Goliath has fallen. The leviathan Barnes & Noble, the big-box chain that reinvented retail and defined a generation…is no more.
Reuters announced early last Friday that the hedge fund Elliot Management Corp. would be purchasing the former book giant for roughly the equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s jewelry allowance ($683 million including debt).
This bold move marks an end to the once-dominant book retailer’s status as a publicly traded company.
After almost a decade of abysmally stupid business decisions and plummeting sales—and me blogging and b#@!$ing about it the entire time—this buyout feels like a mercy killing to me.
Someone might finally save Barnes & Noble from itself.
***I secretly suspect this buyout was the only option left after Mary Kay declined to sell cosmetics alongside records, movies, toys, stationary, gifts, knick knacks, coffee, candles, essential oils and everything else NOT BOOKS.
Now that the former mega-retailer’s fate is in the hands of the Elliot Group, perhaps Barnes & Noble can go back to being a…wait for it…wait for it… *whispers*…a bookstore.
Failure in Leadership
Yes, today I feel ranty. I’m angry. No, I’m past angry and onto livid. I’m not the sort of person who enjoys saying ‘I told you so.’
First, I agree wholeheartedly with the Bloomberg Opinion. I don’t quite know the future of Barnes & Noble, because they can’t keep blaming everything on Amazon.
Yet, before we focus on that bugbear, I’d like to take an opportunity to call out those in publishing leadership. Why?
Because when Barnes & Noble sneezes, we all catch cold.
And that fact just ticks me off.
In order to understand exactly how delicate of a time we’re all in (writers), it’s imperative I paint a full/accurate picture of the colossal mess we’ve been handed.
First, publishing is a business.
Might have been a good start for the powers that be to have remembered that.
To offer any reasonable projections, it’s critical for us (writers) to properly appreciate the sheer scope of the incompetence that’s led us all to this place.
Here is how leadership should work. Yes, even in publishing.
PLEASE NOTE: Most of the major houses we once referred to as ‘The Big Six’ operated under the directives of multi-national conglomerates and giant media companies. The agents and editors and everyday people in the NY (New York) publishing trenches are NOT the ‘leadership’ folks I’m calling to the carpet.
***Looking at you, CBS***
Back to leadership. First and foremost…
Protect the Resource
The top echelon/leaders in charge of the publishing business had ONE job. Protect the writers. Simple. If there are no writers, then there is no content (no stories or information). No stories or information (books), then publishers and bookstores are irrelevant.
This is NOT rocket science.
Take care of writers (resource) and readers (consumers of said resource).
Publishers were NOT charged with preserving the paper industry or protecting/rescuing incompetent retail outlets….especially at the expense of their most valuable resource (writers).
About Those Authors
From all indications, the powers that be ‘forgot’ that writers play a fairly important role in the whole publishing process.
They aligned with the big-box chains and, in doing so, brokered deals that lined their coffers while simultaneously decimating the author middle-class.
Authors who’d previously been making a living wage under the B. Dalton (smaller chain and independent bookstore) model suddenly had to polish up the resume.
The Raw Deal
Under the big-box model, selection and variety ruled. Shelf space was precious and finite, meaning these mega-stores didn’t carry those extensive backlists like the old independents.
Problem was, those backlists had once been the bread-and-butter for the working author.
Under the new big-box model, the stores would only stock the backlists of the top earning authors (because those were guaranteed to sell).
The New York publishers (a.k.a. ‘The Big Six’—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette) and other large traditional publishers used this business reality to justify mothballing the backlists of virtually all authors who weren’t household names.
It’s Just Business
This meant instead of an author earning royalties off, say, fifteen books, they could only earn royalties off their most recent title.
Many authors witnessed decades of work vanish along with the small bookstores that supported them.
Not only did this change mean a DRASTIC pay cut, but it also meant these authors had no viable backlist to cultivate existing fans into future fans. There was no longer a way to truly earn their way into household name status.
It was a formula to fail.
If fans wanted the mid-list or multi-published author’s earlier books, they had to go find them in secondary markets (used bookstores, garage sales and all places where the author wasn’t paid).
That was bad enough, but, when e-books became a viable option, NY had a second chance. An opportunity to do right by their authors.
They could have resurrected those titles at least in e-book form.
When Amazon first came on the scene, Borders was still alive and Barnes & Noble dominated the bookselling industry.
Yet, when Amazon launched the first affordable & user-friendly e-reader (the Kindle), early adopting readers found themselves in a conundrum.
They had a new gizmo where they could read all the books they wanted…but there weren’t all that many books. In fact, far too many of the available e-books were unvetted garbage that wouldn’t pass high school English, let alone a NY gatekeeper.
This didn’t have to be so.
NY possessed a ready arsenal of thousands of mothballed titles, novels that had already been thoroughly edited and market tested.
If The Big Six didn’t want to discount their new titles on Amazon? Fine. But they could have field-tested the efficacy of the digital model using backlists that weren’t doing anything but taking up space.
***Many of these books even had earned the coveted titles of USA Today and/or NY Times Best -Selling Book.
Amazon would have had good books for their customers to load on their new Kindle device and they’d make money.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
The mothballed authors would have been happy because they’d be back earning money off books liberated from cold storage.
NY could have not only made money (and happy writers) but they could have also used the backlists to appease Amazon and gather critical data to guide future business decisions.
Did they want to keep offering ebooks on Amazon or maybe create their own publisher sites for e-book distribution?
Was this e-book thing really just a fad?
The E-Book Gold Rush
Alas, instead of creating a Big Six controlled e-book division staffed with eager college grads to format books and flood Amazon with gatekeeper-approved books, NY decided…
E-books were evil.
And that readers would always want paper and a ‘browsing experience’ in an oversized store with ridiculous overhead.
Publishers initially handed backlists back to the authors because they believed these books were worthless. They truly believed e-books were a fool’s pipe dream and a fad (though did nothing to test this opinion).
Ah, but when those spurned authors started converting their cast-off backlists INTO E-BOOKS…and making a boatload of money?
With readers desperate for good e-books, these authors started making far more income than they ever had being traditionally published.
This e-book gold rush ignited a mass exodus of multi-published and mid-list authors…right into Amazon’s welcoming arms.
That’s Gonna Leave a Mark
NY was suddenly in BIG trouble. The next generation of ‘household names’ had historically been cultivated, groomed then promoted from the ranks of the mid-list.
But the mid-list authors, after years of loyalty, got fed up with being treated so poorly…and so #ByeFelicia.
What did the publishers do? Did they see the error of their ways and make an e-book division strictly for backlists?
Maybe even broker a deal that if enough e-book copies sold, a book/series could garner a fresh print run?
They Did THIS Instead
Publishers changed all the contracts to make it where authors no longer had rights to their backlist…ever. Those backlists would remain the property of the publisher indefinitely to do with what they wished.
A once-devoted author pool suddenly turned bitter (for very good reasons). Not content to starve, a large portion of the traditional talent went rogue.
They cut their losses and began self-publishing. More than a few created indie houses of their own that were more efficient and geared toward the digital marketplace.
The authors who’d once made money for NY suddenly became additional competition (with Amazon’s blessing).
Ironically, The Big Six unwittingly financed Amazon’s rise as a publishing powerhouse.
What’s insane is that most of the traditional authors had ZERO desire to leave. They’d been publishing traditionally for years, even decades. Going it alone meant a lot more work and a STEEP and highly technical learning curve.
…from a group that feared e-mail.
Most of these authors simply wanted to just write the books like they always had.
Ah, but when faced with starvation? You serve the master who feeds you.
In a dismal twist of fate, NY helped self-publishing transition from ‘shunned last-ditch of the hack wanna-be writer’ into a viable and respectable publishing alternative.
About Those Indie Bookstores
The Big Six didn’t treat the smaller chains/indie bookstores any better. It didn’t matter that small chains, indies, and countless mom-and pop bookstores had been the beating heart of publishing since its inception.
These stores promoted authors, held events and book signings. They pushed literacy, actively sold books and made The Big Six what it was.
Oh, but how short the memory gets with big new friends with deep pockets.
The Big Six participated (obliquely) in the virtual extermination of the small independent bookstores.
Kristen! How can you say that?
Uh. Math. The larger the order, the deeper the discount. Doesn’t take an economist to to do that calculation.
Without the purchasing power, the smaller chains and mom-and-pop indies couldn’t compete. They steadily died off until only a tenacious remnant remained.
***Refer to the movie You’ve Got Mail.
This was all well and good before Web 2.0.
Goliath is a formidable ally until someone bigger, meaner and hungrier comes along.
As I detailed above, NY had countless opportunities to adopt a different business model and didn’t. They ignored all the data, and pretended the marketplace and consumer buying patterns hadn’t changed since the 90s.
Ultimately, NY continued to support the big-box stores at the expense of authors (talent) and smaller bookstores (their former allies).
All of this was utterly unnecessary. It isn’t as if people like me (and those way smarter than me) haven’t been jumping up and down screaming DANGER! for over ten friggin’ years.
I’ve blogged my fingertips bloody begging NY to see reason and turn things around. I even wanted Barnes and Noble to listen and change their ways (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment).
