June 28, 2013

One reason Barnes & Noble is struggling: it’s carrying fewer titles


The saviors of every struggling 21st century business: board games.

On Tuesday, the embattled baby changing station Barnes & Noble released its quarterly report and announced that it would no longer produce the Zune Nook tablet in house. And, while the Zune Nook’s catastrophic failure has rightfully received a great deal of attention over the last few days, there were a number of other uncomfortable and unfortunate truths in the report, including that Barnes & Noble is maybe not that good at selling books anymore, either (though it is still better at selling books than it is at selling tablets): the company’s retail revenues fell 10% in the fourth quarter of last year and 5.9% for the year.

To be fair, the Zune Nook is partly to blame for this drop in revenue, but yesterday The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg took a look at another possible culprit: that B&N is “reducing the range of titles it stocks, as it gives more floor space to toys, games, and other products that generate high profit margins” and that this strategy is driving book-lovers—ostensibly the base of a bookstore—to Amazon.

Trachtenberg spoke to a few people, including our fearless leader Dennis Johnson, about how Barnes & Noble’s dwindling inventory has affected its business:

Barnes & Noble has become “a much more cautious company,” says Dennis Johnson, co-publisher of Melville House, a New York independent publisher. “They’re taking fewer titles, and fewer copies of the titles they pick.”…

Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of the Idea Logical Co., New York-based publishing consultant, says he believes Barnes & Noble’s projected sales decline isn’t just about consumers embracing digital books and shopping less at bookstores: It’s that Barnes & Noble’s stores don’t have as many books…

Part of the appeal of the original book superstore concept was that having lots of titles pulled in shoppers, Mr. Shatzkin says.

“That effect has been diluted, starting with Amazon, but Barnes & Noble is diluting it themselves,” Mr. Shatzkin says. “I don’t have hard data, but I think there are substantially fewer titles. And that contributes to a traffic decrease.”

Not everyone Trachtenberg spoke to was under the impression that Barnes & Noble was decreasing the number of titles it carried—one anonymous executive at a “big publishing firm” said he “hadn’t experienced a reduction in orders.” But smaller publishers seemed to unanimously agree that Barnes & Noble was ordering less.

In a (surely very uncomfortable) conference call with investors on Tuesday Mitchell Klipper, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s consumer books group, denied that this was the case. Per Trachtenberg, Klipper said that the bookseller hasn’t “taken down the titles substantially over the last two to three years. We’re always adjusting the titles up and down, as we see fit based upon the sales trend.”

So, it seems everyone is in agreement that Barnes & Noble has “taken down the titles”—the question is whether they’ve made a substantial change to the number of titles and books that they carry. But, while appearances certainly do deceive, it sure as hell looks like Barnes & Noble has substantially reduced the number of titles it carries. Whether you’re in Brooklyn or Ridgeland, Mississippi, space that was once used to showcase books is now used to showcase Godiva chocolates and second-rate board games—and in most places (my hometown B&N in Big Flats, NY is one example) there’s significantly more empty space on the few remaining shelves than there was five years ago. The last time I was in a Barnes & Noble, I was astounded by how few new titles the store was carrying—even ones that were selling briskly down the street at BookCourt.

It’s hard not to look at the bookseller’s clumsy identity shifts—its catastrophic entry into the digital marketplace with the Zune Nook and its identity-damaging transition from bookstore to Godiva chocolate showroom—and not think of Borders, who decided to go all-in on CDs (lol) as the pathway to higher margins. Being wrong or late—even by just a hair—to recognize tectonic shifts in the digital age can be disastrous. So far, Barnes & Noble has been able to stay afloat, but its continued existence increasingly seems more the result of luck than ingenuity.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.