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Print as the future of Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble is a venerable brand in US consumer circles. It touts itself as the world’s largest bookseller and is composed of three segments: the main retail segment, B&N College. and Nook Media.

In 2009, B&N launched the Nook, a product aimed at the upper middle class mother with two children. Overpriced and underfeatured, the Nook tablets have faltered despite the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the Nook segment of the business.

After poor holiday sales in 2012, it was acknowledged that BN would need to move away developing hardware devices and look toward licensing its product on existing platforms.  After the disappointing 2013 holiday sales, BN’s CEO was fired and the Nook Media head moved into the position leaving Nook Media without an internal leader.

Everyone in the business of publishing is holding its collective breath about the health of BN. On the plus side, the largest portion publishing revenues come from the sale of educational books (textbooks and other educational products) but that market is headed for a disruption soon. On the negative side, overall consumer dollars spent on books is contracting. One think tank believes that it will continue to contract over the next five years as consumers shift dollars from higher paid books to self published and free books.

Barnes & Noble cannot excise the Nook arm completely because its market share in the digital market would be foolish to give up and second a bookstore without a digital component looks backward and incomplete. And the Nook brand is meaningless without Barnes & Noble attached to it. But focusing hundreds of millions of dollars on the development of hardware instead of on selling books is also a non starter at this point.

Instead B&N should pour that money into the development of a low cost, high efficiency print on demand machine. The current print on demand technology requires the installation of a behemoth device that currently costs about $100,000.  Have you paid attention to the posts about 3D printing? 3D printers cost about $10,000 and can print out guns, exoskeletons, and even small planes. How is it that it requires ten times the cost to produce something made of glue and paper?

Barnes & Noble’s future is in providing quality physical objects to in store customers. To that end, they need to do three things.

1) Encourage publishers or produce on their own print books as art. I’m not talking coffee table books. I’m talking about Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code with pull out art and maps. (I’m using this book as an example because of its immense popularity). I’m talking limited edition print books that are gorgeous objects. Things people want to display on their bookshelves and share with their friends. Books that people will buy for their family members and friends as gifts. It’s the enhanced book we’ve all been talking about but in print form, rather than ebook form.

2) Print + Ebook bundling. I know. Ebooks are a big profit maker for publishers but the time has come to bundle the two together. BN could do exclusive bundling, maybe that is something it subsidizes for a while. In the devices it would license from another manufacturer, there would be  NFC (near field communication) capabilities. Pass your device over the embedded NFC tag in the print book and you would instantly have the digital book on your device. (NFC tags do not require any power, but instead take the power from the nearby device).

3) Any book, no shipping necessary. If BN developed a low cost print on demand machine, it could take any book that was published in digital or print and create a print book for a customer in under five minutes. During the time it was printing the book, the customer could wander around, buy a coffee and find more things to purchase.  Instead of telling the customer that they could order it in, they could capture that sale immediately. Plus, there would be the benefit of no wait time and no delay.

Further, BN could license this technology to the independent bookstores as well as coffee shops or even partner with Starbucks (as they already do). A low cost print on demand machine that could print and bind a book in just a few minutes could revolutionize brick and mortar bookstores. BN has a great retail name and it needs to use it to leverage the love people have for physical objects by using technology to meet the customer’s instant gratification needs.

I think the future of Barnes & Noble is by elevating the print book and bringing the digital conveniences to the retail format.

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. SandyH
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 07:06:48

    I think print on demand in the store would be great particularity if you could request it as a large print book. The variety of large print books at my BN store is really small. I was looking for them as gifts over the holidays.

  2. Kat Morrisey
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 08:19:21

    Love those ideas, especially two and three! I would buy many more print books if BN offered free shipping on the books. (I don’t always buy 25 bucks worth to get it.) And they always have so much more availability of books online than in the store. (My BN has the smallest romance section ever, I think.) As it stands, I get many books via AMZ because of prime. BN could do well to learn from that.

