I love bookstores. Maybe even more than I love books (maybe). The smell is intoxicating and invites me to sit in a comfy chair, crack a book and read until someone kicks me out. If it has a coffee bar, even better. While I’m a bigger fan of small, independent bookstores, I’ll never drive passed a Barnes & Noble without stopping. So when the news came out a couple of weeks ago, I got curious.
A hedge fund just bought Barnes & Noble for a rocking $638 million. I’m holding out hope they can save the big guy. If you know anything about hedge funds, they don’t buy things to let them default and go under. They buy them to flip them. That’s where James Daunt comes in.
The guy who turned around Britain’s Waterstones bookstore chain has been tapped to do the same at B&N. In an interview with the Wharton School of Business Daunt said, “The Barnes & Noble stores look tired and need a little botox. I think bookshops must have a personality.” This is something he implemented at Waterstones.
Each manager had more autonomy. They cater to the locals and create a unique space – independent of the cookie cutter look. He plans the same in the U.S. “The book lovers in Birmingham, Alabama, are probably not going to want the same books and environment as those in Boston,” he said. Waterstones profits jumped 80% in 2018, so he must be on to something.
Enter independent bookstores.
Treating each B&N like an independent shop as opposed to one of a conglomerate plays into the hands of the resurgence of independent bookstores. Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied that resurgence, recently told Vox that building community is what saved local bookstores. He said he’s been in bookstore that host up to 500 events a year, and that’s important because consumers want community. In addition, social media and in particular, Instagram, has helped with the resurgence.
- Instagram’s role is two-fold. One, it’s is a place where its users want to create community as well, but to do that, there have to be physical spaces to take photos of. Two, it’s really become a place readers show which books they’re reading and where (#bookstagram).
- People crave community and bookstores are giving it to them. If you’d told me that independent bookstores would make a resurgence after B&N started tanking and Borders shut, I would have laughed. But that’s exactly what’s happening. Even the ‘Zon gets it and that’s why it’s spending money creating small bookstores. Readers like the bookstore experience and over the past few years have had to find it in libraries. Libraries really get it. They create a community better than anyone. If Daunt has his way, B&N will tap into that need and create better bookstore experiences for readers with signings, talks, and author events. I just hope he doesn’t contribute to a shuttering of the indies.
What does this mean for all of us writers?
- First, it’s reassurance that people still want and read print books. It’s not very sexy to take a photo with your Kindle book, but it is with a physical book in a physical bookstore.
- Second, it’s time to approach your local bookstore with an author event proposal they can’t refuse. If B&N opens or repurposes in your town, take advantage of it and get to know the manager. If you’re indie publishing, this may be your in for a more traditional market.
- Third, it’s an indication of the print market. Print sales have been on the rise since 2015 (in the U.S., some of that has to do with massive nonfiction numbers reporting on the Trump administration), so that is also compelling for us as writers. If we’re indie publishing, we need to make sure we offer print books.
- Fourth, it opens wider the debate about traditional versus indie. If you’re on the fence about publishing, distribution into B&N and other bookstores is the biggest reason most authors want a traditional contract (aside from street cred, I get it). But if Daunt is going to let local managers decide which books to carry, that opens some doors to indie authors to go wide.
While this news may very well be a last ditch effort by the B&N board, I like the market indications for books that it brings. Even if it tanks, the act of trying to save it tells me reading still happens. Readers still want books. All we have to do is write them.