January 27, 2012

Barnes & Noble and indies are like, um, peas and carrots


Or so the nation’s largest bookseller would have the record read. At the Digital Book World Conference this past week Barnes & Noble VP of eBooks Jim Hilt suggested many things, with most of them seeming, well, like snow jobs.

MocoNews reported Hilt’s talk and noted specifically one vague promise concerning B&N’s book buyer data and independent bookstores:

He did say that Barnes & Noble is “not competing with the independent [bookstores]” and that the company might be willing to share data about book buyer behavior with the indies—though he did not explain how that process would work or whether Barnes & Noble is ready to start sharing the data anytime soon.

This is something akin to what Walmart does when they send a business liaison to local hardware stores in a community where they plan to open up a downtown-crushing superstore. Granted, Walmart actually sends these emissaries into the world (which is perhaps all the more offensive) to help “train” the indigenous stores to survive.

Meanwhile B&N’s off-hand-sorta-kinda promise is exactly the sort of thing that confuses the issues facing indie stores, and to a larger extent their own big top stores. Aside from perhaps the ABA, how would an individual indie bookseller make use of B&Ns macro statistics of customer habits?

But that wasn’t the source of the largest spin Hilt was making:

Multiple sales channels—bricks-and-mortar bookstores, online bookstores and the stores built into e-readers—are critical for helping the most voracious readers maximize their purchasing power, Barnes & Noble VP e-books Jim Hilt said at Digital Book World this morning. “Having multiple channels for single customers to consume content, explore and browse is critical to helping that power book buyer,” he said. But how can Barnes & Noble discourage shoppers from using its stores merely to browse and then buying those books on Amazon?

Dismissing the inclusion of indies in this line of thought, you have to wonder what the purpose of this narrative is. Hilt’s line of thought continued:

With the e-reader honeymoon over, Hilt said, power buyers (those who buy four or more titles per month) go back to purchasing a “stabilized mix” of e-books and print books and books borrowed from the library. That contradicts research presented by Bowker in the previous panel, that seven to twelve months after buying their first e-book, 72 percent of power buyers switch over to e-books exclusively.

If one were in the investment business and looking to buy stock in B&N, they might do well to make a note of the consistent sale being made across all of these statements. Brick & mortars are here to stay. Especially B&N stores. It is also worth noting the discrepancy between Hilt’s remarks and Bowker’s research. Not to mention questioning why the VP of eBooks is talking so much about physical book sales …


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.