And What It Means For Indie Authors
By Gazette Staff
If your name is James Patterson (best-selling author), it’s easy to get your book piled up on the feature table at the front of any Barnes & Noble store in the country. But if you are Shirley Smith (unknown Indie self-published author), it’s not as simple.
The role of the book retailer is to sell books. Any and all books. Hopefully, enough books with enough margin that the enterprise will be able to pay their bills and staff while making a profit. If, on the way to achieving that goal, they can do good for an author, that’s a bonus.
For years B&N followed the course. They had a staff of 25 powerful book buyers in New York who ordered for the country. (Everybody everywhere loves John Grisham!) Then, along came Amazon and B&N was hit hard. The company went through five CEOs in five years, each hired to turn the business around. None of them had any experience selling books—although they were titans of retail. All failed.
Depending on the source of the figures, Amazon sells about 65 percent of the print books in the US. E-books make up a significant part of the market and Amazon also leads this category. In addition, Target and other mass retailers have introduced books into their mix, especially national best-sellers.
While that has added to the B&N hurt, it also gives them space and incentive to feature more locals.
In August 2019 the company was purchased by hedge fund Elliott Management Corp who brought in James Daunt, UK bookstore owner, restructuring expert, and visionary. He had founded Daunt books, an independent chain of six bookstores in Britain (which he still owns) at age 26, became CEO of Waterstones (a post he still holds), and also took on the job at B&N.
B&N has about 625 stores in the US. Some are closed depending on local Covid-19 regulations. About 400 stores were closed in March 2020, but some have reopened since.
One of the ratings of a bookstore is based on returns—books that remain unsold after a set amount of time, are returned to the publisher for a refund or credit. Waterstones under Mr. Gaunt has a 3.5% return rate; the Barnes & Noble return rate ranges from 25% to as much as 50% on new titles.
In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Daunt noted that “A good bookseller has little to no returns. When you let the stores choose what they stock and choose how they price it, the returns more or less completely disappear.”
A few more of Mr. Daunt’s changes:
- Books in the stores will be organized by genre or subject, instead of being arranged by author.
- As much as possible books will be displayed with the cover out, instead of showing just the spines.
- Tables of books will be smaller and round, allowing a more approachable presence. B&N tables were large, rectangular, and piled high with books.
- Store managers will have the authority to stock more local and locally favored authors. They will still stock all of the national best-sellers, but there will be more locals featured.
- The toy and impulse purchase sections will get a serious look as to whether they should stay or go.
Daunt expects 2020 sales to be down about 20 percent compared to 2019. To cut costs he has fired about 125 people (about half of the corporate staff) in New York and has laid off about 5,000 mostly part time employees across the country. B&N staffing is now about 16,500 people.
The big question for Indie authors is: How will all of this affect us?
Hallard Press Gazette has requested interviews with head office representatives as well as local managers. These requests are being hampered by the Covid-19 restrictions—B&N head office personnel are currently working from home. We’ll bring you the results of those interviews in upcoming Gazette editions.
The venerable US publisher Simon & Schuster, founded in 1924, the third largest publisher in the country accounting for 2,000 titles annually, is about to be acquired by Penguin Random House, a unit of Bertelsmann SE, a German media conglomerate. The new group would represent about one-third of the print books in the US. With that kind of leverage, they could push book retailers for more and better display space along with higher prices.
How might it affect Indie authors? Stay tuned. We’ll cover that in future issues of Gazette.