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Four Things Barnes & Noble Could Do to Stay Competitive

The last financial report of Barnes & Noble was grim.  Nook Media LLC is bleeding money.  What was once viewed as the savior is quickly becoming a non producing goat. The tablets B&N produced are not catching fire and the cost to develop and keep apace with other technology giants was simply too much so B&N has jettisoned the production of any future Nook tablets but is keeping the e-ink tablets. Already some people are comparing B&N to Borders and suggesting in three years Barnes & Noble will have closed its doors.

Here’s my short list of items that I think Barnes & Noble could do to stay competitive.

1) Spend more time promoting self published work.  It does look like, with the launch of Nook Press (from PubIt!), that B&N is investing more dollars into creating a welcoming self publishing atmosphere.  I hear a lot of complaints about Nook Press but it’s interface is a lot nicer looking than that of Amazon’s. It allows you to edit a self published book directly from the dashboard, for example, something you can’t do at any of the other writing platforms offered by retailers.   The margins are high on self published work and the retailer has more bargaining power over self published authors than it does over publishers.

Their customer service, however, on the digital side needs help both for readers and authors in the Nook Press program.

2) Continue to convince publishers that their fortunes are tied with B&N.  One of the things that has stuck with me from Judge Cote’s decision affirming the publishers’ pricing-fixing settlements is her statement that the publishers should subsidize brick and mortar stores if their existence is so vital to the publishers’ survivals.  Penguin has started to do that with its in store kiosks.  Simon & Schuster’s refusal to come to terms with B&N is likely over the issue of what level of support B&N is demanding.

3) Start selling Nook books in store.  Barnes & Noble’s greatest advantage over Amazon is its retail existence but it isn’t using all of its space to sell the most number of books.  For example, B&N cannot stock every book in a series, but it can stock one or two and then offer the rest of the books in the series for an immediate download.  B&N has an app and it should have a UPC or QR Code reader that would allow a user to scan a code and immediately be presented with the options of downloading or having the physical book shipped for free to the customer’s house.

When you shop now at Barnes & Noble, you get a print out of five additional books that might be of interest to you based on your purchase but there’s no call to action, no ability to purchase immediately. They should have a code at the end of the print out that can, again, offer you immediate download or one click shipping to your house.

Those staff picks that change? They should have a hand out of those past staff picks with the ability for a customer to immediately purchase any previous title.  The goal here would be to bake Nook books and into every corner of the retail store so that Barnes & Noble is capturing every purchase possible.

I’ve frequently gone to B&N to look for a children’s book but unable to find it, I end up ordering it online from Amazon when I get home. But if B&N would facilitate an in store purchase and two day delivery before I even exited the children’s section, I’d get it from Barnes & Noble while the kidlet is still asking me for the title.

4) Offer high end household goods.  My B&N has a DVD and music section, still. I don’t see many people in it.  I think that space should be converted to either selling more books or offering high end case goods ala McNally’s Bookstore. Case goods have a huge margin (some say at least 50%, if not more).  Selling bookcases and desks are a natural fit as well as high end writing instruments, similar to what Levenger does.

Barnes & Noble has to make some changes. Wall Street is already looking at it nervously.

Wall street barnes and noble

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Elaine Willis
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 06:17:30

    I am an Amazon Prime customer simply because of the two day shipping option. If B&N offered something similar, I would also purchase from them.

  2. Amber
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 08:36:32

    Barnes and Noble lost my business when they put a huge toy section outside of their children’s section (replacing their entire social science section.) I used to let my children browse for books, but I won’t set foot in that store now.

  3. Erika
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 08:50:36

    You mention DVD and music sales. I actually think this is one thing that B & N has going for it. The only difficulty (for me) is that they don’t have a DVD section in every store. So, if I want to take a look at their (excellent) British film collection, I have to drive clear across town.

    Also, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone into a B&N looking for a specific book, only to come back empty handed because they didn’t have it in stock. Sure, I can order a copy, but I can also do that at home on Amazon. And that’s the kicker right there. I understand they can’t stock every book in existence, but when they don’t have even one in ten books I’m looking for? My tastes can’t be that out of the norm. ;) And this was before they devoted half of their in-store space to knicknacks.

  4. A.Beth
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 09:03:22

    the retailer has more bargaining power over self published authors than it does over publishers.

