Barnes & Noble, Inc Founder to Retire

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Leonard S. Riggio

This month, Leonard Riggio, Founder and Executive Chairman on Barnes and Noble, Inc will retire, though “he has no plans to sell his stock” according to the New York Times which announced Riggio’s plans to retire in April. The onetime college bookseller, who dropped out of New York University where he worked in the book store to pay his tuition, led the nationalization of book retailers when he bought the single Barnes and Noble store left after a prior period of mismanagement in 1971.

Through the ’70s and early ’90s, Riggio oversaw the expansion of the book store’s business by, among other things, discounting New York Times bestsellers for up to 40%.   And–like Amazon, the online marketplace for books that opened in 1994 and grew to challenge not only traditional book selling, but the publishing industry as well, by offering deep discounts on books–Riggio weathered fierce criticism for sucking the soul out of the bookstore experience. Also like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Riggio argues that the critiques leveled against his business were unfair and ill-informed.

“Our bookstores were designed to be welcoming as opposed to intimidating,” Riggio told the Times. “These weren’t elitist places. You could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit down and read a book for as long as you like, use the restroom. These were innovations that we had that no one thought was possible.” He added, “They would say, ‘You’re homogenizing bookselling,’ which was ridiculous because we were carrying 5,000 to 10,000 more titles than would be in a typical bookstore.”

Under Riggio’s leadership, as well as, in recent years, a revolving door cast of CEOs, Barnes and Noble has steadily lost the innovation fight with Amazon which is now the biggest online marketplace for books. But despite waves of store closings, and contentions with Amazon and battles with publishers along the way, the retailer continues to survive. While similar national chains like Borders Books have shuttered, B&N still has close to 650 stores across the U.S.

Riggio, who will retain a seat on the board, remains hopeful of his book store’s survival. And he has some right to be.

In spite of fierce competition from Amazon, independent bookstores have made a comeback with membership in the American Booksellers Association rising for the seventh consecutive year after a 10-year period of decline. Book sales are also rising, according to the AP.  Perhaps, under a new Executive, Barnes and Noble will explore fresh ways to capitalize on its physicality in an increasingly isolating digital retail experience.

“We’ll continue to be the best bookseller we can be,” Riggio told the Times.

We’ll see.

Amazon Opens Brick and Mortar Bookstore

Amazon.com logoToday, Amazon opened its first physical bookstore — not to be confused with its first store, a pick-up and drop-off location at Purdue University — in Seattle’s University Village. In an attempt to distinguish itself from the traditional bookstore experience, the shelves will be stocked partially based on data the etailer gleans from its online customers.

According to The Seattle Times, Amazon’s physical location will carry books with the highest Amazon ratings, and organize the sections based on ratings and wish listed items, for example: “Most Wished-For Cookbooks” and “Award Winners, 4.5 Stars & Above, Age 6-12.” Additionally, each book will face out so browsing customers can instantly connect with the cover. Below each book will be a review card that contains reviews written by online customers as well as its star rating.

Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, said of the choice to use data to inform the Amazon bookstore experience, “It’s data with heart. We’re taking the data we have and we’re creating physical places with it.”

Barnes and Noble's Struggles Continue, But Their Education Division Offers Hope

Barnes and Noble, booksellers since 1873 - peoplewhowriteYesterday, the ailing bookseller’s stock fell almost 28% as stockholders rushed to dump their shares. The selloff was in response to Barnes and Noble’s report of a projected 1.7% decline in fiscal 2016 first quarter sales, through August 1st.

The bad news notwithstanding, there are some glimmers of hope. “‘Core’ Nook-free sales inched up 1 percent, and same-store sales rose 1.1 percent” and Barnes and Noble Education, which spun off into an independent company August 2, 2014, reported a 5.9% uptick in sales. (It bears noting that Amazon, B&N’s primary competitor, has entered the education space by opening its first brick and mortar location at Purdue University.)

As writers, this news is relevant because Barnes and Noble and other bookstores offer us a physical space to connect with readers at signings. Bookstores, Barnes and Noble among the biggest of these retailers, also enable readers to discover and have a tactile experience with our work. With no or fewer bookstores, as I wrote in a 2013 post “What Will the World Look Like Without Barnes & Noble?” authors will face even more competition to get on surviving bookstore shelves and reading/signing calendars. We may also see indie bookstores “behaving as Barnes and Noble does now — prioritizing marquee and celebrity authors over new and emerging literary talent.”