    And the bundling idea is great-I used to buy the blu rays of movies that had the DVD version inside, because I only have one blu ray player and 2 DVDs. So it made sense. Why the book store world can’t catch up with these ideas is beyond me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were trying to fail.

  3. Sabrina Darby
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 09:53:11

    This reminded me of Moriah Jovan’s perfect bookstore post from 2008, only hybrid model.

    Crazy how much publishing has changed in the last 5 years!

  4. Erika
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 10:10:13

    I think print on demand is a great idea. I think I’ve mentioned here before that what frustrates me about brick and mortar stores is the lack of inventory. Going in and looking for a specific book, only to be told that it’s not in stock, is maddening. And no, I don’t really want to wait 2-3 weeks for it to be shipped from a warehouse, if they have it at all. Product availability is what pushes me to Amazon, more often than not. If a book could be printed immediately, in store, that would definitely get me back into physical stores.

  5. hapax
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 11:43:42

    Speaking as one who *vastly* prefers print to ebooks, I love the POD idea. Especially if B&N could partner with someone like Smashwords or exclusive e-publishers. I’d cheerfully pay going rate for trades (or even a little more) to have a print copy in my hands while I’m getting an overpriced cup of coffee.

  6. Gloria
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 12:24:24

    I don’t care about print book anymore, they take up space and are dusty. I’m actually in the process of getting rid of most of my print books, starting with the majority of my mass paperbacks. I’m not sure what POD would do for me at all. I do think that print + ebook is a way to go, but that’ll be ultimately up to the publishers and of course Amazon will want in on the action.

    In my opinion as a Nook user, the computer app sucks. You can’t really add multiple books (obtained from outside B&N) without uninstalling and reinstalling the thing. This is important because the free apps are where people check out Nook, and if the app sucks they’re going to assume the whole thing sucks. Generally computer apps have more functions than a phone or tablet app and it would be nice if the computer app could be used for cataloging, mass adds, mass shelving, etc.

    Bookshelves do not sync. It would be really awesome if, when I make a bookshelf on one device, it would sync across all my devices and to the Barnes & Noble library. I have over five hundred nook books and it is a pain in the ass to reshelve them all when I get a new device. This will only get worse as I get more books. This is where the computer app could come in handy as a local way to sync shelves. iTunes does it with songs, why can’t nook do it with books?

    I could go on, but it feels to me as if the software side of things has been neglected, which decreases usability and interest.

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  8. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 13:20:45

    Thanks for linking me, Sabrina. Here’s part 2:

    Clearly I agree with the idea that B&N needs POD capability. However, I would only question the necessity for B&N to attempt to create a better machine than the Espresso because it will a) take too much time away from their current life expectancy (IMO, 3 years) and b) 3D printers have poly beads and ink, no? We’re talking about 3-4 different kinds of paper, toners, cutters, glue, printing, heating elements, and putting it all together (cue orchestra and singers).

    I’m sure there IS a better way. I just don’t think it can be done for less money than it would cost to put an Espresso in a few key stores initially and I don’t think they have time. Now, which stores would they be, to begin with? High traffic ones, the ones that subsidize the flagging stores, or the flagging stores, in order to drive traffic back?

    It’s moot, though. They won’t. On the other hand, I do believe the absence will help a few intrepid businesspeople who love books (as opposed to people who love books having no concept of wholesale/retail vs consignment) to open independent stores.

    By the way that store I spoke of in my blog posts went out of business a couple of years ago. My office is kitty-cornered to it on the square, and I see it every day. It’s now a chichi kickknack boutique, as of last month.

    There’s irony in there somewhere.

  9. Isobel Carr
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 14:38:11

    Opening POD stores in malls/next to Starbucks/etc. would be a GREAT expansion idea for Espresso … or maybe B&N should try partnering with them. There are ways to get this done. Honestly, I thought it would happen years ago. It just made perfect sense. And now that selfpublishing is a *thing* it would be a way for B&N to maintain relevancy and capture $ that they’re losing.

  10. Nate
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 16:43:12

    “B&N should pour that money into the development of a low cost, high efficiency print on demand machine. ”

    That’s a 5 year project, at least. I don’t think B&N has 5 years.

