Barnes and Noble Bookstore Blues

by Nancy Humphreys on January 16, 2013

Barnes & Noble, or “Buns & Noodle” as cartoonist and book author Alison Bechdel satirized it, is in trouble. Nook sales were down by 12.6 percent compared to last year while retail sales went down 10.9 percent. And no wonder!

Barnes & Noble is a second office for my partner and me. We try to get there once a week and spend a few hours reading and discussing business. My partner checks out the Mac and Web design stuff. I check out the business books and the indexes in the books we find.

Believe it or not, this is getting harder to do every day. My local Barnes & Noble dumped its music collection and used that space plus a lot of book space for …merchandise?

Really! There are no enticing book display tables in the front of the store, only Nook display tables. You’d think you were walking into ToysRUs or Costco.

Book display tables are out of sight on the right. Indeed, you could walk through Barnes & Noble and not realize it is a bookstore until you see the one display case beside the door with multiple copies of the featured title of the week (recently Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln).

What’s wrong with B & N?

Here’s my list. No doubt you might want to add things:

  • They removed comfy sofas and chairs to make room for merchandise
  • There are no more CDs with listening stations. (I send CD gifts)
  • They no longer stock the complete titles of popular book series
  • They no longer carry all library children’s book award winners
  • Book shelving is a maze, and there’s no map of subject areas
  • B & N can’t tell literary fiction from genre fiction
  • All authors with names starting with Mc come first under “M”
  • There are no self-serve computers to let customers find books
  • Often no one is at the information booth
  • They can’t tell a customer if a title is available at a nearby B & N
  • On busy days, they never have enough cashiers.

What’s right with B & N?

  • It still has a great cookbook collection
  • It has a very good magazine and newspaper section
  • It has a Starbucks  – complete with tables to sit at

I often wonder if my local B & N would survive without that Starbucks or if possibly Starbucks makes more money than Barnes & Noble does off of B & N customers…

What could be better?

Here’s the elephant that’s not in the room. Amazon is where most people get their books. It’s far cheaper than B & N or any other bookstore. Let’s look at how any bookstore could survive that.

(1) Carry print books people want to pick up and browse

Most people hear about books from TV shows, newspapers and other media. Or they learn about books from friends, family and coworkers who are media and/or library hounds. And most people would love to see those books before investing $15 to $30 for one of them.

Can you find a a book mentioned on Jon Stewart, Colbert, or Entertainment Tonight in my Barnes & Noble? How about books in the major book review journals or Sunday papers? Nope, you often cannot. And certainly not on the day after the show or publication comes out Yet, that’s exactly the kind of service a nationwide bookstore could provide and make money from!

(2) Integrate e-books into its computer system

After looking at a print copy of a book that’s for sale, customers may well prefer to buy the ebook version, especially if it is cheaper. They may be able to purchase a Nook ebook at the store, but what if the book they want isn’t on Nook? This is where Amazon is killing Barnes & Noble. B & N should create deals with publishers to sell e-books for any kind of device right at the store. Think of the new gift business it could get!

(3) Connect buying and book-ordering in its computer system

It’s absurd that Barnes & Noble can’t tell readers if a print book title is still on the shelves at a B & N store nearby. That’s a service that library readers have taken for granted for well over a decade. Clearly, at Barnes and Noble stores, the cashiers’ computers aren’t connected to those at the information desks. Connect them!

(4) Provide self-service computers for finding and buying books

Even Home Depot, with its arcane SKU number system on items for sale lets users buy things without waiting in line. Include e-books on those self-serve workstations. And for reader’s sake, let people look up a book themselves if they don’t know an author’s last name.

 (5) Lastly, provide space for local authors to sell their books

Authors, whether published or self-published, often sell their book(s) out of their homes or offices. They can easily be contacted to bring in an additional copy if the first copy on the B & N shelves sells. Local authors won’t demand the book be returned for remaindering in just a few months either. This certainly isn’t the case with publishers.

Author appearances are one of the best ways to sell books. What city or town in America with a Barnes & Noble store doesn’t have local authors, at least one of whom is nationally known? What book-loving visitor to a new place wouldn’t want to stop by a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks and see what its local authors have written?


Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »

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