There Were SO Many SIGNS
It wasn’t like the folks in charge didn’t see Amazon’s way of doing business had more red flags than an Ashley Madison dating profile.
The Big Six got sucker-punched as early as January 2010 when Amazon removed the BUY buttons from all the Macmillan titles. The next red flag? When a ‘mysterious’ glitch temporarily removed the BUY buttons off ALL the Big Six titles—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette.
The NEXT of many red flags? Amazon (allegedly) removed virtually all the discounts on Hachette titles, according to a 2014 article in Forbes. I could go on, but y’all get the point.
Short of a weird rash that wouldn’t go away…
Red Flags EVERYWHERE
To be clear, I am not Amazon-bashing (yet). But just the examples above clearly demonstrate how legacy publishing refused to acknowledge how completely vulnerable they were.
For instance, maybe it really was a glitch that temporarily removed ALL The Big Six’s BUY buttons.
***And maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot.
But, giving the benefit of the doubt—and assuming Amazon wasn’t flexing digital muscles to make the old dogs sit and stay—any one of these episodes alone should have been a major turning point in how The Big Six did business.
These were the crucial moments, the pinch points.
Publishing leadership should have thrown everything they had into innovating and making darn sure no one ever again had the power to grab them by the tender bits.
Everything is Okay, Nothing to See
After ALL this, did the major publishers innovate? Perhaps listen to analysts and bloggers and update their business plan? Maybe remove its parasol and bustle?
Did they pay attention to the digital tsunami that had already obliterated Kodak, Radio Shack, Blockbuster, Sam Goody and Tower Records?
Did they pay attention to why Borders went bankrupt? Hot wash it to make a better plan? No.
Did they pay adequate attention to the fact that Barnes & Noble has had FIVE C.E.O.s in the past FOUR YEARS, each one increasingly more incompetent than the previous?
Wasn’t anyone in charge concerned that Barnes & Noble was shuttering an average of twenty-one stores a year as of 2017?
That the only way Barnes & Noble stock valuations could have dropped faster would’ve been to strap them to The Titanic?
Short of using sock puppets to act this out, I just…literally can’t even.
There was a time those in charge of big publishing could have learned and retooled.
If they’d cared about their writers—or listened to those agents and editors so loyal they were practically working for slave wages to maintain some sort of quality control—this whole Barnes & Noble situation might not gall me the way it does.
They could have been a contender. Could have changed. Instead?
They doubled down with Barnes & Noble, a company so inept it couldn’t find its own @$$ in the dark with Google maps and a service dog.
The Future of Barnes & Noble
Bloomberg Opinion’s Sarah Halzak said it best in yesterday’s post:
“…perhaps it is inevitable that Barnes & Noble is a smaller, less influential retailing force now than it was at the height of its powers. But it was not preordained that Barnes & Noble has become as irrelevant as it has.”
Barnes & Noble has squandered opportunity after opportunity to change their fate. Clearly the brick-and-mortar bookstore is a valuable concept or Amazon wouldn’t have gone through the trouble it has to open stores of its own.
Alas, the brick-and-mortar model wasn’t the problem…and privatization may or may not be the answer.
The Privatization Pickle
Unfortunately, Barnes and Noble is still in trouble. Privatization is no panacea. Yes, it can be a viable shield to reorganize, rebrand and regroup. More often than not? Privatization is a harbinger of death and for sound reasons.
Too often, the weight of a private equity buyout is simply too much burden to bear.
We’ve seen this sort of debt load crush once-robust brands such as Toys “R” Us, Wet Seal, The Limited, and, most recently, Payless Shoes.
Even the former office supply giant, Staples, faces an uncertain future. The Sycamore Partners, who acquired the struggling leviathan roughly two years ago, had initially planned on rebranding and splitting the giant into three.
Now? Sycamore seems set on simply cashing out.
According to a recent Bloomberg article by Davide Scigliuzzo and Eliza Ronalds-Hannon:
“Sycamore Partners is looking to take most of its cash out of Staples Inc. through a recapitalization that will saddle the company with roughly $1 billion of additional debt…”
Sadly, the most valuable thing about Staples might be its debt.
Now that a hedge fund has acquired Barnes and Noble (and its debt) this is a tenuous time. They wouldn’t be the first giant beheaded under the PE (Private Equity) sword then parted out, the rest left to the scavengers.
Some Good News
Barnes & Noble (and the publishing industry as a whole) can breathe a small sigh of relief, namely because Elliot Advisors (namely C.E.O. James Daunt), possesses a solid reputation for rescuing completely incompetent book chains.
According to a recent (June 7th, 2019) article by Alexandra Alter and Tiffany Hsu in The New York Times:
“The acquisition follows Elliott’s purchase of the British bookstore chain Waterstones in June 2018. James Daunt, the chief executive of Waterstones, will also act as Barnes & Noble’s C.E.O. and will be based in New York.”
Daunt actually has a stellar reputation in publishing and ran his own chain of bookstores—Daunt Books—before he went on to acquire the U.K. version of the bookstore big-box, Waterstones.
James Daunt—using creativity, vision, and common sense—rescued Waterstones from bankruptcy and made the stores profitable again.
He hopes to do the same with Barnes & Noble.
***I highly recommend the The New York Times article detailing all this. I imagine many of Daunt’s solutions will seem eerily familiar for those who’ve followed this blog any length of time.
A Small Celebration
Personally, I’m thrilled Barnes and Noble FINALLY has a) someone who knows the book business in charge and b) a leader with an actual success record.
Because this was me envisioning the old Barnes and Noble hiring process for C.E.O.s…
Have you recently driven a household name into the ground?
Have you any experience bankrupting a perfectly salvageable company?
Do you know ANYTHING about books or publishing?
Party’s Over & Back to Business
ALL this said, there is a reason I’ve taken y’all the long route from where the book business started fracturing in roughly 2006 to where it sits today.
We (writers) have to hope and pray that C.E.O. James Daunt can deliver or we might all be spelling Amazon, M-O-N-O-P-O-L-Y.
Amazon (or anyone) having total control should be scary for all authors. But, it is a particularly frightening scenario for indie and self-published authors, because many aren’t repped by agents with the legal know-how to fight a large machine.
Oh, I suppose we could sue, but Amazon has armies of high-powered attorneys to make a lesson out of any of us who tried.
I know this sounds a little Orwellian, but if Barnes & Noble tanks for good and any meaningful competition evaporates? What’s to stop Amazon from having ‘technical errors’ that just happen to lose YOUR books?
Food for Thought
What’s to stop another BUY BUTTON ‘glitch’? What’s to stop them from demanding we all sell our books for $2.99 and if we don’t comply, we suddenly start having ‘technical errors’?
What’s to keep Amazon from demanding we all flash mob and act out King Lear with jazz hands?
Okay, maybe that’s going too far.
This was why I began this post the way I did. Publishing leadership (those powerful media companies) should never have allowed our industry to devolve to such a piteous state.
We are now ALL vulnerable.
I know expectations are riding a fresh high, but remember they were riding high with Staples, too.
If Barnes & Noble doesn’t salvage something out of this mess, it could be catastrophic for legacy publishing.
Remember, to finance operations, the remaining legacy publishers NEED those bulk orders that stock the Barnes and Noble brick-and-mortar stores.
They also *winces* need orders from those mom-and-pop stores they once ‘didn’t need’ and—with help from their besties Borders and Barnes &Noble—damn near killed off.
Wow, that has GOT to be an awkward conversation.
At the end of the day, if the Elliot Advisors hadn’t ridden to the rescue, the entire U.S. legacy book industry could have collapsed. Some other investor or corporate raider could have bought the whole shebang…then promptly held a yard sale.
***Refer to the movie Pretty Woman.
Sure, Amazon sells legacy published books, but they don’t keep a large amount of stock and buy as-needed. They don’t do the large preorders that keep the lights on and employees paid.
This is still a blow because there will be a major contraction. Barnes and Noble will have to consolidate and lose a lot of fat.
The remaining stores will likely be consolidated and many closed. Excess inventory will be sold off to reduce the debt load. This is all necessary to get back in the black.
If they fail to adequately reduce overhead and debt, they could very well find themselves in the same pinch as Staples…where their debt is their most valuable asset.
In Conclusion: Put on Our Big Writer Pants
It’s all kinds of fun to play armchair analyst and blame greedy multi-national media conglomerates for our sorry state. Yet, while ‘the suits’ certainly hold a lot of the blame, they don’t have all of it.
Just like Barnes & Noble can’t keep blaming everything on Amazon, writers can’t keep blaming everything on everyone else.
There is no Publishing Sugar Daddy. I know many writers who want to ‘only write books’ and not worry pretty little heads over that icky business stuff. This is a recipe for disaster.
Trust NO ONE.
Becoming a mega-author won’t fix our problem anymore than winning the lottery will replace our retirement fund.
Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) is close to broke after his literary agency’s accountant embezzled $3.4 million. The famed agency Donadio & Olsen has now declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, their former accountant is free after posting bail.
Ironically, Palahniuk had suspected something fishy a few years ago but suspected piracy. He never thought (as if anyone would) to grill those who were being paid to handle his affairs.
