Is Barnes & Noble on the way out? Evidence to this point has been fairly contradictory. For all that the Nook division has taken on the downward velocity of the Titanic, the bookstore side of the business has apparently done reasonably well for itself. But on New Republic, Alex Shephard looks at B&N’s mounting debt and worries for the company’s future.
If Barnes & Noble collapses, what then? Shephard points out that there simply isn’t any other national alternative to Barnes & Noble when it comes to activities like showrooming—and, more worryingly, Barnes & Noble’s collapse would also take away the tidy sums of money its warehouse-filling pre-orders put in the pockets of the major publishers. Independent bookstores can’t afford to order many copies, and Shephard feels Amazon prefers to keep its inventory low so it can warn customers that there are only a few copies left in stock so they’d better order now.
If B&N goes away, Shephard warns, it will change the publishing industry considerably. He quotes Mike Shatzkin guessing that publishers will have to start printing only what they know will sell, rather than what they hope will sell. While mega-sellers like Stephen King or James Patterson need not worry, and writers in popular genres like romance, SF, and so on will probably do fine, it will have a big effect on literary fiction and other “serious” works.
In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.
Frankly, I doubt Barnes & Noble is actually in that much trouble, especially given the way print books are allegedly making a comeback, or at least staunching the bleed away to e-books. As long as people are going to want print books, they’re going to want a place to buy them—and Shephard is right that people will often prefer to be able to examine them in person rather than buy them sight unseen. If B&N staunches its own bleeding, cauterizing the Nook platform’s gaping wounds (as it’s been doing by pulling out of the UK and outsourcing Nook support and development to India) and focusing on the brick-and-mortar stuff where it still has a big advantage over Amazon, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to survive.
Even if B&N should go away, someone else will come along to take its place. Maybe Books a Million will expand from a regional to a national chain to fill the vacuum. Borders didn’t fail because the bookstore model has no life left in it, like the record stores did; it crashed and burned from mismanagement. There’s plenty of life left in brick-and-mortar bookstores, especially if they concentrate on being a good bookstore and let others worry about e-books. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, even if it’s the last swallow left standing in an otherwise empty bookstore nest.
That being said, would it really be such a bad thing if publishers stopped printing stuff they “hoped” would sell? How much waste and greenhouse gas is publishers’ “hopefulness” causing? If few enough people actually want “serious” fiction that it has to rely on subsidies from pre-orders of stuff people actually do want in order to be published, who are they even publishing it for?
If “serious” writers can’t get published anymore, they have the same recourse as everyone else who’s been unable to make it past publishing gatekeepers: self-publish and find their own audience. Yes, it will represent a change from the way things had always been—but guess what? Life is change, and just because they were able to make money one way for years doesn’t mean they’re entitled to keep doing it that way if the environment changes. (Though I’m sure all the buggy whip and harness tack manufacturers of bygone eras would disagree.) They have to change with it and adapt, if they can.