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Barnes & Noble: How technology changed the way we think about the bookstore

Barnes & Noble had years of notorious decline, but now its sales are up, and people who saw them for decades as a villain are now celebrating its success.

People have talked about the decline of reading for years because book sales have been steadily going down, causing the closure of many independent and chain bookstores.

This meant there was fierce competition in the bookselling business with many people seeing Barnes & Noble as strong-arming publishers and gobbling up independent stores in its quest for the majority of the market share.

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The importance of Barnes & Noble

Almost the entire publishing industry is rooting for Barnes & Noble, even most independent booksellers, because of its unique role in the book ecosystem. Their stores help readers discover new titles and help publishers stay invested in physical stores, especially because they are an essential anchor in a world upended by online sales and a much larger player: Amazon.

“It would be a disaster if they went out of business,” said Jane Dystel in an interview with The New York Times. She’s a literary agent with clients including Colleen Hoover, who has four books on this week’s New York Times bestseller list. “There’s a real fear that without this book chain, the print business would be way off.”

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The challenges Barnes & Noble faces

Barnes & Noble had substantial roadblocks thrown their way by the pandemic. For nearly two years, they didn’t have any events in their stores (like readings or author signings), their café business is still down, and their sales were affected for the Christmas shopping season because of omicron. Many of their stores in cities are still underperforming because of the low number of tourists and office workers.

Despite all of this, Barnes & Noble had a rise in sales by 3% last year compared with 2019. The growth came from selling books, which were up 14%.

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Barnes & Noble: villain or hero?

For many years, hostility toward Barnes & Noble from independent bookstores was so potent that it made even Tom Hanks a villain. The feeling was captured in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail. Co-written and directed by Nora Ephron, the film centered on the owner of a major bookstore chain, played by Hanks, who put Meg Ryan’s character, a beloved independent bookseller in Manhattan, out of business.

“There was a period where the competition was pretty ugly,” said Oren J Teicher, a former CEO of the American Booksellers Association, to the New York Times. “Barnes & Noble was perceived as not just the enemy, but as being everything about corporate book-selling that was wrong.” Over time, however, bookstores developed “a common enemy,” Teicher said: Amazon.

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The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Barnes & Noble became a dominant player by offering big discounts on bestsellers to draw in customers. Readers were presented with an enormous selection in the stores and the latest publications. When Amazon came along, it took Barnes & Noble’s game and played it better, with deeper discounts and a seemingly infinite selection of books.

Today, despite the rise of other formats, especially the popularity of audiobooks, the industry still relies on physical books — in 2021, they brought in 76% of publishers’ sales revenue, according to the Association of American Publishers. And more than half the physical books in the United States are sold by Amazon.

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Buying books online is easy; you can just search, click, and buy, and it will arrive at your door within hours or a couple of days. But you miss the experience of going to a bookstore and finding an accidental find: getting a book because of its cover, recommendations from the staff, or just spending time familiarizing yourself with their collection.

It’s very hard to replicate the accidental discovery online, which is an important part for readers, biggest-name writers, agents, and publishers of all sizes. This type of experience is even more prevalent in independent shops, but Barnes & Noble is highly important because there are towns in the US that have little to no indies, with Barnes & Noble being the only bookstore in town.

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How TikTok is affecting book sales

People are using #Booktok to talk about the books they love, and it’s bringing young customers into stores. “The only other time that I can remember a push like this towards books was when Oprah had her TV show,” Barnes & Noble Lead Bookseller at the store on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, Tracy Czwojdak, said in an interview with WRGZ. “When she would announce her pick, people would come in before the show was over, looking for it.”

Maybe the next time you go to a bookstore you’ll see the staff members performing skits, dances, or creating other videos on their phones. The demographic seems to be from middle school to college, with a lot of them being very interested in physical books, while older people seem to be more interested in magazines or e-readers.

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With a lot of people being at home 24/7 during the high of the pandemic, a lot of people started buying a lot of books. And this trend hasn’t gone down again. Strong sales are driven by blockbuster releases from well-known authors, and while some are coming this year there haven’t been many recently. Right now, something else is behind all that buying: the enthusiasm for reading.

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