While the internet offers a preponderance of venues for digitally savvy authors to market their work, from Facebook to Wattpad, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my experience promoting my first book Powder Necklace is that online interaction simply isn’t enough. While Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts definitely reach more people more easily, they work best when they are amplifying what’s happening (or has happened) face to face.

For all of Amazon’s power, bestselling authors like Tim Ferris could not match their previous success when Barnes and Noble refused to carry their books. When B&N reduced their orders of Simon and Schuster titles in response to their perception that S&S was getting too cozy with Amazon, authors’ book sales suffered. And when Walmart, Target and J.C. Penney all announced they were discontinuing their Paula Deen business after the cookbook queen was outed for using the “N” word, Random House yanked her book deal. Barnes and Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon Publishing titles may have caused the internet retailer to shift its focus from the U.S. to Europe.

The point is, as authors, whatever happens to one of the biggest physical retailers of books, happens to us. We need to figure out how to staunch Barnes and Noble’s bleeding even as we determine how to work with Amazon to our advantage, all while working to develop independent retail systems that better benefit us and our work.

UK Goodreads Members Can Now Access Recommendations via Kindle

Amazon, which bought book recommendation site Goodreads in March 2013, is now integrating Goodreads functions into the Kindle and all other Amazon e-reader and tablet devices in the UK. Quoting Goo dreads CEO Otis Chandler, TheBookseller.com shared: “The UK is the largest market for Goodreads in Europe and bringing Goodreads onto Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets has been one of the most popular requests from our members.” Last April, Amazon enabled US Goodreads users to “add both print and Kindle books purchased on Amazon to their Goodreads accounts”. In November 2014, Goodreads announced, via their blog, that users in North America and Australia could also share progress updates via Kindle.

It’s not clear why the integration is rolling out so slowly, one or two countries at a time, but I’m guessing it has something to do with European resistance to the e-tail behemoth. In March 2013, then-French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti announced she was putting a €5m fund in place to subsidize booksellers with cash-flow problems and support them against costly litigation, blaming Amazon for destroying bookshops. In April 2013, indie booksellers in the UK petitioned Prime Minister David Cameron to force Amazon to pay UK taxes. (The online bookseller is said to report its European sales through a Luxembourg-based unit so it does not have to pay UK taxes.) In September 2014, Swedish publishing conglomerate Bonnier joined Japanese publishers in expressing frustration with Amazon too, saying they were being bullied into disadvantageous pricing models.

Though American laws and its judicial process have been relatively supportive of Amazon’s ventures, even as former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was named Amazon’s Senior Vice President for Worldwide Corporate Affairs in March 2015, the company’s bruising and costly battle with Hachette Book Group over e-book pricing caused a cadre of influential writers including Nora Roberts, Malcolm Gladwell and John Grisham to form Authors United and led Stephen Colbert to challenge viewers of his show to boycott Amazon and purchase books from indie bookseller Powells instead.

In spite of the multilateral resistance, Amazon continues to expand its international borders and corporate portfolio. The retailer, for which books are just a fraction of its business, has successfully ventured into entertainment with its acclaimed series Transparent winning a 2015 Golden Globe. When Amazon acquired Goodreads in March 2013, the social book recommendation platform boasted 13 million members. Today, Goodreads has 40 million members.

Self-Publishing Pioneer Says Amazon is Directing Customers Away from Her Books

Tina Engler, founder of erotic literature publishing company Ellora's Cave, believes Amazon is responsible for her declining sales revenue - peoplewhowrite

Tina Engler, aka Jaid Black, founded erotic literature publishing company Ellora’s Cave in 2000. By 2012, she was earning $10 million a year.

By 2012, Tina Engler was making upwards of $10 million a year in sales of titles published by her erotic literature imprint Ellora’s Cave. “But in 2013,” New York Magazine reports, “revenue dropped by more than $2 million, a trend that continued in 2014 and seems destined to continue this year.” Engler, who goes by the pseudonym Jaid Black, believes Amazon is the reason her year-over-year profits are falling.

“Without them, I never could’ve risen to the heights that I did,” she acknowledges of the e-tailer which is responsible for the bulk of her sales earnings. But, now, she says, Amazon has started delivering search results that directly compete with Ellora’s Cave titles “offering similar works by other authors, many of whom self-publish via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), at free or discounted rates—even when customers search specifically for one of her company’s books.”

