A Couple of Big Crazy Ideas to Save Barnes and Noble

First of all, let me just say: I adore Barnes & Noble.

I worked as a B&N bookseller all throughout high school and college, shelving all sorts of crazy new books and setting aside the most interesting titles for myself. I probably spent at least half of my meager bookselling wages buying employee-discounted books. On my lunch breaks, I would borrow a book from the shelf and read while I ate Chinese takeout from the food court down at the other end of the mall.

My parents taught me to enjoy reading, but Barnes & Noble is where I fed that passion, and it has always been a special place for me.

And so it pains me to see the company languishing.

Just this afternoon, I got an email from the Barnes & Noble “PubIt” program (the company’s self-publishing service)…


I stared at this message for a long time, thinking about what must be going on at Barnes & Noble headquarters right about now. Amazon has spent the past few years not just building an ebook store but really truly building a platform for independent authors. And it’s only been a few days — just over the weekend really — since Goodreads announced that it would be joining the Amazon family. In the wake of that kind of acquisition, what could Barnes & Noble possibly scratch together that might make a real difference to the self-publishing landscape?

I’d like to be optimistic. I’d like to think that somebody at Barnes & Noble has a game-changing vision for the company or the industry. I’d love to see some bold new plan breathe life into the company. But I can’t help wondering whether my favorite bookstore will squander its last real chance at survival with some half-assed, Johnny-come-lately rehash of an Amazon strategy from three years ago. Is the company poised to announce a new print-on-demand service? A social network for readers and authors? A partnership with one of the “indie” imprints of the Big Six publishers?

I’m not optimistic about the upcoming announcement — nothing innovative has happened at Barnes & Noble since they tried putting a Starbucks inside a bookstore — but as I sat this afternoon ponding this vague message, I thought about all the possibilities. What kinds of ideas might truly change the tides for B&N?

Here’s what I came up with:

Author-Branded Book Clubs

The most influential person in the publishing industry is, without question, Oprah Winfrey.

Think about that for a second… She’s not an author or an editor, or even an agent. She doesn’t even work for a publisher. And yet still, after more than 15 years, there is no better way to create a bestselling book than to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. The publishing industry never really learned how to take this kind of publicity machine and duplicate it, so the major publishers all relied on Oprah to do their promotional work for them.

But what if Barnes & Noble commoditized this phenomenon and offered it directly to authors?

A few years ago, when I finished reading The Gone Away World, I was so transfixed by the book that I immediately went out looking for more Nick Harkaway books to read. But Angelmaker hadn’t been released yet, so I had to find something else.

But what if there had been a Nick Harkaway Book Club? Maybe featuring a monthly or quarterly pick chosen by Nick Harkaway himself? Some of his own favorite books, by a few of his own favorite lesser-known authors?

If such a thing existed, I would have signed up for it immediately.

I’m sure plenty of people would likewise have signed up for the Elizabeth Gilbert Book Club after finishing Eat, Pray, Love or the Jon Krakauer Book Club after reading Into Thin Air.

Now imagine that every author made a list of their favorite books and promoted those books to their own readers. And what if authors could earn a small commission — maybe just 10% — whenever one of their readers joined the book club and bought the book?

If the commission structure was well-designed (with higher commission rates for less-popular books), then authors themselves would act as the gatekeepers for other authors. The high-power A-list authors would recommend books by up-and-coming B-list authors, and the B-list authors would sift through the ranks of newcomers to find the breakout hits. Some authors might become just as well-known for their ability to find new talent as for their ability to write great prose.

A system like this would create a natural ladder for authors to climb, and it would give indies a real chance to be noticed (since other authors would actively seek them out). The biggest problem facing indie authors today is the difficulty building an audience, and there are very few tools we can use to climb up from total obscurity, so it would be wonderful if we could enlist and incentivize our most avid readers (authors!) to be the new gatekeepers.

Shelf Space for Indies

Shelf space is the most valuable asset Barnes & Noble owns. With about 1300 retail locations (689 of their own stores, plus 667 college bookstores), there is no other company in the English-speaking world that can put books directly in the hands of so many readers.

But what have they been doing with that shelf space? More and more, they’ve been selling toys and board games and calendars and greeting cards. That might be okay for short-term profits, but it undermines B&N’s identity as a bookstore and blurs the distinction between other impulse-oriented retailers. And I can buy all just junky board games for less online than in B&N’s stores anyhow. It’s a losing proposition and a waste of shelf-space no matter how you look at it.

At the same time, indie authors are absolutely yearning for that shelf-space. Even with great reviews and lots of publicity, it’s still hard to attract readers without physical books on a physical shelf. It won’t be that way forever, but that’s still where we’re at in 2013.

But what if B&N could dedicate some shelf-space exclusively to indie books? Maybe one bookcase, next to the “Staff Picks” shelf… Maybe something like this:

Barnes & Noble Bookshelf Face Out

You can fit 42 trade paperbacks facing out on a shelf like that, with five to seven copies of each book, depending on their page count. If you had a shelf like this in every one of B&N’s 689 stores (ignoring their college bookstores entirely), then you could have 28,938 face-outs.

And they wouldn’t have to put the same books in every store. They could choose the top 1000 best-selling indie ebooks from the NOOK platform and select them for print distribution. The most popular books would get wider distribution than the slightly less popular books. The scheme could look something like this:

901 — 1000111,100
801 — 900151,500
701 — 800191,900
601 — 700232,300
501 — 600272,700
401 — 500313,100
301 — 400353,500
201 — 300393,900
101 — 200434,300
1 — 100474,700

So if my ebook was ranked #1000 in the NOOK store for April 2013, then I could expect my book to be distributed and faced-out (5 to 7 copies per store!) on the “Indie” shelf at 11 different B&N locations. But if my book was ranked in the top 100, then it would be featured at 47 different B&N locations.

While we’re at it, let’s add one of those big display tables up at the front of the store:

Barnes & Noble Display Table

Each table holds about 50 stacks of books, so we’ll take the top 100 bestselling indie books and distribute each of them to about 350 different stores.

I would love to have that kind of exposure. And there’s nobody else who can possible provide it. Amazon certainly couldn’t do anything like that.

But what good would it do anyhow? I’m sure some of the people reading this right now would shrug their shoulders and say “who cares about a bunch of self-published books anyhow?”

And the answer is: authors.

If there’s one group of people who might be successfully enlisted into the fight to save the NOOK platform (and by extension, Barnes & Noble itself), it’s definitely authors. More and more authors are choosing indie publishing, and the trend will only continue as time marches on. If Barnes & Noble wants to thrive during the next era of publishing, then they need to create attractive incentives for authors. And a program like this would give authors the incentive they crave more than anything else: shelf space.


  1. Judith Erwin says:

    A world without Barnes and Noble is a world without sunshine for me. My drawer is always secreting away a gift certificate or two (saved for that extravagant purchase). My heart beats a little faster when my car points in that direction. Need I say more?

    I would propose to all those who love to browse the new books and periodicals that they make at least one purchase a month to boost the revenues and keep the brick and mortar stores open.

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