    I would debate this. While some self-publishing authors do have good sales at B&N/Nook, sometimes even better than at Amazon, Amazon is still the ebook king of sales. B&N’s “bargaining power” (by which I’m presuming you mean “ability to make the contract better for them than for the little guy”) is crimped by Amazon’s lure of exclusivity bennies, out-of-country sales (also offered by Apple and Kobo; Nook only barely is in the UK now), and the already higher royalty (70%, not 65%) within many areas.

    What B&N needs to do isn’t “get people to buy ebooks in the stores.” It’s to make their online experience awesome. Right now? As a reader, I have encountered both bad formatting of their “look inside” options (on traditionally-published ebooks, mind you; it was code error, not source), and the customer support response wasn’t, “That shouldn’t happen. I’ll forward this to the computer guys.” It was, instead, “Oh, well, you’re using an old browser and we only support modern ones.”

    (And indeed, when I was forced to upgrade to a slightly newer browser, the display error… decided to restrict itself to chapter headings and not the body-text. Bwah? But it’s still there, and I’m not going to upgrade again and lose access to perfectly functional, expensive-to-replace applications.)

    But B&N, Amazon’s “look inside” worked just fine with my older browser, and with my slightly newer one. There’s no excuse for B&N web-pages not to display competently with older browsers. There’s no excuse for your customer “support” to be unhelpful and snippy, blaming the customer for not having the latest and greatest hardware and software.

    I like the “local” B&N store, though it’s about a half-hour away. The people there have always been helpful, even in the height of Christmas Rush, and they’ve been willing to order stuff for me. The online store? After that “customer support” issue, as a consumer? I have no interest in buying Nook books anymore. Why should I support someone who doesn’t want my business?

    (I did have my own list of things B&N could do, at It includes “view your local store’s stock, order online, have it bundled & waiting when you get there (no shipping fees!),” “make the B&N discount card a family thing online as well as in stores,” “sell .mobi files as well as epub and have good side-loading instructions,” and “bought the physical book with your membership card? get a slight discount on the ebook — and vice versa! Now you can buy five copies of that book you loved, cheaper, and send them to your family and friends.”)

  5. LJD
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 10:00:50

    Chapters/Indigo does not appear to be in the dire financial straights that B&N is in. I believe I have seen some of its success attributed to all the “lifestyle” products they sell. Not sure, exactly. But I wonder what could be learned by looking at similar bookstores in other countries?

  6. mari
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 10:21:45

    I would add put romance books front and center in every store, train employees to at least be somewhat knowledgable about the genre and maybe a reader’s advisory service too, along the lined of “if you like Twilight, try these books….” As long as I am dreaming, I would also like free massages, babysitting services, and manicures. :)

  7. Susan
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 12:23:00

    Honestly? I’ve pretty much given up on BN. If I go at all it’s to buy specialty magazines, not books. And, even then, I have to fight my way thru the lurkers who stand in front of the racks reading the stock. (What is with these people? As well as the ones who park at all the available tables and chairs for hours on end, doing coursework or writing their novels, without ever buying a darn thing. Rant over.)

    I guess I’m also not clear on why they put a crapton of remainders and books for a buck in prime space right up front. I know they have marketing geniuses who do things like map out the floor space, but I’d make bargain hunters walk through the whole store, past the full-price merchandise, and put the big sellers up front. As it is, my primary BN has most of their genre titles (romance, sff, mystery) wedged into awkward spaces towards the back, like they’re embarrassed to even be selling them. (And, btw BN, please train your staff to not make comments to the customer about what or how much the customer is buying.)

    And cookbooks? I thought those were still big sellers, especially as gifts. And those are the kinds of books people actually like to hold in their hands and examine before buying. So why reduce the floor space for them to broom-closet size? That’s why I go to BAM.

    BN has spent more time and energy being a bad player (colluding with publishers, fighting against publishers, trying to hamstring AZ) than actually focusing on their patrons.

  8. Courtney Milan
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 12:27:44

    Barnes and Noble’s problem is that it doesn’t pay attention to feedback, and indeed, rarely seeks it.

    I have never met a self-published author who said, “Oh, great, I’ll be able to edit a book on the vendor’s website, but in return, I lose a bunch of formatting and might introduce version control problems, and if the vendor has server issues (as B&N has in the past) I might lose all my changes because there’s no good backup mechanism.”

    Becoming a cloud-based editing platform was no doubt expensive, but it was also useless–they’re not going to outperform Google Docs or Dropbox, and would have done better to pursue integration. And it was done at the expense of allowing authors to update versions of their files.