If we want to thrive in the new publishing paradigm, we have GOT to be educated and know the business of our business, regardless the path we choose.
We also have to write excellent books. The more books we write and the better they are, the more negotiating power we’ll have.
And, finally…y’all knew I was going to end up here.
An author brand/platform is not an option, it is a LIFELINE.
The ONLY way to Amazon-proof ourselves is to create a passionate and vested following who will buy our books no matter where we list them.
Then, if Amazon (or Barnes & Noble, or Joe-Bob’s Book Barn or whoever) ceases to be a good business partner?
We can…leave. Yay!
***brains all over laptop***
I hope you enjoyed and I LOVE hearing from you!
What Are Your Thoughts?
Other than this post is long. Trust me, I KNOW. But, hey, encapsulating fourteen years of the publishing business into one post is no easy feat.
Do you feel a bit less terrified now that you know Barnes and Noble might just pull through?
What are your thoughts, concerns, ideas for what we writers can do differently in the future?
Are you hopeful? Disillusioned? Confused? Frustrated? All of the above?
I hope this post has helped y’all gain fresh (and balanced) perspective of where you sit in the greater scheme of publishing. Yes, it’s a tumultuous time in publishing, but while industries change, humans never do.
Humans will ALWAYS want stories and information.
So long as there are humans, there will be educators, inspirers, and storytellers. Our industry might be a mess, but our jobs are secure.
Long live the dreamers!
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SUCH an amazing piece–and so right-on, woman. Like you, I hope that B&N is in better hands than ever before.
It seems a whole lot of “legacy” corporations are running off a cliff these days. Bookstores. Publishing. Sears & Roebuck Company. Hollywood. Newspapers. Internet tech-giants. CNN. The Wall Street Journal. It’s like watching somebody you love suffer from a mental illness. You KNOW they’re delusional, but if you try to whisper “dear, take your meds” they scream and throw excrement rather than look in the mirror.
Nook was my first e-reader. I loved my Nook Simple Touch. But Barnes & Noble’s DRM was so buggy that I finally abandoned it for an open-source Android tablet. At least Barnes & Noble -might- have found a white knight, or more accurately, a drug addiction coach to kick them in the fanny?
What really is going on here is that a corporate raider is moving in who will load Barnes & Noble with debt, suck all the money out and let it collapse. Same game Bane Capital used on dozens of businesses. It’s the routine that killed Toys R Us and Sears and it is right now dismembering Guitar Center. It’s the financial game the oligarchs play on each other and we don’t get to play. This gives Amazon brick and mortar a huge uplift. Of course, our politicians are so corrupted that they will not enforce existing anti trust laws. All this is indicative of failing empire. Look at and compare our recent history of macro economics since going off the gold standard in 1971 ( debased currency) and how every empire before this one failed. Same game different names.
Yeah….that is also a very real option and one that, sadly, I think will come to pass. The only reason I have a glimmer of hope is I KNOW I blogged about Daunt and how he saved Waterstones in the U.K. (though damned if I can find it). And he basically told the publishers to pound sand; that he was going to put power back in the booksellers’ hand because they knew their customers. Daunt is a capable guy. But, if I were a gambling woman? I bet it collapses and gets parted out and its debt load sold.
A slap in the face from reality. Those are necessary now and then. Not like everyday, but at some consistent interval. Yeah, patience to write a good story. Whew, gotta go from studying craft to industry insights!
Yes, it was long, Kristen, but I’m so glad I kept on until the end. It’s not an HEA, but it’s a hope for an HEA and in this business, it might be all we get. I’ve shared.
Thanks for this comprehensive overview of the industry. More people have read St Paul’s books over last 2,000 years than any other author. He never made a penny but remains best author of all time. I’ve read all his books many times over.
I love this, Kristen, with a couple of caveats:
“From all indications, the powers that be *Never Cared* that writers play a fairly important role in the whole publishing process.”
Fixed that one for you. But wait, there’s more:
“… a particularly frightening scenario for indie and self-published authors, because many aren’t repped by agents with the legal know-how to fight a large machine.
I’ve heard a lot of things about agents, but I’ve *Never* heard that they were qualified to give legal advice or represent anyone in a legal bout. Those people are called ‘lawyers’.
Small points, though, compared with the elephant in the room. Thanks for shining the light!
A lot of agents are skilled when it comes to writing contracts and negotiating for the most right possible. As it is, we all “sign” a boilerplate “contract” with Amazon (or any of the others like Smashwords).
One of my lawyer friends who is also a lawyer was who pointed this out.
On the other hand, when a writer makes a deal with a publisher using an agent, the agent looks over the contract (or even writes the contract) and makes sure the writer gets all the rights possible. That is how agents make money.
Agents DO have the know-how to fight for certain rights beforehand (e.g. movie rights, translation rights, audio rights, etc.). Once all parties agree who gets what, the agent makes sure those rights are locked and sealed in a contract.
But, with distributors like Amazon, we don’t have those kinds of tailored contracts. We have a fill-in-the-blank-one-size-fits-all.
You ARE right though. If it came to litigation after the fact? That is the job for a Contract/Intellectual Property Attorney.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment ((HUGS)). And I can go fix later. Brains are smoking now, LOL.
Thanks for a very thorough explanation of what has been going on for the last decade. I shared the link on FB. Honestly, the whole debacle could be summed up in three words, if you hyphenate one of them (always my preference). Incredible mind-boggling arrogance.
The Bix Six are the architects of their own destruction. Unfortunately they are dragging authors down with them.
This was waiting to happen. Yes about having options outside Amazon. I have a direct-sale store on PayHip, which is nice with their 95% royalty. However… not a lot of traffic. It’s mostly for my newsletter, and those guys prefer the established vendors. Not everyone is an early adopter, even if the price is lower elsewhere.
But that’s okay. Patience is a virtue.
Don’t get me started about my screaming over B&N’s self-pubbed print Dumpster fire. Files that would have worked fine at LS, CS, KDP’s print, and D2D’s print services were kicked out at B&N. Turns out the 6×9 trim size that’s, oh, 6×9 with everyone else is SMALLER with B&N’s service. Horrible.
But I digress.
In today’s age, there is NO reason for any self-pubbed author not to be wide. I’ve found my sales through Apple have been increasing in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I have even had unexpected gains through Google Play. Rakuten is starting to make a bigger push (partnering with Walmart) into the market, meaning Kobo is a bigger player now than before.
Services like D2D and Smashwords make it easy to publish to everywhere at once outside of Amazon, including with libraries and all those other little straggler retailers across the globe that you might miss out on using otherwise. And D2D now has print. Software like Scrivener and Vellum makes it easy to format e-books and print books. WordPress and other site software makes it easy to sell digital products right from your own virtual “house.”
There is LITERALLY no excuse for a writer to jail themselves with Amazon. I don’t use KDP Select because I don’t like a retailer grabbing me by the hand, smacking me in the face with it, and asking me why I keep hitting myself. Do I miss out on a few readers by not having my books in KU? Maybe. But until Amazon fixes their problems with the scammers still scamming the pot every month, I’m not doing that to myself. Amazon already made one concession to the masses by finally offering assetless pre-orders. (You thought I was going to say chaps, didn’t you? LOL) I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they ditch the arbitrary 90-day preorder window for most everyone else, as well as the intractable policy about losing pre-order rights for a year if you have to move a release date.
Heck, Google Play just finally revamped their publisher portal recently, which tells me maybe they’re trying to position themselves to make a move. If they’d just fix their store architecture now, that’d be greeeaaat.
I get it, some authors have figured out a sweet spot to milk a good living out of KDP Select. That’s fine, but having all their eggs in one basket could come back to bite them in a massive way if Amazon arbitrarily decides one day to change the payout structure.
I’m really happy Apple and Google seem to be catching up in some ways. That’s telling me readers are one-clicking from devices other than just their Kindles. Meaning there are likely good things ahead as they try to court more readers (and writers).
I laughed so hard I am glad I wasn’t drinking anything while reading. Thanks for such a thorough and insightful comment. And yes, you are right. Amazon isn’t the only game in town. But writers keep picking ONE ‘entity’ (?) to take care of everything. Whether that is NY or Amazon. I know this stuff is hard, can be tough to learn but leashing ourselves to ONE master and hoping they treat us nicely and maybe buy us something pretty is madness.
I’ll likely blog on some of this other stuff soon. This one was already too long. But, it’s a ‘State of the Union’ post and I don’t do those too often.
Sorry (not sorry) for the almost-spit-take. LOL (I have been accused of ruining a few friends’ keyboards from my end of the Internet. LOL)
The other thing I love about D2D and Smashwords is that authors can now get their e-books into libraries without having to jump through as many hoops. Before, if an author had no clue how to do it, they were stuck.
Although Smashwords is going to have to up their UI/site game now, because, I have to say, D2D’s site is MUCH more user-friendly. (I also hate how on Smashwords you have to opt-out of the other sales channels instead of opting in.)
Tymber, I love this:
“I don’t like a retailer grabbing me by the hand, smacking me in the face with it, and asking me why I keep hitting myself.”
I’ve been wavering back and forth between wide and the big A, but your comments have me leaning toward going wide when I’m ready to publish my first book.
