Barnes & Noble and the Publishing Industry
If it feels like every month there’s new drama in the publishing world, that’s because there is. This month, amidst the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger, Barnes & Noble decided to no longer support hardback books. What’s the deal?
[Dear readers: Please note that this issue contains discussions of racism, sexism, and ableism in the publishing industry.]
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As if the book community doesn’t have enough to deal with already with the potential consolidation of The Big Five into The Big Four and publishing executives’ blatant lack of regard for so many people invested and working in the industry, Barnes & Noble has decided to compete for attention. Although the company hasn’t released any official guidelines, word on the street is that the major bookseller will no longer be selling the majority of hardback books anymore.
Various iterations of what exactly that means have been circulating. Some authors heard only the top 2% of hardback books from each publisher will be sold in stores, others the top one or two titles. Some have mentioned this only pertains to kids’ and middle grade books. Regardless, this will predominantly impact authors from historically marginalized communities.
In response to the uproar, Barnes & Noble did release a brief response from CEO James Daunt. Here’s a sample: “Barnes & Noble now works hard to improve its selection, precisely to be able to present a more dynamic bookstore. It will buy fewer titles inevitably - this is what happens if taste is exercised - but also more copies of those it seeks to champion. This will be especially valuable, when done well, for new and emerging talent. Far from carrying only ‘bestsellers,’ by which is meant the very well and established and small number of authors who sell year in, year out, Barnes & Noble will give the space and devote the energy to propel the success of new voices. This is what it is to be a good bookseller.”
Given that BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled authors will be the ones primarily impacted by this decision, claiming it’s a matter of exercising “taste” is not-so-subtle coding for books by and about white, straight, cis, abled individuals. And given the number of new and established authors that have already been told their titles won’t be sold in Barnes & Noble, it’s hard to see this move as anything other than a money grab—not a move to “propel the success of new voices.”
In this issue, we’re diving into not just this decision and its potential impact, but Barnes & Noble’s history in the publishing industry.
What is Barnes & Noble’s relationship with the publishing industry?
Until recently, Barnes & Noble held a firm grip on publishers’ marketing and sales efforts. Buyers for the bookstore chain could dictate cover direction and publishers could pay for shelf space at the front of the store. However, when James Daunt joined as CEO in 2019 (after four CEOs were let go in five years), he changed the business model so that the chain stores operated more like local indies. Corporate buyers were let go and booksellers at individual stores began to have more say in which titles the stores could stock. This way, they could appeal to local interest, a move that ended up benefiting the company.
More than half of physical books in the U.S. are sold by Amazon, but Barnes & Noble (and indie stores) all know that the online browsing experience will never mirror that of in-store browsing. Daunt claims that the changes he’s made and continues to make to Barnes & Noble are in part to tap further into that in-store experience. However, with this latest decision, the company is likely kicking off a chain reaction: Publishers will change their own acquisition and marketing efforts to please the large seller, all the while alienating authors and readers.
What impact will this decision have on publishers, authors, and readers?
Indie bookstores can’t house every book. With only so much shelf space, indies have to (understandably) be selective about the books they contain in their physical store. So, publishers need Barnes & Noble. And when Barnes & and Noble suddenly decides to no longer sell certain books or books of a specific format, the move likely leads to a decrease in sales for publishers. For example, if Barnes & Noble decides to no longer sell hardback middle grade stories in stores (as many authors are saying), then publishers may move to no longer publish middle grade in hardback form. Hardbacks are released first and while they typically cost two times the amount of paperbacks, they cost barely anything more to manufacture. Publishers (and authors) make more money off hardcovers, knowing the audience will buy a hardcover if no paperback version exists. So if publishers aren’t releasing a hardback version, that also means the author’s income from each sale will be lower…especially as they work towards earning out their advance.
Speaking of authors: Such a decision from Barnes & Noble will further perpetuate publishing’s harmful cycle of advances and marketing budgets. If publishers know Barnes & Noble will not buy a book (and they, in turn, will make significantly less sales), they likely will offer a lower advance to an author. Therefore, the book will receive a smaller marketing budget, as the publisher will find less incentive to pour resources into the title (lower advance = less money the publisher needs to earn back). But, of course, books that aren’t marketed have less of a chance of performing as successfully as those that do. To better hit their sales quotas, publishers will want specific books to appear in Barnes & Noble, so they might grant a larger chunk of the marketing team’s overall budget to those titles, increasing the odds that they gain the bestseller status that Barnes & Noble now reportedly requires. So, if books aren’t receiving marketing budgets or being placed onto shelves in one of the largest bookseller’s stores, how will these authors sell enough copies to make a living wage? To show their publisher that their next book is worth the investment?
And beyond sales, how will these books reach the readers that need them most if they can’t browse for them in a bookstore?
These authors will need to compete with not just one another (both debut authors and established authors), but also with perennial bestsellers. Given the historical state of the publishing industry, most of these books are authored by white individuals, and that will continue to be the case if we know anything about whose books are granted advances (take a look at #PublishingPaidMe) and marketing budgets.
To help all of us share our 2022 reads, we’ve created a monthly tracker for you to share to your Instagram Stories whenever you finish a read or at the end of each month (don’t worry, we’ll update the month).
And for the newsletter exclusive, we’ve created an Anticipated Reads template for you to track your monthly hopefuls. Just use password AnticipatedReads at the link and download away!
How is Book Lovers Day not a national holiday?
P.S.: Did you know we are on TikTok? Check us out!
There have been numerous, pivotal activities taking place in the book world this past month, and they largely stem from the industry’s desire to compete with Amazon. However, in doing so, they’re sacrificing author compensation, a diversity of titles, and overall representation.
For additional background on the PRH/S&S trial, check out last month’s newsletter issue.
How can we support authors in the meantime?
Follow your favorite authors (whether they’ve been published or not) on social media. Doing so will help demonstrate to publishers and booksellers that they are well-regarded.
Request and order their books from your local indie seller or from your library to help show demand. Pre-ordering forthcoming releases also is critical, as it helps publishers determine print run (and the higher the print run, the more efforts they’re likely to put into promoting the book).
If you don’t have an indie near you, you can use Bookshop.org and Libro.fm to still support the independent store of your choice!
If you need some recommendations:
August is #WomenInTranslationMonth, a month that aims to amplify women’s stories from around the globe, particularly those beyond Europe. We’ve rounded up recommended authors, books, and translators to read.
August also brings Bookstore Romance Day, and we teamed up with Steamy Lit to recommend a range of romance reads.
Use your platform to bring awareness to these issues, as well as to your favorite authors (in particular, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled authors). If their books aren’t receiving significant marketing budgets anymore, or if they aren’t being sold in Barnes & Noble, word-of-mouth and digital marketing are more important than ever.
Support independent publishers, too. Many of these publishers tend to be rooted in values committed to amplifying authors from historically marginalized communities.
As always, thanks for reading. If you need a book recommendation, we suggest Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker. We’ll be sharing thoughts on her story collection in our mid-September issue. Or, read our thoughts on The Sentence in the meantime.
If you have any feedback, we always appreciate your time. Feel free to send us a direct message on Instagram, an email, or leave a comment below.
Until next time.
Olivia and Fiona
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