    So they spent a bunch of money to trade a working feature that was used by authors for a feature that was useless. They’ve fixed this, now, but it was bone-headed on their part. I’ve been told that many people involved in the beta test told them this, but they just didn’t pay attention. Someone above had decided it was a good idea so it went ahead, even though the target for it didn’t want it. That was really poor management, and it seems to be endemic to their customer service.

    Barnes and Noble needs to actually do market research and figure out what people want, and when people tell them, “we want this and not that,” they need to listen, and not just think “this is what they came up with in committee and so it’s what they’re going to deliver.”

    So I think B&N has only one thing to do to make itself competitive: start listening to customers and readers about their experiences. Listening. With an open mind. And then trying to solve problems. I think their issues now all stem from an inability to figure out what their target markets want. They’re not used to asking people and getting answers and implementing solutions, and they’re not set up to care about it. The lack of customer service is just one side-effect of not caring. They care so little that they have no formal mechanism to care and correct mistakes.

    Jane, you and I both read the book on habits, so you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I think what B&N needs to do to turn itself around is to restructure its core procedures so that customers matter. It’s not four or fifteen things they’re doing wrong, but one really bad thing that creates numerous issues.

    And yeah, B&N’s problem is that its not in a position to demand stuff of its authors. If they do, it makes their platform less valuable and gives authors more of an incentive to go to KDP select. I’m seeing more growth on platforms like Google and Kobo; for the last few months, Kobo and Apple have been outperforming B&N.

    That makes me sad.

    Written on my iPad so apologies for typos.

  9. AH@badassbookreviews
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 12:42:07

    I agree with LJD above. Chapters/Indigo in Canada has expanded to offer pretty household stuff and it seems that it is successful. I like going to my local Chapters store. I go and browse and usually buy what I wasn’t looking for. Chapters sells Kobo readers as well as books, magazines, and even kids’ toys.
    I think that part of B&N’s marketing mistake was ignoring an educated English speaking population of over 30 million just to the North. We couldn’t even buy from them online. Dumb! But then again, it’s their loss.

  10. Darlynne
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 12:43:54

    You can already download any Nook book while shopping at B&N. The drawback for me is still having to pay full price for the book, just as you have to pay full price for physical books there. Why, with Amazon Prime, would I even consider ordering a book from B&N?

    Bottom line, B&N needs to become a brick and mortar Amazon and I don’t see that happening, not even just for books. They don’t have the will or the desire. From my perspective, they’d rather whine about teh evil that is Amazon.

  11. Little Red
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 14:54:44

    For me, except for my Nook Glo and sale-priced ebooks, I only ever buy a few issues of magazines from B&N. Recently, I wanted to buy a book, and online their price for it matched what Amazon was selling it for but when I got to the b&m store, they were selling it for full retail. I went ahead and bought it there since I really wanted to read it right away and I was already there but never again. Basically, there is no reason to buy a book in their b&m stores. They would need to reduce their prices for me to give them my business since it’s rather rare that I can’t wait to get it from Amazon.

  12. Jane Stewart
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 15:48:05

    Great ideas Jane! I hope B&N is smart enough to act on them.

  13. Laura
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 19:08:37

    1) I do not want to have to climb past Nook World and Nook Accessories World to get to the dang tree books. Shift Nook World to the side and go back to putting new releases front and center.
    2) Actually HAVE the new releases on the day they come out. If I go at 4pm on a Tuesday and can’t find the 2 new books I’m looking for: Kindle wins.
    3) Yes to the order with 2 day shipping.
    4) Agree with making toys go away. At the BN I shop at, it’s more of an area for mom/dad to dump the kids while s/he shops.

    I’m scared that it’s just a matter of time before tree book stores are few and far between. I read so many books that the member discount is a huge incentive for me, although I always have an eye on what is on sale at Amazon. Above, cookbooks were mentioned. I have to say, I usually browse BN to pick my cookbooks out; but then order them from Amazon. They are so often deep-discounted with free shipping for over $25 that it would be crazy to buy from BN. For instance, Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy is $40 list, but something like $27 at Amazon. sigh.