Phil Cobb – Thanks. 🙂
Here’s the thing–LITERALLY, if you lock yourself into KDP Select, next month Amazon could come out and say, “Oh, the maximum amount you can make on a book through KU reads is 25 cents. I mean, literally, they COULD do that. They own the architecture. You’re at their mercy. And anything you earn will be diluted by the scammers they seem unable to stop, even when people report them. (A lot of all of this came out during #cockygate.) At least if you SELL the book, you KNOW what you’re going to make from the sale. AND, there are still reports Amazon’s “pages read” calculations are sometimes wonky and not accurately reporting pages read. So you could have every book downloaded getting read from front to back and still not be certain it was accurately figured.
AND…let’s add in that it’s not uncommon for Amazon to whack HONEST authors, because they have little to no visible structure in place to tell if a scammer has targeted an honest book/writer with click-farm reads to try to get it knocked out of a competitive ranking slot, or if it’s the result of legit buyer activity because of ads/promo the author placed. So you could wake up one morning to find your account missing a TON of sales with no real remedy to get it restored except attempting to contact a real person in Amazon’s monolithic fortress to actually take an in-depth look at your track record. Or to sacrifice virgin goats to Old Ones and hoping that works.
(Narrator Voice: It usually does not work…)
If you need to have cookies for attracting readers, write a short story, or an extra scene, or something like that, and use BookFunnel or Whatever Instafreebie Calls Themselves This Week, to help build your mailing list. (I just switched from MailChimp to MailerLite thanks to David Gaughran’s insightful and comprehensive blog post about the services.) You can also join periodic freebie promos. (A bunch of writers get together and either set their book perma-free for a short time, or offer a freebie download through one of the above-named services.) Everyone blasts the promo, everyone gets free books out there in readers’ hands. You make sure your front and back matter gives all your social media info about you, and you list your backlist (or at least partially list it). And it doesn’t lock your book into KDP Select.
KU is great if you have a large box set or something, or if you have a HUGE backlist already and can afford to have one book stuck in Amazon’s purgatory for a while. OR if you already have a HUGE following that can make it worthwhile to have a book locked away.
But KU for discoverability is difficult at best these days, unless you’re writing in a genre that isn’t already saturated by the book stuffers and other scammers.
The next important thing to do is to get busy on the next book. And the next. Because chances are your first book won’t hit big. That’s just the odds. I’m 160+ books into my backlist now with both my pen names (all written by little ole me, not ghostwriters) in 11+ years. (But I’m primarily romance/romantic element books, with some mainstream sci-fi.) I’m earning a living, but I’m no Stephen King. But every new release helps bring new readers to my backlist. Every new book you write will gain you new readers. It’s a long-tail game.
Do NOT get discouraged. But also don’t forget it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. Hope all of this helps, and best of luck.
Hey Tymber! *waving* I found this article by Kristen through a Facebook group that I’m in and really loved it, and then when I read your comments, I was even more impressed by how knowledgable you are. So many people are very, very, very new to the self-pub world and their advice ends up being not super useful (think “blind leading the blind” here…)
Anyway, I’d absolutely love for you to join us in a Facebook group called “Wide for the Win.” The entire focus of the group is wide storefronts – anything that is NOT *KU*. In fact, positively speaking about KU is the only thing that will get you kicked out of our ranks. ?
So, a totally open invitation to ANYONE reading these comments to come join us. You can find our group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/wideforthewin/
(Hopefully this is kosher for me to mention this group here. If not, please delete. But AFAIK, this is the only group out there focused solely and completely on being a wide indie / hybrid author, and we’re all about supporting and helping each other).
Thank you so much to Kristen for writing such an excellent article – I will be sharing it in “Wide for the Win” right away!
LOL, you are cool. So long as someone is mentioning something salient to what we are talking about and not just posting an obvious ad, you’re totes cool 😀 .
Another great help to us puppies in the self-publishing world. FYI, I made a big mistake in my first book. Failed to put the price in writing, i.e. $16, on the back cover. When I went into my local Barnes & Noble to offer it for their shelf, the Manager said I had to contact corporate. So I did, then learned failure to put the price on the back cover prevents such an option. The UPC barcode was on the back cover, but it didn’t matter. They still sell it as an E-book. Anyway, I am a novice in too many ways. Should have learned more of your advice. Published first book, but much to learn.
Thanks for the great summary. I’ve been wondering what is going on…and now I have a better perspective.
Wonderful eye-opening post, and the comments are also insightful. Just a question. Wasn’t the government investigating Amazon and others on violating antitrust laws?
I think so. But, if they were it didn’t get that far.
In a world where people read all day long, books are dying. People read trash on a screen. Don’t blame books, or Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or Goggle.
Mankind is evolving.
Readers are evolving.
But writers are not and nor should they. Writers write. We should all strap in, apply the bum glue and do what we LOVE.
The rest is just marketing and that is changing so swiftly that what writers need is an agent who is on top of the publishing game. An agent who knows how to connect the writer to his/her audience.
There is more connection in this world than ever before. The problem for the reader is just as great as the writer, because they have to sift through the sh*t to find the gold.
I’m positive, that in time, some bright spark will find a way to set filters that connect writers and readers seamlessly and profitably. Sit tight and don’t hold your breath, but it’s coming…
Agents have never done marketing, even before digital. And actually people are reading more now than ever. Paper sales are increasing. As the data is coming in that screen time should be limited with adults and PARTICULARLY children, we are seeing a LOT more parents who are going for good old-fashioned paper books. This is why the remnant indies are coming back strong.
Yes, we need to do the hard work. WRITE. Write good books and lots of them. But marketing and advertising hasn’t been effective since the 90s. Brand and platform are totally different creatures and ones we—the artists—can control and grow.
And if mankind and readers are evolving, then I think it’s fair to say writers should evolve, too. This isn’t 1955 where we can use a typewriter and write a book every year and a half and make money to live off of while we do book tours. Might as well get in the horse and buggy business.
If a writer wants to write for pleasure? Sure. Go for it. Don’t change or evolve. Want to make a living? Then there is a LOT we need to do well and a TON of new niches that are paying very well.
In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent. … Reading declines are higher among men. The share of men reading for pleasure on any given day fell from 25 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2017, a drop of nearly 40 percent.Jun 29, 2018
Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low – The Washington Post
I think your analysis of the decline of B&N is equally flawed. It is not about bad decisions by publishers or book stores. It is mostly about economics — the economics of transmitting information in digital form as opposed to print on paper. And the economics of mass marketing. B & N was better at having a book on the shelf when a customer wanted it, and they could sell it cheaper. So they put the small book store out of business. Amazon can put a book in your on your doorstep cheaper than you can go to B&N and get it
There is no need to posit speculation about publishers and B&N not protecting authors income as a way to save themselves. It is all about the money and the efficiency of scale.
And the revolution is not yet over. Think about this: How much would it cost to put a print copy of the constitution in the hand of every citizen, and how long would it take? It would take an army of people, printers, truck drivers, the post office working months. Now, how much effort would it take to deliver an electronic copy? It could be done in days at almost no cost.
The future is digital and any “book store” based on a brick and mortar place ill have only a small and minor part of the future market.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m maybe missing your point because I totally agree with you. A very large issue I pointed out was NY’s failure to appreciate the e-book market and their ridiculous choice to cling to the old and outdated paper model.
Paper is heavy. Your product and profitability is always tethered to the price of oil (remember that paper is heavy thing, making it expensive to truck books). Also, shelf space is finite.
At the end of the day though, it IS about taking care of writers (and readers). The multi-media conglomerates didn’t value the resource when they easily could have.
NY had a large enough stable of talent it could have dominated the ebook market with those vetted backlists. Instead, they mothballed perfectly good books and hemorrhaged their talent pool.
…which dovetails into why people might be reading less.
We’ve gotten the slush pile dropped in our laps and we’re tired of it. We’re tired of wading through mountains of unvetted crap. Even many of the VETTED books are barely readable.
Ludlum and Clancy died YEARS ago, but we have a bunch of ghost writers churning out books where the quality is all over and there is no consistency of voice (or even readability).
All that said, we (humans) are still consuming stories and information. We’re just doing so in a myriad of ways.
And the brick-and-mortar model IS profitable. If it weren’t, Amazon wouldn’t be opening brick-and-mortar locations. Amazon is not in the business of losing money. They used bludgeoning NY (and the Big Box stores) to perfect their algorithms so they could smart stock locations.
Their plan is to have smaller stores in more locations, stocked with what sells (gathered data) in that area.
The goal is to make browsing a bookstore convenient again.
Even Leonard Riggio conceded in an interview in the NY Times that people won’t go to the bookstore with the pedigree, they’ll go to the one that is convenient.
As we’ve found out, if you keep propping up giant stores that force (consumers) to drive to the next city just to walk in to browse…they’ll skip it or order on-line.
Also, I will contest that paper is a dead model. The paper market is actually on the rise. As data is coming in regarding negative impacts of too much screen time on the brain, more people (parents of young children especially) are going to paper.
There is also the idea I KEEP going back to. NY was in the story/information business. HOW that story or information was delivered shouldn’t have mattered. Podcasts and audio books are BOOMING, namely because people are tired of looking at a screen all the time and are opting to listen to books instead.
