and a few scattered others. No, they weren’t huge, but compared to the need to have mega stores everywhere, it’s a good alternative to retain presence while lowering lease and labor costs. Inventory would be catered and reduced as well.
    3. Cafés… Plus a mini bookstore.
      You know how you are trying to push the café a little more? Put it in a mall or a strip mall, something other than a stand-alone store, and make it half a café and half a bookstore. Don’t push one over the other. Each should complement the other. In fact, you know that kiosk above? Maybe put it in Starbucks, since they are in your stores…
    4. Separate the games.
      I am a gamer. My wife is a gamer. We both love that BN has had games there. Besides the mega stores, why try to squeeze games into a mini version of the main store? Don’t. Compete with smaller gaming/tabletop franchises and open smaller stores selling tabletop games and toys rather than books. It could be a different division, like BN Games.
    5. Indie-centric shops.
      Place a few small local stores featuring the bigger authors and then competing indie-writers who work in the same genres. This will give the smaller writers a little more exposure.
  • Don’t rely on the traditional publishing world.
    Push more towards those pesky indie-writers (like me!). Seriously. Give us a chance. You are doing the right thing by allowing more opportunity to produce more indie works via the nook press, but go even further: push them. Sure, this will take some effort to study some of the writers that will be more pop-culture friendly than others, but the payoff is two-fold – 1) lower prices to customer that lead to 2) increased sales volume.
  • Integrate in-store sales with ebooks.
    QR codes, interactive apps… something, dammit! Augmented reality that can link a book to a reading history with a potential reading enjoyment score would be bad-ass. (By the way, if no one thought of this before, it’s mine.)
    Advertise that you have an ebook version of “X” titled book for some amount lower than the print… while displaying the print version! oh wait, they took the sale?! Awesome!
    Have a print for $10.99 but the ebook is only $4.99, so they maybe grab the ebook instead. Sale done… Or if they buy the print, have a coupon that prints out with their receipt to download the ebook for free. A lot of indie-writers do this style of selling. It is a nice way of boosting consumer confidence by not being so precious about a friggin computer file. I realize some publishers don’t want that, but the fact that they try to sell ebooks at $14.99 tells me they deserve the decline of their business too.
    Also by having multiple options immediately available, it expands the experience and potential for sale.
  • Sponsor Indie-events.
    Draw the crowds. Have a store in the area? Do some research of local writers who have imprints in the nook press… then get them to your store to talk about their work. Sure, they aren’t big named writers, but they are people who will draw others. Indie writers often go unknown just because they aren’t given these types of opportunities. Even if it doesn’t boost huge sales, did it hurt anything? Nope… not any worse that your quarterly earnings already have been.
  • Give up on the Nook (at least in part).
    You’ve already given up on stand-alone devices. Last time I saw that Samsung has their name on a lot of you tablets and ereaders. Go a step further. Give up the epub format as the exclusive and offer books even for kindle (.mobi format). Why not? Don’t discriminate e-readers. In fact, give bonus material pending on what ereader one might have. That’s right… even if they have a kindle. Now there probably is a ton of legal reasons why this isn’t possible, but it’d be worth a shot.
    That is something Amazon doesn’t do. Sure, if you have a tablet device it doesn’t matter, but people do have their preferences. I even bought a Kindle because the Nook ended up being so limited. Truthfully it is annoying that I bought two separate ereaders, but many do because of exactly that reason: incompatibility between epub and kindle formats.
  • Keep improving Nook Press.
    For one, I love that you can edit the manuscript directly on the site. That is one feature neither Smashwords nor Amazon KDP has. I am not certain about others, but at least here it is a great idea. More features and ease-of-use interfaces will draw more to your platform.
  • Become customer-centric.
    It almost seems stupid right? And I know that in many ways you believe that you are, but fact is, if you were, you wouldn’t be in the spot you are now. It isn’t about discounts and low prices either. It’s about the reading experience. Push that. People still love to read. Foster that.

I am hearing a lot of speak of executives who appear completely out of touch with what is going on in books and publishing. It’s ignorance. Plain and simple. The lack of success that BN and traditional publishing houses are having are pure signs to the lack of understanding they have in customers… readers. No huge coaching speech is going to save the day. Action will.

Where I am trying to go in some of these suggestions is a simultaneous step forward and backward in how to approach righting the ship. Don’t get locked in the standard business ways of doing things. You won’t beat Amazon, so stop trying to. You might be able to make yourself both a better bookstore and a better spot for independent publishing. Right now Amazon is beating you there, Barnes and Noble. And they are moving into brick-and-mortar locations. If you don’t move soon, they’ll beat you on the ground as well.

Books aren’t dead. But if you don’t take the time to change how you sell them, Barnes and Noble, you might be.

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