  14. Ellen
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 19:31:25

    My biggest beef with B&N is petty. But it makes me bonkers. My 14-y-o got $75 worth of gift cards for her 14th birthday. This is a child who reads 10 books a month. For her a brand new book is rare because with that level of addiction, we have had to go the UBS/thrift store/library sale route. She also has a Kindle loaded with freebies/cheapies and a strong network of reader friends.
    BUT each and every time we check out at B&N we get a heavy handed sales push to give them $25 for their member card. If she hadn’t gotten the GCs, I can guarantee we wouldn’t be buying the books there. When we politely turn them down, we are told we can use the GC to to purchase the membership and it is like it is free. Ummm, no, that is not quite correct. Then we were told we could take the gift cards and go buy a cheese cake from their cafe and put it in the freezer until we need it. Three different times in each purchase we had to say NO. That is just too much in what should be a 30-second transaction.
    And I will say that the last couple of times we have gone to a B&N my daughter has helped more customers pick out /purchase books than any employee there ever has. She knows their stock better than they do.

  15. Heather Greye
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 20:35:07

    Actually HAVE the new releases on the day they come out. If I go at 4pm on a Tuesday and can’t find the 2 new books I’m looking for: Kindle wins.

    This. I can’t count the number of times that they haven’t had the book that just came out that I’m dying to read. Frequently, they don’t even have it by Friday. It’s just as easy to see if Target has it, when B&N doesn’t.

    I want to buy books there, but they sure don’t make it easy.

  16. Jules C.
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 20:50:12

    My complaints/suggestions are similar to many of the other commenters but here are a few more.

    1) The romance section along with the other genre sections need to be expanded and moved towards the front of the store. If romances are the largest percentage of genre books sold, then customers should have easy access to them. The romance section in my local store is stuffed into the back corner near the bathrooms. It’s annoying to move out of the way of people trying to get the bathroom while I’m looking for books.

    2) Have new books out the day they come out. I shouldn’t have to hunt down a sales associate and drag them away from the e-reader pimp station to find a book for me on its release day….and speaking of new books

    3) The “new” releases in the romance section are usually NOT new releases. It’s common to find books that have been out 6+ months or reprints from books several years old (ie every Nora Roberts reprint in the history of publishing ends up in the new book section) in my local store’s new romance book section. New books=books that were published within the past month or so and that does NOT include reprints.

    4) Get rid of the toys. If I wanted to buy kids’ toys, I’d do it at Wal-mart were they’re a heck of a lot cheaper.

    5) They need to revamp their member discount card. I had a member discount card for 10 years but no longer. They perks aren’t worth the price tag. In the beginning, you received 20 to 40% off coupons on a fairly regular basis and 3 days or less express shipping with your online orders. If it shipped on Tuesday, UPS usually delivered to my house by Thursday. Now, the coupons come erratically and the shipping is horrendous. They’ve moved to UPS Surepost which means UPS drops the package off at the local post office and the post office delivers it. Now, if (and that’s a BIG if) it ships on Tuesday, then the post office might deliver it by Saturday. Last time I checked, that’s not 3 days or less.

    6) E-book pricing. If another competitor (Amazon, Kobo, Sony, etc) has it on-sale, then they need to price match immediately. There isn’t a “found lower price elsewhere” button anywhere on BN’s website. I love my Nook Simple Touch , and I prefer to order a book straight from my Nook. However, it’s frustrating not to get the same e-book prices I can get if I shop the sales and wait for coupons at Kobo.

    and last but certainly not least,

    7) Train your staff so they are knowledgeable about more than one or two genre authors. Nora Roberts and E. L .James are not the only romance writers in America. Same goes for their counterparts in mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, and YA. Genre readers tend to read in large volume, and it would be nice to get snark-free and genre appropriate recommendations from sales associates.

  17. Roxie
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 08:45:10

    @Heather Greye:

    Exactly. And when I have to request that the snotty associate go in the back to get me a book which should have been on the shelves at opening, and he turns his nose up at my romance or sci fi by a female author I get really, really aggravated.

  18. Lizabeth S. Tucker
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 13:45:31

    BN’s biggest problem is themselves. In regards to the brick and mortar stores, I have rarely had decent customer service in any of their many locations. You have to go to the registers to have someone call for a customer service desk representative. Once they finally arrive, they don’t know anything about books, much less how to look up the one you want. I get such questions as “what kind of book is that?”, “where would it be?” (uh, I thought that was your job to tell me that if it is in house). The shelved stock is corporate mandated, meaning locally popular books have to be special ordered. And if they aren’t in Ingram or with a major publisher, forget it.