That and not everyone has the best eye-sight (especially as we age and our eyes are FRIED from computer screens).
And I believe the entire point of the brick-and-mortar is (and always has been) to serve a niche part of the market…which is why you keep the locations small. Then it is profitable to reach out to those who like the browsing experience.
If it were me, I’d make a large portion of my bookstores the size of an airport bookstore and stick them in Sam’s Clubs, Costco, Targets, Walmarts and large grocery stores. Take advantage of the impulse purchase.
Go ahead and keep copies of the mega-sellers we KNOW people will buy for that long flight for vacation or business and use algorithms to smart stock what titles are selling the best in that area and stock local authors.
The other option (I linked to from a previous post) is to specialize and get creative. We’re seeing new indie stores that are using some impressive business imagination.
For instance, a yoga studio/bookstore that simply specializes in health and fitness books. A “cooking bookstore” that has cooking classes and sells kitchen gadgets and only stocks cookbooks. Bookstores that serve wine and do social events that pair with the fiction.
Just selling a book alone is fine, but pair that with an experience? In a world where humans are more isolated and lonely than ever? These indies are doing FANTASTIC.
The entire problem with ALL of this was NY and the big-box stores, like you said and I said, failed to appreciate that the market and consumer buying patterns were changing. They kept pushing paper when ebooks were on the rise.
They wasted talent and opportunities and this limited their impact and maneuverability and it killed them.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and thanks again for such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.
Publicist. The word you want is publicist, not agent.
Agents sell the books to a publisher.
When a girl’s biggest dream is to walk into a bookstore and see a cover with her NAME on it…this is all very sad. I beat my head against the traditional path, and finally submitted to small houses. I’ve got about half as many published titles now as I did September 30, 2018 (my first small publisher closed their doors on October 1, 2018), but except for the ones I’ve indie published, they are all only available on Amazon.
Because that’s where my small publisher was making the bucks.
I’ve been pulling my hair out to learn Ingram Spark (thanks Amazon for devouring Createspace after I went partially bald learning THAT platform) and purchase my own ISBNs (how much for a number???) so that I can —fingers crossed—finally see my print books in a brick and mortar bookstore.
I’ve spent five years trying to build a platform (and it is still an ugly little list of fewer than 1000 email addresses and ever fewer followers on social media) while juggling all that an indie author must—vetting editors, cover designers, formatters—and pretty much going in the hole. But, hey, that’s why I have a sub teaching job right? Finance this writing dream?
Yes, that’s sarcasm. If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. I sure wish the big-wigs would have listened to you back in 2006. And isn’t the Big Six really the Fumbling Four these days?
Don’t get too depressed. Those remnant indies are coming back STRONG. Paper sales are on the rise. I couldn’t go into this today because I felt y’all just needed a solid business analysis of what this B&N sale means for all of us. But there IS a silver lining. I’ll blog on that. With the big-box stores dead, the indies can now thrive doing what they do best…selling BOOKS. Even B&N is allegedly going to get pared back to being a BOOKSTORE (not a record, Scentsy, candy, puzzle, art supplies store). That is what Daunt did with Waterstones.
Even if B&N capsizes, they sell off their inventory to all the indies who get a fresh shot in the arm with stacks of inventory they can make a profit from. Meanwhile, authors who write books and build a platform are ideal choices for these smaller bookstores that hand-pick inventory and cater to customers like they USED to before the Big Six meddled in everything.
And, as I mentioned in another comment, the data is coming is that too much screen time is bad for adults AND kids. So paper sales are getting a boost with so many parents searching for alternative entertainment/learning.
Slow and steady wins the race. This is a tense time, but it will pass and it probably will be a lot better for everyone.
There is so much brilliance here…
So much that is wrong.
Then there is too much that is omitted.
And it ALL equally pisses me off.
Normally when I come across a post such as this, I would either click the “like” button, or simply ignore it and move along. I refrain from launching into my own diatribe out of respect to the fact that this is “your” home.
I commend you on your research and insight, and thoughts well placed.
Maybe at a different time, in a different forum, we will be able to discuss the differences.
All the best.
Thanks for being kind and for the comment. Trust me, I KNOW I omitted a LOT but this post was already pushing 4,000 words. I’m going to blog more on the individual issues in here. I could go on forever, too. Could write a BOOK On this. So maybe one day we do coffee. Share grinds and grinds, LOL.
I like it strong!
The beans and the discussion.
Looking forward to it.
All the best!
4k words is easy I read super fast, I love longer blog post (as long as it’s teaching me something I hate ones that just seem to make talk and your waiting for them to get the point and then… boom the article is done. -cry- Substance me want substance!
Thank you Kristen for another well written set of facts. If I get the chance I will see you elected/appointed Queen of the World so that you can straighten this mess out while being fed pealed grapes by your choice of scantly clad thralls.
Maybe we can put a ‘coin operated boy’ in charge.
tweedled this excellent article out — wish I knew how to add a black flag at half-mast to it — but I don’t.
Somehow, you always make the complicated not really uncomplicated, but it oozes into my brain as uncomplicated. Perhaps you know the short-cuts we all use for things like re-ordering our fav pizza. I’ve wondered about B&N for years, usually about 30 seconds after walking into one of their stores.
Thanks for a great post, gal.
It’s almost too much to bear. My first novel isn’t even done yet, and I’m looking at all this truth and wondering if there’s any point
Yep. Keep writing! With the big-box stores dead independent bookstores are on the upsurge and getting stronger by the day. I’ll blog on that next time. There’s a lot of reason to be concerned, but I DO believe the industry will adjust and it will be a model that is favorable to more than just the 2%ers.
You can be another brick in the wall or construct your own masterpiece of novel excellence. Sure it’s painful; but when it’s done, voila, you have been transformed into an author/writer or whatever you aspire to be; a super hero of immense influence and proportion, even if most don’t immediately recognize your shine. Keep the lights lit.
Mike, I generally (and quietly) correct typos as a courtesy 😉 . No worries 😛 .
Informative piece, thanks for the info.
What a mess! Thanks for the illuminating autopsy report – it makes things a lot clearer.
I am relieved that with my paperback distributed by LS and my ebook by Smashwords I don’t have all my eggs in one retail basket.
On the other hand, I only have about two eggs.
I keep reminding myself: Kristen says the best way to increase sales is to Write More Books. Good books. Great books, if at all possible.
Glad you took on this difficult subject. It’s been the elephant in the room for a long time. Thanks for your analysis.
Very helpful post. Thank you so much for it. It brought to mind a recent piece in The Boston Globe about the resurgence of independent book stores, who are apparently growing by nearly “7.5 percent on a compounded basis over the past five years” and the “number of independent stores is up 31 percent since 2009.” While I realize any rise is from a very low decimated position, could this, nonetheless, be a hopeful sign? And if so, how much? And how do you see it affecting all the above? My best, and again thanks.
Boston Globe link: https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2019/03/07/why-independent-bookstores-are-thriving-spite-amazon/ebMtBJ7utvo3KgiYSAb12L/story.html
“You’re a writer. Let me help you out. I have a book in me, and you are just the one to write it.” Of course, for free, as this individual believes they will help me perfect my craft. I get offers like this all the time. And lawyers complain about being asked for 60 seconds of legal advice???
I read “Maid.” After reading it realized after 20 years as a part-time journalist, I make less per hour than a house-cleaner. I appreciate you explaining the book industry as I connected some, but not all of the dots!
Thank you for this information, most of which I did not know. I hope B&N recovers and checks the power of Amazon.
I’ve had my own beef with “all-powerful” Amazon: middle of last year I tried to leave an Amazon review for a book [as I have done hundreds of times over the years]. Received a message that as I have not spent $50 within a certain period of time I could not leave a review.
I was stunned. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on Amazon books and merchandise. Just not within the specified months. Seems like an insult and a cheap ploy to garner sales.
Or maybe it’s part of their new algorithm–the one that deletes reviews that we received for our books.
Anyway, I’m purchasing all my e-books at Kobo.
Wow–I learned something major tonight, thanks for that. I love Barnes and Noble because it’s the only bookstore around here (other than half-price books, who almost never have what I want and it’d be more accurate to call them 2/3 price books, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue all that well). I live in a small town surrounded by other small towns and bigger towns that have nothing but general corporate stores, nothing that stimulates the mind. Libraries that aren’t college libraries are jokes; they don’t collect anything meant for adults unless it’s a best-seller or trend book.
Books are my crack, B&N my dealer for the most part. I love paper and have no interest in e-readers yet, but I thought it was stupid how they were limiting themselves (and the writers, and the readers) regarding e-books. You have to listen to the customers and adjust to the realities of the market. I’m not even an economist and I know that much.
I hope they can keep being a bookstore and learn and grow. I might have to drive 45 minutes to get to a freaking bookstore to browse, but at times, I prefer to browse rather than outright buy online. And never from Amazon for me–they lose my packages half the time and I get tired of it.
