By: Grace Pelley
Elliott Management has purchased Barnes & Noble (Milliot). Some fear that the book distributor, now lead by an investment firm, does not have long to last. But, how did we get here? What will it mean to the publishing world if Barnes & Noble disappears? How can authors prepare for a new system?
In 2017, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, surpassed Bill Gates as the wealthiest person on Earth (Dolan and Kroll). In the last decade, Amazon has changed how we see technology with Alexa. But, even before Alexa, the Kindle changed how we buy books. The Kindle had two years (2007-2009) to gain popularity before Barnes & Noble fired back with the Nook (Kozlowski). When my family started to buy e-readers around 2010, we already were concerned about the longevity of the Nook. The Kindle’s success over the Nook is not just because a bigger company produced it: The Kindle offered a wider selection of books. For us, selection was a deciding factor. So, if the Nook was Barnes & Noble’s chance to have a corner of the book market that Amazon could not touch, it was a failure.
But, the end of Barnes & Noble may mean more than Amazon’s superiority in book sales. The Big Five publishers, which contribute a large portion of the store’s inventory, may no longer be the controlling force of the industry. I do not think that it is coincidental that the self-publishing craze has happened during B&N’s decline. Having a book published by the Big Five is no easy feat. It takes a stellar manuscript, an established audience and a whole lot of luck. Self-publishing leaves most variables in the author’s hands. Now, I do not think that self-publishing is perfect. Middlemen such as agents and editors are there for a reason. They know how to shape a manuscript into its best possible self and whom to alert about the book’s release. Quality self-published books exist, but only because their authors knew enough about the business to do what editors and agents would.
So, the question remains: if landing a book deal with the Big Five so that that bookstores like Barnes & Noble will sell it is no longer a reasonable business plan, what is? I think in the next several years we will see new publishing avenues will open. Regardless of what comes down the road, authors will be their own best publicity. When I browse books, I typically browse by author, not subject. I have read, and enjoyed, books whose descriptions sounded not like something for me, but I trusted the author not to let me down. When authors become brands, they gain enough of a following that the publishing means is unimportant. I do not think that this is a new approach entirely. I would not consider myself a fan of twentieth-century murder mysteries involving Belgian detectives, but I love Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. Crowd-funding will enable readers to support authors directly. A loyal fan base has always been a factor in a book’s success, but it may become the deciding one.
All this is not to say good riddance to Barnes & Noble. I think that a national chain of booksellers is still a reasonable business idea. But, it needs to change. Maybe it will have better luck with the next big thing in books than it did with the Nook. Unlike some chains, it would do well to reflect each community in which a store is located. A couple weeks ago, I heard about a mystery series that takes place in my city, which does not have a very big literary scene. I wish my Barnes & Noble store had featured this author. Local talent always is exciting.
Will Barnes & Noble become a thing of the past? It does not have to be. But, it needs to adapt to a changing industry.
Dolan, Kerry A., and Luisa Kroll, editors. “Billionaires: The Richest People in the World.” Forbes, 5 Mar. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/#516d5309251c. Accessed 15 June 2019.
Kozlowski, Michael. “A brief history of ebooks.” Good e-Reader, 17 May 2010, https://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/a-brief-history-of-ebooks. Accessed 19 June 2019.
Milliot, Jim. “Equity Firm Agrees to Buy B&N.” Publishers Weekly, 7 June 2019, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/industry-deals/article/80383-equity-firm-agrees-to-buy-b-n.html. Accessed 8 June 2019.