Barnes & Noble is in trouble, but bookstores aren’t doomed just yet

February 28, 2013

Bookstores — the big chains, at least — keep getting crushed. Back in 2011, Borders declared bankruptcy and liquidated its 399 stores. And the latest victim is Barnes & Noble, which has seen steadily declining sales and is now closing about 15 stores per year.


So what now? (AP)

The general consensus is that large retailers are getting devastated by Amazon and online book-buying. Barnes & Noble, for its part, tried to hold its ground by offering its own e-reader, the Nook. But that strategy now appears to be faltering.

On Thursday, the company reported a stunning 26 percent drop in Nook sales during the last quarter of 2012. The Nook, said CEO William Lynch, was no longer able to compete with full-featured tablets like the iPad. And that means the company had no way to stem the losses from a 2.2 percent decline in sales at its actual stores.

So what's next? Some observers have suggested that Barnes & Noble should just retrench and focus on selling physical books at its still-profitable branches (particularly at its 674 college stores around the country). The chairman of the company, Leonard Riggio, is reportedly planning to buy back just the retail portion of Barnes & Noble and take the company private, while getting rid of the Nook operation.

Others have argued that the entire brick-and-mortar chain bookstore model is simply doomed as a business — at least in the face of Amazon's onslaught.

For a somewhat different, cheerier take, however, the Economist has a nice essay thinking through what bookstores of the future might look like, as they revamp their business model to cope with pressure from online booksellers:

The consensus is that bookstores need to become cultural destinations where people are prepared to pay good money to hear a concert, see a film or attend a talk. The programming will have to be intelligent and the space comfortable. ...

A more attractive idea might be a membership scheme like those offered by museums and other cultural venues. Unlike reward cards, which offer discounts and other nominal benefits, a club membership could provide priority access to events (talks, literary workshops, retreats) and a private lounge where members can eat, drink and meet authors before events. Different memberships could tailor to the needs of children and students.

And if that fails, there's always this novel idea — self-printing book machines:

To survive and thrive, bookstores should celebrate the book in all its forms: rare, second-hand, digital, self-printed and so on. Digital and hybrid readers should have the option of buying e-books in-store, and budding authors should have access to self-printing book machines. The latter have been slower to take off in Britain, but in America bookstores are finding them to be an important source of revenue. “The quality is now almost identical to that of a book printed by a major publishing house,” says Bradley Graham, owner of a leading independent bookstore in Washington, DC, called Politics & Prose. His shop leases an Espresso Book Machine and makes it available to customers.

Maybe none of those things will work. But no one else seems to have a surefire answer, either.

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Ezra Klein · February 28, 2013