Barnes & Noble’s shares jumped 6.9% on one day recently because of rumors that the company was about to be sold. The rumors were denied; the share price readjusted. Whatever’s up, there do seems to be problems with our big chain bookseller. They recent announced that although sales were up profit was down — as reported in a Shelf Awareness story on 31 August. Fortune piles on (link sent via The Passive Voice) reporting  year-over-year decreases in same-store sales. They appear to have a proclivity for starting digital initiatives and then looking the other way as developments overtake them. The Digital Reader tells how they seem to have lost sight of Yuzu, their textbook platform, and for all we hear of it NOOK seems to be hiding itself in some remote shady nook. From the outside it surely looks like we are observing a company in trouble. The Digital Reader tells us that B&N’s big plan for salvation is to sell more stuff! Book people always emphasize that they personally don’t believe that B&N is in serious trouble, deprecate the very idea, and certainly claim not to be privy to any real information suggesting such a state of affairs. Of course we can’t afford to say anything different. To this chorus, obviously, I add my voice.

But the nasty question keeps being asked. What if Barnes & Noble went bankrupt? is is the title of a discussion between Nathan Bransford and Mike Shatzkin. Their answer is: bad news for publishers. We have grown accustomed to being able to get lots and lots of copies of big books in front of the public upon publication, and B&N’s a big part of that ability. But I often wonder just how important those front-of-store tables-full of the latest wannabe bestseller really are. Just because this is what we have become used to doesn’t have to mean that some other model (e.g. no chain bookstores) might not work adequately. As Bransford and Shatzkin indicate there are significant financial demands on publishers who deal with Barnes & Noble. At a minimum you have to pay to manufacture the books you print in large quantity: and that frequently means, pay for and kiss goodbye to the books they take. Barnes & Noble, with the encouragement of publishers’ sales reps it’s true, will tend to over-order to be sure they don’t run out of a runaway success. Few books, unfortunately turn out to be runaway successes, so many/most of the books they’ve ordered will be returned to the publisher for credit. Regardless of the cost of shipping stuff back and forth and issuing credit notices, the realities of modern warehousing mean that unless we are talking about an expensive book (and with books ordered in mass quantities we rarely are) the cartons of books will just be destroyed when they come back. To check them for wear-and-tear and then restock them just costs too much, so it’s cheaper to waste returns. Unsurprisingly smaller publishers have to think hard about whether they want to deal with a big customer who often seems almost to be paying for their new purchases with returns of older inventory.

The idea that retailing works best if centralized is only about 100 years old. Are we on the edge of a switch away from that model? It’s not just books that are being affected by on-line sales. We hear rumbles about Macy’s and other department stores. Similar changes can be expected in the grocery business: maybe 50 years is it for the supermarket model of food retailing. Consolidation in the bookstore business was a relatively recent phenomenon — certainly taking place during my working life — and it looks like it’s now going into reverse. Borders disappearance was an early indication of the withering of the mall model of general retail.

It does seem evident that the book business is undergoing big changes. Two words, Self-publishing and Amazon, are enough to indicate the shifting earth. Does it seem realistic to think that that’s the end of it?

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