Such an excellent narrative on the hemorrhaging of NY publishing. I’ve signed 3 pub deals and regret every one of them. Took me a bit to figure that out, obviously. LOL But I DID figure it out, and now I can make a very nice living publishing my books on my own. #IndieAuthor
The only things I can add to that are: 1, Way back when the book chains were shiny and new, B & N had a fully justified reputation for driving independents out of business. They’d lock their beady eyes on a successful one, build a big-box store near it, and undercut its prices. They were the nail in the coffin for the Twin Cities’ Hungry Mind bookstore. 2, Waterstones isn’t a bad store, and being a chain means they have stores in the small cities near me, which I’m grateful for. But the Waterstones British staff are just now starting to speak up about what they’re being paid, which is below the national living wage. Add to that the short hours they’re being given and I fall out of love w/ Mr. Daunt, whose response involved what satisfying work he was providing for them all. I don’t get the impression that his own pay is as squeezed as his employees’ is.
I love it when you rant; I learn so much! Not having a head (leg, or toenail) for business, but realizing truth when I hear it, I loved this.
I guess it’s time to stop my B&N membership?
I am one of the authors who simply want to write the story and step away, I have been Godsmacked. Thank you.
I think we ALL do. We always have, but that is also why artists have a long and storied history of being royally screwed.
Having been a B&N employee just before online sales and e-books really became a thing, I find this a pretty good observation (rant) on the current trend of retail bookstores. When I was growing up, there were three Christian bookstores and three secular bookstores within a half-hour’s drive from my home. Now there’s just B&N about 20-30 min from my old home. Closest Christian bookstore from there now is an hour’s drive. Where I live now there’s an indie bookstore, and one a half hour from here (two if you count the university bookstore). The closest Christian bookstore from where I now live is also an hour’s drive. Having said that, I think it’s important to also think about how we can support the local brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop shops. It may cost us a couple extra bucks to do so (and for those radio shows who shall not be named–it means “not being good stewards of God’s money”) but it’s worth it to plunk down those extra dollars to keep those bookstores nearby and not have to almost totally rely on online entities.
I’m one of those little authors, struggling to get my name and brand front and center. I got my first contract in 2009 with a small NY publisher. I entered the scene when the scene was already in a heap of trouble. And am I discouraged? Oh, yes. With the mantra “the way to sell more books is to write more books”, I’ve pounded the keys for the last 10 years. I’ve thrown myself into the promo part of the business, made business plans and strategies, and for two years gave it what I could. The result was less written and more frustration. I believe it now takes more than one person to sell books. An author needs a partner or several helpers to negotiate the business side…if we want to turn out books with any regularity. Or an author needs money to start with. Takes money to make money? Not here. I’m on the edge of quitting and depressed as hell over it. Thanks for this article. It really spells out what I needed to know about the industry.
“An author needs a partner or several helpers to negotiate the business side…”
You’re 100% right. Good comment.
Depressing, frightening, yet slightly hopeful. Thanks for your in depth analysis of the publishing and marketing industry. I’m an indie author with no grand illusions about becoming a “big name” author, but I sure would like to sell enough books to make the effort I put into researching and writing worth it.
Kristen, once again THANK YOU! You’ve distilled the salient points, and I get it. It’s hard to be hopeful, but you are right in the end – write well and write lots and your readers will follow you.
First, thank you Kristen for keeping us in the loop. Sounds like publishers will be wooing indie book stores more intensely. I don’t quite understand why you said Indies can keep a backlist (and B&N couldn’t). Seems like shelf space in an Indie store would be even more limited as the stores themselves are smaller than a B&N. Can you explain?
Also, where does Books-A-Million fit into the picture? They are a mega bookstore-the second largest bookstore chain in the United States, operating 260 stores in 32 states.
To your first question. Books-A-Million is its own odd duck. They are first, privately owned, which changes a lot of dynamics. Namely, those running the company have more freedom because they aren’t under pressure from shareholders for increasing dividends and everyone having a say in how they do business.
As far as I can tell, they are part wholesaler (which is still ordering books at bargain basement prices from publishers—no author getting rich from this who wasn’t already doing well), part used book distributor, and part seller of other items like music and doo-dads.
The company, however, also owns other profitable subsidiaries in the food industry (E.g. Yogurt Mountain) and real estate (A.L. Florence Realty Holdings) and other holdings companies, so their financial eggs aren’t all in the bookstore basket…unlike Borders and B&N.
In the past, they caught a LOT of PR flack for how poorly they pay and treat employees. ‘In 2014, Books-A-Million was identified by 24/7 Wall Street as America’s worst company to work for, citing low satisfaction among employees due to “high stress and low pay… low chance of promotion, [and] hours are based on magazine and discount card sales.’
I did some quick research and am unsure if these poor practices have changed.
As for the old independent booksellers. Yes, they had finite space but they also had total control over what books they ordered. Under the big-box model, all stores had a virtually similar layout and map with key locations negotiated ahead of time.
So it didn’t matter that NO ONE in the Bible Belt EVER would be caught dead purchasing a copy of ’50 Shades of Grey’ it went in the front display with no concern for regional tastes, wants, preferences. Those spots and how many books ordered were ALL pre-negotiated.
In the old paradigm, a bookseller might have a lot of regular customers who were HUGE fans of high fantasy, so they would have the freedom to stock a lot of high fantasy and make sure, say, ALL of Anne McCaffery’s ‘Dragons of Pern’ books were available (and perhaps multiple copies.) They’d have the freedom to make sure ALL the Dragon Lance series, all of David Eddings Pawn of Prophecy series, all of was IN STOCK with multiple copies AND they likely would stock similar authors with similar books even those writers who were not household names.
Readers (in the old days as well as now) didn’t want to fall in love with a one-book-wonder. Readers wanted a writer they could binge, and then similar authors for the next binge.
When the big-box stores came in, that all went away. Many of those titles were mothballed because they were old and only sold well in niche (cultivated) markets. The point was to offer the widest variety of NEW books.
If you were Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, etc., your backlist was safe because these authors were top earners across the board.
But, there were a lot of popular mid-list authors that got shafted. USA Today/NYTBSA Bob Mayer had roughly 42 titles out during this transition (roughly 2009). His Area 51 series had been a USA Today and NYT Best-Seller. Alas, the series got moth-balled and (as a fan) the only way I could get the rest of the series to read was to hunt for it in used bookstores.
In the days before the big-box, there were pockets of the country—E.g. near military bases—where Mayer sold VERY well since he was a former Green Beret who also wrote a lot of military thrillers.
With the changes, though, these titles got stuffed in cold storage and pulled from distribution. Mayer was given the ability to buy what copies remained of his print run to sell at conferences and off his site and such, but the books were, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.
Thus, instead of making a living off decades of titles, he (like others) had to struggle along with only a couple titles out for sale.
Mayer was among those authors who tried to convince NY to at least put those books into e-book form. They were older titles but still GOOD books that had sold millions of copies.
The publisher handed him back the rights believing they were worthless and Mayer, like many similar authors in similar situations, converted the books to e-book and POD and made a killing. That was what prompted publishers to lock down all backlist rights indefinitely.
Vonda MacIntyre was another author in a similar situation. She was a multi-published author and Nebula Award winner…but the publishers mothballed her backlist. She HAD plenty of pockets throughout the country who loved science fiction and she sold well under the old model. When the giants came on board? All those other books went away along with most of her income.
I know this is a long answer to your question but it shows that the independents lost control over what books they could order to cater to their niche customers as they always had. Sure, space is always finite in a store, but indies had CONTROL over what to PUT in that finite space.
Suddenly many of those bread-and-butter titles weren’t available. What WAS available were the same exact titles one could buy at the big-box store for a fraction of the price because Borders and B&N got the deep discounts the mom-and-pops couldn’t. This meant they couldn’t compete in niche and so they went under.
I hope this answers your question?
When I started at B&N years ago, the average tenure of employee was ten years. Now it is a year or less. All of the identity crisis and struggle for life and livelihood has led to a hemorrhage of quality, knowledgeable book sellers. Instead of supporting the employees on the front lines, those in charge resorted to blaming us for falling sales, cutting hours to starvation levels, and squashing the team environment they invested years in building. For many of us, the sale of the store comes too late. We are moving on because trust is completely blown, and retail is cripplingly hard work for the peanuts usually provided… I truly hope it is not the end for B&N, that the new owners can restore inventory and customer service and stability. I only know that I will likely only return as a customer. And that bookstore work was yet another of the many jobs I have loved over the years that have been obliterated by Amazon’s unfettered monopoly at the top of the pyramid of technology, and customers who think it is simply sport to get everything on discounts. There is a price for “savings”… that price is American jobs. The question the price match phone wavers should be asking is what will I do when it is MY industry, my company, and my job that is eliminated for somebody else’s bargain? I only know I won’t be commiserating with sympathy…
I’ve watched Barnes & Noble bleed for the past ten years. Unfortunately, that was when I began my second career in writing. Soon B&N will be left as road kill on the side of the road, while I continue to battle my way against Amazon, a giant that enjoys flexing its muscles at the writer’s expense. Amazon removed my reviews–260 reviews–claiming I knew an author of a book I reviewed. The only author I know personally is me. Two years later, after many pleas, Amazon returned my reviews and agreed to allow me to post new ones.