    As to the digital side of things, they have made the mistake of limiting their buyers to those who have Nooks. Amazon can afford to limit their digital stock to Kindles due to the numbers sold. BN doesn’t have that customer base. Better to have gone the Sony route and open the buyers to all.

    Let us not even begin the poor customer service that I’ve seen Nook owners get in store or over the phone. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the rep in store/on phone as much as it is their training.

    As a few have mentioned above, the superiority regarding certain genres really gets up my nose. Okay, you don’t like romance/science fiction/erotica/mystery/westerns/etc. That doesn’t mean you get to snark at my reading choices.

    And the toys!! Book related toys only and put in a special section away from the children book area. How about carrying them only at Christmas as well?

    I honestly only use BN to buy special magazines. And I’m not the only one, it seems.

  19. Janine
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 13:47:47

    Train your staff so they are knowledgeable about more than one or two genre authors. Nora Roberts and E. L .James are not the only romance writers in America. Same goes for their counterparts in mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, and YA.

    This would be nice in a utopian world, but I don’t think this is a realistic expectation. The only way to become knowledgeable in any genre is to read widely in it. When I worked as a bookseller in one of a now-defunct national chain of bookstores years ago, we employees were allowed to read the stock as long as we didn’t break the spines or otherwise damage any of the books. This policy was instituted to encourage us to become knowledgeable about the merchandise.

    I had been widely read in romance before that and I continued to be widely read in it, so the staff who didn’t know anything about romance directed romance readers to me when I was in. I also knew some general fiction and to a lesser degree, literary fiction, along with the blockbuster authors in some of the other genres. But there were some genres I knew very little about — science fiction, horror, and certain kinds of nonfiction. Cookbooks that weren’t vegetarian. Etc.

    These were books that didn’t appeal to me. Maybe if the pay had been great, or if Waldenbooks had compensated me for my reading time as well as the time I was at work, I would have been willing to try more books in those genres, but of course they only paid for the time when I was at work, and as someone who only earned a little above minimum wage, I had such limited free time that I wasn’t about to spend it reading something I wasn’t interested in.

  20. Karenmc
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 16:03:27

    The last time I entered the local B&N (a year ago) was to buy a hardcover YA title that had a discounted price in a promotional email I’d received. I FINALLY found the book, took it to check out, and was told that the discount price was good ONLY if I ordered the book on line. I had my debit card in hand, was ready to buy the book, and they (corporate, I’m sure) weren’t savvy enough to price match their own promo. I left the book sitting on the counter and ordered it from Amazon that evening.

  21. Jules C.
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 16:09:15

    @Janine: I’ve spent my time flogging my guts out for minimum wage in retail (clothing store, personal care products store, and book store), and all of those companies had some sort of weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly communique from corporate on how to sell the latest “it” product. It was something either posted in the break room or shared with us by our managers during a “here’s your goal for the day” meeting at the beginning of your shift. As an employee, you were responsible for knowing the latest selling techniques from corporate. You were also responsible for finding a way to connect the newest “it” product to items already for sale in the store and convince people to buy both.

    I’m surprised that a bookstore’s management (either at the store or corporate level) wouldn’t say to their staff: “Hey, this week author X in genre Y is selling like hotcakes, you need to know 2 more authors in the same genre to share with customers who are looking to read something similar. We can make a list of recommendations to keep by the registers/customer service desk.” This is simply a variation of selling techniques I’ve seen used in other types of retail stores and would not be hard to implement to increase sales.

    It’s unrealistic to ask someone to know the majority of the titles available in a store because no one has that kind of time, but staff should at least know who is on the bestseller lists and be able to provide recommendations accordingly. Then again, I worked for companies that valued the Fred Factor which BN apparently does not.

  22. Isobel Carr
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 13:45:26

    How about just ONE thing? They could actually make an effort to have new releases shelved in a timely manner so people can find and buy them. That would be a big start. As it is, I’ve completely given up on B&N. The only one within driving distance of my house requires me to pay to park. And I’m NOT doing that given their atrocious track record of having what I actually want to buy (and good luck getting them to go find the new releases they haven’t yet shelved, even if it’s already the Saturday following release day!).

  23. B&N Employee
    Dec 28, 2013 @ 19:12:15

    @Elaine Willis: Actually, with a B&N Membership, you qualify for Free Express Shipping on every purchase with no minimum cost, making it better than Amazon Prime.

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