Engler’s claims echo the complaints Hachette leveled against the e-commerce company last year in their protracted battle over e-book pricing. The standoff has since been resolved, but while new deals between publishers like Hachette and Simon and Schuster are reportedly “economically advantageous” the problem remains for writers and publishers who rely on one retailer to distribute their books.

In the first years of Ellora’s Cave, Engler digitally released the books herself for $4 or $5 apiece, accepting payment via PayPal, and individually emailing customers files. Her main marketing strategy at the time involved posting positive reviews of her own work on Amazon and similar sites. “Engler estimates that she made $40,000 after the first year, and come 2003, revenue was up to $1 million.” Considering her declining revenue and tense relationship with Amazon which declined to comment for the New York Magazine story, Engler is considering “new ways to create income for Ellora’s…that don’t involve Amazon.”

Former White House Press Secretary Heads to Amazon

Jay Carney, former White House Press Secretary, is now Amazon's SVP Worldwide Corporate Affairs - peoplewhowrite

Jay Carney

Today is Jay Carney’s first day at Amazon where he will fill the newly created post of Senior Vice President for Worldwide Corporate Affairs. Politico.com reports, “The new position brings the e-commerce giant’s worldwide public relations and public policy shops into one department under Carney. He’ll split his time between Seattle HQ and the D.C. office, where Amazon veteran Paul Misener will continue to run the company’s lobbying efforts.” The former White House Press Secretary who succeeded Obama’s first PR man Robert Gibbs in 2011 and served in the position for close to three and a half years went on to a Senior Political Analyst role on CNN before making the exit to Amazon.

The New York Times points to a growing trend of high-profile D.C. insiders migrating to the tech sector:

Technology companies are pouring money into lobbying as the industry seeks to extend its influence, and brand-name figures are signing up to lead the efforts.

Uber, the fast-growing ride-hailing service, hired David Plouffe, who ran Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign. Susan Molinari, a former congresswoman, runs Google’s lobbying shop. Mark Penn, a veteran of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaigns, is at Microsoft. Lisa Jackson, Mr. Obama’s former Environmental Protection Agency chief, works for Apple. Last year, Apple reportedly considered Mr. Carney for a senior post.

Amazon Opens Brick and Mortar Location, Might Buy RadioShack Stores

Amazon's new physical college bookstore at Purdue University_peoplewhowriteAmazon has opened its first physical store, CNN reports. “Amazon has experimented with physical locations before, placing lockers in stores across the country,” the piece makes clear, but this “pickup and drop-off location on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana” seems to be part of a strategy to open physical retail locations around the country. (This Bloomberg report says Amazon “has discussed acquiring some RadioShack Corp. locations after the electronics chain files for bankruptcy…”)

The move puts Barnes and Noble’s college bookstore business on the defensive. Less than a year ago, the bookseller, which is reportedly the second largest operator of college bookstores, announced a plan to expand its presence on campuses. This after more than two years of challenges to Barnes and Noble’s core business.

In December 2014, the bookstore bought Microsoft out of its stake in the Nook amidst news the e-reader’s value to business had halved. In January 2013, Publishers Weekly reported that Barnes and Noble had chosen to reduce orders of Simon and Schuster titles in alleged retaliation for “not adequately supporting them”, presumably, in their standoff with Amazon which has steadily been eroding their market share to become the primary destination to buy books. Six months later, the company’s then CEO resigned. Throughout, the bookstore has announced store closings even as sales and foot traffic decline.

The bruising news notwithstanding, the embattled bookseller has had a few wins. They refused to carry print books published by Amazon, forcing the nation’s largest e-tailer to focus their print business in Europe. They have a new CEO, Michael Huseby, and they’re still standing. (Can’t say the same for Borders.)

Hollywood Embraces Amazon

Amazon.com logoAmazon has struggled to successfully break an author through its publishing division, but with a Golden Globe win for its critically-acclaimed series Transparent (available to Amazon Prime subscribers) — and news that Woody Allen is creating a new half-hour TV series (the auteur’s first) for its instant video offerings — the e-tailer is building a reputation as a home for A-list video content a la Netflix. Perhaps the e-tailer’s revolution on the delivery and consumption of content will be televised.

Veteran Editor Makes a Case for Publishing's Pros

Daniel Menaker - peoplewhowrite

Daniel Menaker

UPDATE: Chris Hughes is selling The New Republic. Four years after buying the magazine’s majority stake, followed by a mass exodus of key staffers, Hughes admitted in a open letter to staffers on Medium.com that he “underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.”

