It’s Literally Wednesday: The Future of Barnes & Noble

Amazon began its life as an online bookstore in 1995 and a seller of e-books in 2007. Borders went from owning 511 superstores and 175 Waldenbooks to liquidation in less than two years. Barnes & Noble closed all 798 of its B. Dalton stores and, despite the disappearance of Borders, is quietly shedding superstores whose numbers peaked in 2008 at 726.

B&N announced a month ago that store sales for the last nine weeks of 2012 declined 11% compared to the previous year. Despite coming out with not one, but two well-reviewed e-reading devices, Nook sales declined 13% (though digital content sales were higher).

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, B&N’s chief executive of retail stated that even though fewer than 20 stores were currently losing money, the company would be closing 20 stores per year over the next ten years, or about one-third of their total, settling at 450 to 500 stores. Many (including unhappy B&N employees) see even that as wildly optimistic.

Remaining stores are changing. If you have not visited the B&N at the Edgewood Retail District over on Moreland in a while, the place looks different. There are more toys and educational materials. There are fewer and fewer books.

Should Barnes & Noble close down in the next few years, the United States would lose over half of its non-college bookstores and perhaps 80% of the retail square footage devoted to books within a span of five years.

Can large bookstores survive? Can any bookstore survive? Does it matter?

This Week

Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife, Wednesday, February 6th at 7pm, Margaret Mitchell House, free.

Dave Barry, author of Insane City: A Novel, Wednesday, February 13th at 7pm, Carter Center, free.

Photo courtesy of Melville House

38 thoughts on “It’s Literally Wednesday: The Future of Barnes & Noble”

  1. I would miss the B&N magazine selection more than the books. I visit the one at the Forum in Peachtree Corners about once a month and usually pick up two or three magazines (the most recent purchase included DRAFT magazine, which included Brick Store in its list of 100 best beer bars.)
    I rarely purchase a book there because A) Amazon is cheaper and has a better selection and B) if I’m going to buy at a brick and mortar store, I prefer to do it at Little Shop of Stories if possible and C) I get most of my books from the library anyway.

    It’s hard to imagine a future for B&N because they depend on sales volume and that volume is shrinking. I’d hate to see B&N go away, but the “does it matter” question is a tough one. I think it matters to publishers, who make more profits from physical books than ebooks, perhaps more than to consumers.

  2. It matters very much to me, but then again, I’m in my mid-40’s and I’m sure my perspective is based in some nostalgia. When bookstores were in malls, they were my first destination. Going to stores like B&N and the late lamented Borders has always been one of my favorite things to do. I just love holding and looking at books.

    I don’t have a problem with e-books; I buy and read them on my iPad. And there’s always that little pang of guilt when I do, knowing it’s one of the many arrows in book retailers’ hides.

    Not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say I will be sad when (not if) B&N closes all its stores.

    1. Thing is someone has to purchase that book you get from the library first so we need bookstores to remain. I personally enjoy going to the bookstore to browse and find something that is of interest but I’m old fashioned like that.

      1. Browsing seems to be a dying art. Lo! how I miss video stores.

        I don’t have an e-reader, because I find them impersonal and I have difficulty taking them seriously. I know I’m in the minority, though. My cries for the printed word often fall on deaf ears.

        I’m not sure what will happen when B&N closes for good. Perhaps a resurgence of small, independent books stores?

        1. Still one great intown video store left: Videodrome in Poncey-Highland. That’s where you go when you want to show yer daughter The Sting, which isn’t on Netflix streaming…

          1. Oh yes, I used to live in the apartments that (practically) share a parking lot with Videodrome, many years ago! The constant traffic in that area deters me from heading over there. It’s a shame – date night just isn’t the same without a stop at a video store on the way home.

  3. I don’t see how large bookstores can survive, although I don’t expect printed books to disappear. I think that the Wal-Marts and Targets and such will expand their book selections and start carrying books other than new releases and bestsellers to help fill some of the void. I also think some small, independent bookstores will thrive. But, if you want to find older works of an author you just stumbled onto or want to buy a classic, you will have to go to Amazon. None of this is going to happen overnight, but I would be surprised if B&N exists in a decade.

      1. Not where I was going with that and I am not tyring to stir that pot. But, WM and Target will be in a position to capitalize on the opportunity as bookstores continue to fail.

      2. A Wal-Mart dominated book world is a depressing thought. Dozens of books about people who think they went to heaven while taking a nap.

    1. Look at how the music departments of Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have shrunk now that the delivery system has changed so drastically. I feel that the same thing will happen with book sections in the big box stores; it will just take longer, probably some time after the boomers have died off and E-Books become the standard.

  4. What are we going to put in all those Little Libraries around town when there’s no more hardcopy books?

  5. I don’t think this is off-topic, but how is the ebook selection at the Dekalb library? Are there often long waits for popular books?

    1. The selection is limited. The waits seem to be as long as the hard books. You can’t return the book early. And you are limited to three e books at a time.

      The process is still a work in progress.

        1. Alison, is there any way to communicate the “return early” message more prominently at the website? If people realized they could return a book right after they load it onto their device (don’t even have to wait until they finish reading it), the wait lists would move along faster.