I pray Barnes & Noble lands on its feet. I don’t have local bookstores in my neighborhood to sponsor a book signing for me. The horizon looks bleak for authors without brick and mortar stores to support us.
Yeah ZON has its share of problems. I’ve heard of that happening to a lot of authors. I don’t think it’s all bleak. Just we have to keep doing what we can do until it all sorts out. I’ll blog more on this next time and maybe help assuage your fears.
I know I’ve been telling people that the mega book stores were poised to reap what they sowed when they demolished the mom and pop bookstores of the world. Too large, too expensive to run, too many CEOs who wanted golden parachutes rather than functioning businesses. Now they’re sinking one by one. Eventually, I think the smaller stores will rise again alongside smart new cookies who will also figure out how to harness the digital revolution to their benefit.
The problem with the fear of the Amazon ‘monster’ is that it’s not a monster and it is NOT the only game in town.
Sure, if authors go all in and refuse to use other outlets they’re at the mercy of the whims of the Zon. But if you’re smart, you maintain control of your product (books) and make sure that you’re reaching the world via many alternate routes.
It’s the old all the eggs, one basket issue.
Personally, I know I’ve gone wide with my ebook distribution. I use Amazon but also use Kobo, Apple, B&N (until it finishes sinking), and other outlets including portals to libraries.
More importantly, I started doing what I believe all smart authors should do, I utilize my own website to sell my books and ebooks directly. Sure, it’s not as simple as point and click like Amazon but it lets the reader ‘own’ the ebook and put the copy wherever they wish and, more importantly, I reap the benefits of control of my product and ALL the money of the sale.
It’s not over yet. We need something to give writers more leverage.
I am still looking for the tech resource that can make my website store speak ONIX. If authors could sell their trads direct, as we do our indies, the 35-45 percent retail cut could be split between author and publisher, and that Other Place with the dirty ecosystem and constant propensity for self-serving glitches could be dis-intermediated.
I’m hopeful that B&N will pull through, but right now, Apple and the EU regulators are probably doing more to keep Zon from world domination than B&N is. I honestly think Zon is weaning its customers off of books altogether, which is a bigger deal than B&N going under. Much more money to be made for Zon with streaming and cloud services, and that’s a paradigm shift in storytelling that will leave most authors out of any job on any platform.
Maybe I’m being naive…but what if EMC actually puts together a viable business plan for B&N? What if they offer a better royalty plan to authors and offer more than Amazon’s 70%? Perhaps 80%? Or if they offer 50% to books under 2.99? or 0.99? What if they put a program in place to vet authors in a way that makes it hard for scammers and plagiarists to flourish in their workspace? Wouldn’t that take the publishing industry into a new era?
So right on, my friend. BAM!
Who or what is NY? You use the term extensively but never explain it?
Yes, I actually did. But, it was a long post so easy to miss.
PLEASE NOTE: Most of the major houses we once referred to as ‘The Big Six’ operated under the directives of multi-national conglomerates and giant media companies. The agents and editors and everyday people in the publishing trenches are NOT the ‘leadership’ folks I’m calling to the carpet. ***Looking at you CBS***
I also later listed out who The Big Six publishers were: Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette.
Brilliant. Exhausting, depressing, but brilliant. Thanks.
My next post will be more of the shiny side of things. There is some good news in all this too 😉 .
Wow… that was some post.
Yeah I think I sprained my cerebellum. LOL. It was a lot of work. Thanks for the comment.
Honestly? I worked in the industry myself on the retail side at Waldenbooks. You are right…the small format chains, the independents and mom and pops MADE the publishing industry.
Why? Because of the EMPLOYEES at those chains, we KNEW our customer base. WE knew individual customers likes and dislikes. One of my favorites was a lady whose name after all this time escapes me like so many things. She came in mostly every other week and sometimes weekly. she knew when the monthly regents etc came to our shelves so she was there when we put them on the shelves. She spent HUNDREDS [and I don’t mean 2 or 3] a MONTH. Had a guy that was in for the mens adventure stuff once a month like clockwork. others that came in regular for other things. Some popped into just look at the magazine racks even if their regular authors weren’t out yet and to shoot the breeze with us while we stocked and checked. Others that were constantly checking in to see if their favorite author’s next work had been announced yet. Authors like Clancy, Grafton, Bond. Gabaldon, Eddings, Feist, Jordan, Braun, Brown..etc etc ad nauseum. The bonus to this for us employees is if something came out that was by a new author that was similar, we could steer our customers to that author and generally get them to try those new authors out. [I still have an ARC of Vince Flynn’s Term Limits I always meant to get signed and never got a chance. ] Fucking BB&N in collab with the big six in NYC [and that NYCbubble was and IS another problem] MURDERED that employee/customer dynamic with a will. Those donkey humping mental midgets; who were the result of a dalliance between a couple of syphilitic hookers getting a train pulled on them by a herd of passing camels, sowed the winds with their own greed, blindness and willfull stupidity and are now reaping the whirlwind. While I don’t want B&N dead. (I still enjoy browsing the shelves but most of what’s out there ‘given’ to us by the big six is to my mind utter garbage] I do want the big 6 gutted with a butter knife and without anesthetic.
I concur. I wore a red dress for Border’s funeral and have one in reserve for B&N. Part of me, as I may have mentioned, hopes they don’t rally. That they become a cautionary tale for mega-media conglomerates who get too big for their britches.
This article was pretty comprehensive but technology to publish books to listen to just grows and grows. Adopting our current publishing/sales rules to include voice as well as written words might be the wave of the future. Audible books is one of Amazon’s big sellers and has already topped the sales of ebooks. Maybe the reorganization of the ex-B&N will focus competition on buying those “backlists” for verbal publication
As an Indie author with good offerings, when I go into two local B&N to offer my books, and they refuse, they’re cutting their own throat by enriching their competitors. Bad business model, doomed to fail. Most of what they push are bestsellers, which can be got cheaper online. Spiral downward.
Kristen — Thank you for drawing so many varied and informed comments on what is near and dear to us writers–bookstores and readers. The economics are complex. Digital and the maze of reading via hyperlinks has changed the way many process information. I see the trend as shorter and broken up by infographics and visual. There will always be a market for print, but less than it used to be.
This was an excellent overview of basically every bad move that has resulted in authors struggling under the age of the ‘Zon. I am an old-fashioned author with a day job, and I can’t produce at the speed some of the most successful indie and hybrid authors. I keep telling myself to keep going at my own pace and tell that damn good story, but it is discouraging. To hear from someone with such a thumb on the pulse of our industry is, strangely, comforting. If you can still see a light at the end of this tunnel – that possibly isn’t a train – maybe there’s hope for all of us. ?
Wait for the next post. Yes it will get better and YES there is hope. That is the beauty of our job. They can only $#!@ on us so long before they go belly up because they NEED us. This is always cyclical. I’ll go over some trajectories I see ahead and thus far, when it comes to business predictions for publishing, I am batting 1000 or pretty dang close (which sucks after a while because SERIOUSLY????). Hang on. It will work out.
The bookstore in my little town is a Barnes & Noble, masquerading as a college bookstore. I was told in no uncertain terms that they would not carry my books in their bookstore (even though I live in town) and I personally think someone earning a living in town, should support the locals. They would not sell my books because they buy from a B & N list. One day when I did go into the bookstore I was approached by a manager who asked if I would have a book signing in the store, because, apparently people had been talking about my book, asking them for it. Ha. I said no. If they weren’t going to carry my book, I wasn’t going to sit in the front of the store, inviting people to come in. Each time, i go into the store, it is almost empty. I guess the big name authors are paying the rent and hiring the employees. The other bookstore (where I do sell my books) is always busy. I hope the end of B & N means that some local bookstore will come in and support local authors (and others). Thanks for the Blog.
I had almost the same issue with them. Several years back when I had one of the only social media and branding books for authors (for anyone really) and it was selling really well on Amazon and I’d even hit the #1 best-selling list and stayed in the top ten in major categories like Computers, Business, Economics, Sales.
I had fans coming into stores, trying to give them money, asking them to order paper copies of my books…and B&N turned them away.
They refused to stock my books even though I am a local author with a HUGE social media platform. My books were listed with Ingram and all my titles have been very strong sellers and (did I mention?) REQUESTED…BY CUSTOMERS? Still, no joy.
AND this was right after Border’s bit it and they’d already begun that sharp decline, so turning away business? Oh-kay. From a local author with a demonstrated sales record and a MASSIVE platform.
They did the SAME thing with “Rise of the Machines” which had almost 160 positive reviews at the time I asked, and all my books have been blurbed by traditionally published authors, BIG NAME AUTHORS like James Rollins.
They refused to stock my books, BUT they WOULD stock crappy social media books published through vanity presses? And UNREADABLE novels published through vanity presses.
I ran into the same issue with my local libraries. They refuse to stock my books because my books don’t have reviews from AP book reviewers (who won’t review anything indie published). Despite hundreds of 4 and 5 star reader reviews on Amazon. Oh-kay.