  11. Lindsay
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 17:21:36

    I’d be very interested in a POD, especially for things that are currently out-of-print and not digital — or for nicer books quite honestly. One of the biggest trials at the bookstore I worked at was keeping art/cooking/photography books unharmed. People are awful with them, throwing them around, putting their coffee on them, and even if there’s one display copy they’ll still open the shrink wrap on another — and if they do finally buy it, they buy a sealed one. Shrink wrapping is easy to fix, but dents in the spines and covers are not.

    Same went for exclusive or special edition copies. There are a few dozen of them sitting in the back room, and nobody knows they exist (not even the staff!) because they’re not advertised anywhere in the store, and they usually only have one copy, and people would want to open it. You want a signed original printing of Stardust? It’s there. Ocean at the End of the Lane collector’s edition sold out everywhere? In the back. They’ll stay there forever.

    There used to be a locked glass cabinet with the high-price books in it, but it was removed as customers didn’t like having to ask someone to open the cabinet for them. Removing the cabinet and putting those books on the shelves resulted in an over $5000 loss in damages, and if there was only one copy (because who stocks more than one copy of the $200 Hermes Scarf history, especially when it’s $60 on the website) it was damaged enough that the customer would go home without it anyhow. Those sections were pretty much show models for customers who would then go buy it for cheaper online.

    3D printers are as cheap as $1000 and are becoming ever more sophisticated, and I’d take polymer pages any day (reading in the bath!). If they can 3D print candy, I’m pretty sure they can figure out something for books, especially ones that just look so much better not on a screen. My bookshelves are down to signed copies, books over 100 years old, photography books, and D&D manuals.

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  13. Susan
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 19:53:17

    POD would need to be reliable and handle volume. If the machinery breaks or there’s a backlog/delay, people will lose interest fast. They’d need to handle both the person with a 15-book list and the person dashing in at lunchtime for 1 new release simultaneously. I’d have to see it to believe it.

    I do like the idea of books as art. I’m at the stage where I’m purging my paperback books, but I could still be tempted by a bibliogem.

  14. Melissa Cutler
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 20:52:05

    I love this idea. One of the big reasons I stopped frequenting B&N stores was because they never seemed to have the book I drove there especially for. Often on release days. After four or five times in which I specifically went there on release day to buy a book, I was told either the book hadn’t been unpacked and shelved yet or that the store hadn’t pre-ordered any so I’d have to special order it. When my voracious reader tween daughter discovered it was the release day of the next book in a series she loved, and we made the pilgrimage after school to B&N only to discover it hadn’t been shelved yet, she sighed and said, “Let’s just go home and buy it from Amazon. At least it’ll get to our house in two days for free.”

    That, to me, says it all.

  15. yuzutea
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 21:25:24

    I don’t think the reason that B&N is not using the Espresso Book machine is because it costs too much. I think it’s because the big publishers are not behind it. When the Espresso machine is put in, it appears it can be profitable eventually for stores, but that’s because most of the people using it are self-publishers making copies of their titles:

    Why don’t the Big Five support the Espresso Book Machine or similar machines? It’s a mystery to me, as I don’t see any downside for them.

  16. carmen webster buxton
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 15:43:08

    I have to check my feed reader more often! This is a really interesting post. I do think POD has a future in bookstores, but I’m not sure it would ever be the only source of books in a store, as bestsellers would still be printed and sit in the window. Mike Shatzkin’s blog had a really revealing post several months ago. He had some stats that showed a significant percentage (65%) of a specific bookstore’s sales were for titles where the store sold one copy a month. His solution was to have the distributor manage the store’s inventory, but I think this is where POD fits in. People who go to the bookstore looking for a specific book or a specific author will wait 10 or 15 minutes for the book to be printed. I hope B&N is exploring all their options, because having them fail would be bad for readers and writers. I will say my Nook sales have gone up slowly but steadily for the last several months, so it might just be the device that’s not selling.

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