          1. ebooks. Take a look at today’s Wall Street Journal. A Texas library has opened with no books. Computer terminals and lending ebooks are the future of libraries.

          2. @STG–I’ll pass on the suggestion to our webmaster. We use the proprietary OverDrive platform for eBooks and unfortunately we can’t always get it to work the way we would like.

            1. The eBooks are awesome. And way too few.

              Every eBook I want to download at the Dekalb Library has a waiting list a mile long, and this seems to be the norm (at least when I check out a large chunk of their scifi collection).

              I’ve always wondered how the pricing (to the library) differs from buying a print book. I’d give even more than we do to the Friends of the Dekalb Library if they setup an eBook fund.

              1. @DrB–the eBook marketplace is still very volatile, especially for public libraries. It is very complicated. Many publishers either won’t sell their new releases to public libraries, charge multiple times more than they would a private consumer or want to place total number of download restrictions on titles.
                DCPL would love to offer more eBooks, and more print titles and everything else. You may not be aware that our funding for materials has been decimated for the last 4 years. At our peak in 2007-2008 we had approximately $2.025 million from County General Fund to spend on materials and for the last several years we have been getting $100,000. That’s $100,000 for 22 branches, serving the entire population of DeKalb.
                The DeKalb Library Foundation does have a way for you to specifically support the eBook collection through online giving. Follow this link if you would like to donate:

                Alison Weissinger, Director, DCPL

  6. Barnes & Noble crushed the small independent bookstores by undercutting them on price and having a larger stock selection and now they’re being beaten at their own game. Personally, I won’t shed a tear.

    1. I guess you just call it progress or maybe even Karma then. Reminds me of that scene in You’ve Got Mail when Tom Hanks character says…

      “We’re going to seduce them with our square footage, and our discounts, and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino. That’s right. They’re going hate us at the beginning, but…we’ll get ’em in the end. Do you know why? Because we’re going to sell them cheap books and legal addictive stimulants. In the meantime, we’ll just put up a big sign: “Coming soon: a FoxBooks superstore and the end of civilization as you know it.”

      BTW Amazon was founded just four years before You’ve Got Mail was released.

      1. “I guess you just call it progress or maybe even Karma then”

        Yeah, and also ironic, in that their mode of communication in “You’ve Got Mail” was internet-enabled, a modern twist on “The Shop Around the Corner” (of which the former is a loose remake) in which the leads used “old-fashioned” letters. Of course, those definitely seem to be on their last legs, as today’s announcement of an end to Saturday mail deliveries reminded us.

  7. “Should Barnes & Noble close down in the next few years, the United States would lose over half of its non-college bookstores” Where do the Barnes & Nobles that are also college bookstores like on Emory and Tech campuses factor into this? Could expanding into this market help save them?

    1. Amazon is making a big push into the college textbook market, selling books cheaper than bookstores, and they are even renting college textbooks. Collge bookstores may all just be souvenir shops in a few years

    2. Barnes & Noble has quasi-separated it’s college bookstore and e-book business from the retail superstores. Microsoft invested $300 million into the former though, somewhat surprisingly, B&N did not get a prominent spot on the Surface tablets. Pearson (owner of Penguin books) invested $90 million in this. I’m guessing that they want to position themselves in the college textbook market which is evolving to digital at a much slower rate than I had anticipated.

      I’m predicting that the two entities will become legally separate in the next 18 months or so with an agreement between them to require the retail stores to sell and promote Nook products. William Lynch, B&N’s CEO, has been behind their big push toward digital and, some have argued, neglecting the bricks and mortar side of things.

    3. University Textbooks are going virtual as well. Some of my collegues kids use the ipad for classes with no paper. It is becoming “A Brave New World,” just not the paperback edition on my bookshelf.

  8. I do not think that Barnes and Noble will survive and, as a result, it will be a big boon to small, independent book stores.

    Although behemoth’s such as Wal Mart and Target will likely eat up market share as well.

  9. Same thing that goes on at Best Buy goes on at B&N. People browse and then comparison shop online, often on their phone while they’re in the store. Best Buy as we know it will probably disappear about the same time as B&N.
    Most of the novels and non-fiction I read anymore I read on a Kindle. I keep a book on the nightstand, and it’s usually something I picked up at the Decatur Book Festival. The only books I generally buy anymore are graphic novels, art books, and books at author signings

    1. I think you may underestimate the need for immediate gratification shared by a good percetage of the population.

      1. It will be interesting to find out. I went to Best Buy recently to purchase an HDMI cable because I knew it would cost less than $20 and I wanted it that day. The salesperson was very aggressive in up-selling me to a higher quality cable. For a $40-60 investment, though, immediate gratification took a back seat. I came home and ordered it. Paid less than $15 (including standard shipping) for same or better quality (and an extra few feet) than BB was selling for $50-60 and it arrived in 3 days.

        1. Good call. For all but a handful of folks with meticulously discriminating sight and hearing, high-end cables are a total racket.

        2. BB cables are a rip-off. Their HDMI cables cost $30 to $40 (and the Monster cables costs twice that) and the same cable costs less than $10 on Amazon. BB relies on people picking one up while they are there.

      2. Ebooks make for instant gratification with just a wi-fi or 3G connection. No need to get up off your butt and go to a store. Shop naked, even.

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