September 11, 2019

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September 11, 2019

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Barnes & Noble: How Can We Miss You, If You Won't Go Away?

Barnes & Noble has not had a very good year. They've foisted a lot of corporate dirty laundry on us, they've put together a Christmas gift list bereft of actual books, they're making unforced errors like this, and they're fueling speculation of an acquisition led by you-know-who.

 

At the same time, they've come out with a brand new Nook, and they're experimenting actively with new concept stores. To their credit, they're not going down without a fight.

 

One of the persistent topics of discussion at a conference like Digital Book World is the relationship between digital books and print books. We've all endured the absurd "print is dead" trope, and have collectively reached the understanding that print books will always be with us, even as digital books become more and more ubiquitous and evolved.

 

As a corollary, physical bookstores will always be with us as well. There's simply too much of a market for a physical bookstore serving a community or a particular geography that Amazon, despite all of its creativity as well as its corporate DNA as a bookseller, can't force into online channels.

 

We've seen it bubble up with the seemingly newfound perkiness of independent booksellers. Here in Nashville, we have Parnassus Books, which has done a phenomenal job of showing how a local bookstore can thrive. There are many other great examples around the country and world.

 

But a big national bookstore chain offers important opportunities, both on a cost-saving front as well as on a marketing front, that ensure we'll always have one.

 

As long as Barnes & Noble is here, clinging on for dear life, we won't get a major new chain starting up to compete with it. If you were going to do that, you'd just go ahead and buy Barnes & Noble to start with, and take that footprint and history and run with it.

 

Interestingly, we've seen a very similar situation to this take place in another market, with what has happened with Toys R Us. A big, legacy giant clings on to dear life, finally succumbs, and in that case, emerges with a new structure that will likely serve the market much better than before. Toys R Us, with all of this, has provided Barnes & Noble with ideas on what a viable turnaround might look like.

 

We've incorporated Print Book World as a new track at Digital Book World this year, as it is high time to discuss the many new technologies that continue to blur the lines between print and digital books. Gutenberg would've been proud to see the next steps the printed book is about to take, over the next 3-4 years, and many of the evolutions that have already arrived at our doorstep. Print books and digital books are inextricably linked, as the workflows mirror each other and publishers, large and small, can no longer think about one while ignoring the other.

 

We won't get to find out what the evolution of the bookstore looks like until something happens, one way or the other, with Barnes & Noble. Whether Amazon steps in and buys them, and implements Amazon Go-like technology along with voice commerce via Alexa, or whether Barnes & Noble goes into bankruptcy and emerges with new life just like Toys R Us, I hope we get on with it in 2019. A healthy national bookseller will open a lot of doors for tech-savvy publishers that we've grown accustomed to being closed.

 

 

 

 

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