They don’t consider me a “real” author BUT they want me to come and give an unpaid talk about being an author to draw people to the library. HUH? Sure. Right on that.
exact same issues for me, and i thought it was because i wasn’t famous or “known” yet. something wicked this way came. turnabout is fair play, i suppose.still, i liked the local staff and still stop in at my local Barnes & Noble from time to time. almost decided to sneak one of my book copies onto their sci-fi shelf section, or sit at one of the front tables and slurp down a cheap coffee, then accidentally on purpose leave my book on the table, but i thought, i will play by the rules, even if it means remaining on the “salad days” pedestrian diet.
A good if exhausting wrap-up! Another component I think needs to be addressed for traditionally published authors is Walmart. My print runs rise and fall on whether my book(s) get into Walmart–a decision made by one Walmart buyer, who is scanning my publisher’s large catalogue for… maybe 8 slots a month? Meanwhile, mass market shelf space in Walmart seems to decrease every month, while publishers keep picking up new authors and throwing them at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. My next book is one of five historical romances to be released by my publisher in that particular month–along with the rest of their catalogue. Will Walmart take all five of those historical romances? No. It will only pick one, possibly two if we’re lucky. Walmart is now the biggest “book store” in America. As a traditionally pubbed mass market author, if you don’t get into Walmart, you’re pretty much hammered with that book’s print run. And if my publisher decides to raise the price on the digital version at the same time? Hammer of Thor on my sales.
This is so on the nose, Kristen. Thanks for breaking it down. I was there while it was happening, and recall my frustration that my publisher at the time, St. Martin’s was so willfully ignorant about ebooks and marketing them.
Lost me with all the “NY”s. What or who are you referring to?
Yes, it’s a long post so perhaps easy to get lost. NY short for New York publishers.
PLEASE NOTE: Most of the major houses we once referred to as ‘The Big Six’ operated under the directives of multi-national conglomerates and giant media companies. The agents and editors and everyday people in the publishing trenches are NOT the ‘leadership’ folks I’m calling to the carpet. ***Looking at you CBS***
I also later listed out who The Big Six publishers were: Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette.
Denial and Too Big To Fail come to mind. I noticed in 2010 that my college bound student and his friends were sold on e- readers. Like info technology, they wanted books at their fingertips. B&N did offer the Nook but it was not as popular the way Amazon’s Kindle is (same environmentally friendly and at much reduced prices compared to paper books, of course). Millennials love Kindle and this set the tone for the future. I still love having the actual book and recycling used books to Powell Book store in Portland (where people come from all over the US). Amazon, trying to appeal to all market shares, now has bookstores in malls and they sell 95% books. Although, I believe One thing B&N has going for it is: Customer Service – where they will bend over backwards to find an obscure book and their digital catalog is HUGE!! CS may be what separates and saves them in the end??
Perhaps customer service will make a difference. I have no clue. The one of the 2 I go to in Long Beach, CA is cozy and large. I imagine Amazon bookstores will be the same.
Your posts are so well developed. Tank you for taking the time and effort to explain this and give us the background. I have followed your blog and this is like a very slowly developing story.
Wooooo! Thank you for that stellar analysis, Kristen. I appreciate your insight, as always.
There is a large 2-story B&N store in our local mall. Since it opened, I’ve wondered how they could stay in business. The part doing the most business seems to be the coffee shop (where they sell Starbuck’s coffee but are not a Starbuck’s). Seriously, to support the overhead you have to sell a ton of books. Lots of people, and I’m guilty, go there to browse, sip coffee, etc. then go home and order the title from Amazon (it arrives the next day with free shipping — thanks to Amazon Prime). Seriously, I do try to support B&N, but their prices, which are list price, are something I can only rarely convince myself to pay. They must either find a way to get their prices in line with Amazon or perish. I hope the new owner can work his magic, but to be honest, I’m skeptical.
My primary concern with your solution about building an author platform is that people can only invest their time and attention in a limited number of authors that way. We’re inundated with information everywhere we go, and following more and more authors will only result in many of those authors slipping through the cracks. I delete the vast majority of emails I get without opening them, even though I chose to subscribe to those newsletters in the first place, and I certainly don’t plan on signing up for more no matter how much I want to stay in the loop with my favorite creators and experts. And on any given social media platform, I see only a fraction of posts from the people I follow, so the fact that I *can* follow as many writers as I want certainly doesn’t mean I know when each of them has a new book coming out. As someone who reads hundreds of books each year, there is simply no way I could discover and support anywhere near the same number of authors I do now if my primary (or only) option was to follow their individual branding platforms. What I’d really like to see happen is a viable alternative/competitor for Amazon, a large-scale bookselling platform that encompasses many or all authors without the scare tactics and potential for monopoly. Perhaps the Big 6 could go in on creating it together, or each start an online bookstore for their own lists while the indie authors band together to make a marketplace for self-published works. That would at least limit the number of platforms readers have to follow to a manageable number. I know that’s a pretty big pipe dream, but it seems like a more viable solution than Writer X hoping *their* brand will be one of the few dozen a reader can truly support out of the thousands upon thousands of other writers all clamoring for the same time and attention with their individual platforms.
A couple things here. First, you are VERY MUCH an outlier and I’ve seen NY make similar mistakes in their thinking. Most Americans never read another book upon completing graduation. The average ‘reader’ consumes 2-3 books a year. All the record-breakers like Harry Potter, 50 Shades, Twilight, etc. moved the needle because they managed to get regular ‘non-readers’ excited about THEIR book(s).
The ONLY way to reach those people is to engage on social media and create and cultivate relationships. It is all about word of mouth. In a sea of junk, people buy from who they know, like and trust and they also recommend those people.
I know it’s a hard thing, but remember you are not selling to you. You aren’t selling to people who read HUNDREDS of books a year. You are pretty much a unicorn and there aren’t a lot of us out there.
The agents in NY who loved paper and a browsing experience made a similar error. They were selling to themselves…NOT to the average reader.
Maybe THEY would drive to the next city to go to a bookstore but most people wanted what was convenient (which is why Amazon rose to power the way it did). They wanted to grab an ebook when they found themselves stranded in a doctor’s office or waiting for their car repairs.
Remember that the largest portion of book sales are not to those who need a 12-Step habit for their book purchases. Most Americans will only buy 2-3 books a year, so why not have those 2-3 books be yours?
If an author isn’t on-line, has no backlist, no brand and no platform, then that leaves ads which don’t work with an unbranded unknown (and really don’t work with branded authors).
And I am NO fan of newsletters. How I teach branding and platform is vastly different. Social media is NOT supposed to be a bunch of writers talking about all things writing and hawking a book(s) non-stop. It really is just about starting and maintaining a conversation. At the end of the day, people buy from who they know and like.
While systems like you’ve suggested can be beneficial to people like us who eat through multiple books a week…for everyone else? It won’t even be noticed. They simply don’t read enough books for that to be beneficial. That, and people who read that much actually buy a lot from secondary markets (used) so they don’t have to sell blood to make rent. Super voracious readers really aren’t the bread and butter. It’s those 2-3 books a year people we want.
Word of mouth (brand) is how books have always sold. And, despite what many ‘experts’ claim, we don’t have to live on social media to have a pretty strong platform. Small actions over time add up.
& now, there’s been another “technical glitch” about which Amazon was alarmingly vague, that early-released the new Atwood book?! Now that all the brick and mortar brickstores are wheezing from this marathon they’ve been running furiously in order to stay in the same place, Amazon’s decided the appropriate end to the race is not a medal or bottle of water, but instead, a knife stuck right in the jugular.
Amazon listing a book shouldn’t impact the brick-and-mortar. Brick-and-mortar stores get their books from places like Ingram where they put in the order for a certain number of books to be drop-shipped.
If this is an early-release (as in not YET in a bookstore) glitch, then that would only impact the publisher and Amazon. But, I implored the major publishers YEARS ago to create their own book distribution site.
As normal regular readers became more savvy about publishing, they would know that—say, Harper Collins—published a favorite author. I recommended a Harper Collins site where readers could order paper, digital, and pre-orders yet they still relied too heavily on Amazon. Though there ARE other ebook distributors like Apple Books, Smashwords, etc.
And Borders and Barnes & Noble did more to hurt the brick-and-mortar store than Amazon ever did. Not to support them a 100% because Amazon certainly no innocent, but they actually had backed Borders as of 2001 (?). Amazon had signed an agreement to help Borders with their online book sales as a partner.
It was only when Borders broke that agreement in 2007 I think that they started spiraling because they didn’t have the digital infrastructure they would have had with Amazon. Instead of being a partner, they made the move to become a competitor and it was like a pee wee league taking on the New England Patriots. No contest.
It would have been interesting to see how this would have all played out, if Borders would still be here, had they kept to their original agreement. The details of this contract are in my recent post, “The Road to Conquest: How Bezos Razed Publishing” if you are interested.
The business statistics are actually showing that small bookstores are on the rise and doing better than they have in decades now that Amazon took out the two giants. Indie stores are doing much better and exploding in popularity. I highlighted a lot of these new and creative stores in this post. So that might make you feel better.
Mom-and-pops are coming back. People MISS bookstores.
of my first two books, independent bookstores have been early buyers in the United States.
My beautiful literary agent (hands off) girlfriend Felicity Jones told me about this fantastic article and I am sending it to my sandbox buddies John Blandly, Icy Rivers, B Sting and Pantson Fire.