Random House’s onetime Editor-in-Chief Daniel Menaker has written a strong argument in support of publishing’s need for professionals on Slate.com. In the piece, Menaker goes straight after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and New Republic‘s Chris Hughes, writing:

I can’t help suspecting that whether they consciously know it or not, people like Jeff Bezos and the New Republic’s Chris Hughes want some of that [cultural hero status ascribed to those who, by good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing, have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both]. Well, they can’t have it.

Likening them to “patrons of old”, Menaker adds: 

…they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

(More darkly and Freudianly still, since they can’t have it, maybe they want to kill it.)

Menaker also deals with those who argue that publishing’s elite (publishers, editors, traditionally published bestselling authors, and some readers) are the only ones mad at Amazon’s perceived efforts to open the industry gates to include more aspiring writers and offer readers a greater breadth of choice:

They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books. One of the loudest voices in this group denunciation belongs to Barry Eisler, a self-published author who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

This is simply not true. Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s—Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler—they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better.

Menaker’s points are well-taken, and true to a large extent.

In spite of Amazon’s work to woo writers from publishers via their agents with transparency through easy to read sales dashboards and big advances / monthly royalty checks, there has never been any indication that they truly care about good literature or know what it is. They’ve hired the right people, published some high profile names, and launched a contest, but their “everything store” branding and democratic ratings and reviews-based algorithm never felt congruent with the sadomasochistic nature of the publishing business in which, for most writers, an editor’s validating (and exclusive) pat is the only salve that can staunch the steady drip of literary insecurity. The irony is, many scribes like the exclusionary model of the current publishing industry because, if they are able to squeeze through the needle’s eye of publisher approval, they feel good enough, smart enough, like, gosh darn it, people like their work.

That desperate truth in mind, Amazon was still able to unsettle this Stockholm syndrome relationship by looking ahead.

Every industry was slow to understand the role social and digital media, and the internet would/could play in extending businesses and individual brands, but traditional publishing was among the slowest — ceding ground to start-ups and other entrepreneurial players as a result. While publishing personnel had become content with the painful poetry of life in the industry of letters — Menaker recounts “email after email studded with forlornly cheerful exclamation marks, years between signed contracts and on-sale dates, almost funereal editorial and marketing meetings, book fairs held in hangars filled with unbounded enthusiasm almost indistinguishable from desperation…” and “endless chicken-salad-and-Diet-Coke lunches that end with almost-sure-to-go-unread books being exchanged” — inventors and investors were introducing and funding social reading and writing platforms like Goodreads and Wattpad, recommendation apps like BookShout, ereaders like the Kindle and iPad, and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd. Many of these upstarts, crashed and burned (R.I.P Sony Reader), but they acted as breadcrumbs, opening readers up to new experiences and possibilities — and leaving traditional publishing scrambling to compete.

Obviously, technological innovation, in and of itself is not enough. For example, algorithms have yet to take the place of a friend’s book recommendation. Amazon alum Jason Merkoski, who was part of the team that built the first Kindle, admitted: “When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.”

Rather, what’s clear is a need for synergy between online capacities and on-the-ground efforts. Case in point: without the brick and mortar support of Barnes and Noble, Amazon Publishing titles have failed to break through. Innovation, together with the passion Menaker ascribes to publishing’s soldiers, is necessary to the industry’s survival.

Menaker sums up his salvo by asserting the need for professionals to guide the publishing industry — no matter what incarnation the in flux industry ultimately takes. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves,” he says, “to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

I would argue that addition, not necessarily replacement, is the way forward. Publishing companies need strong business development teams devoted to seeking out innovators and partnership opportunities that place and keep them in the position to lead industry conversation and evolution. Editors, marketers, sales staff and others need to be empowered to nimbly experiment. Authors need to be brought to the table, rather than coddled and cosseted like talent. And all the players, from publishing companies to bookstores to literary prizes need to be working together to mutual benefit. In other words, the gatekeepers need to tear down the gate themselves, and, with the help of some that might have been peeking in from the outside, rebuild it.

Children's & YA Books Dominate Amazon's Best Sellers of 2014

Top 6 Best Selling Books of 2014 via Amazon_peoplewhowrite2014 was a good year for publishers of classic children’s books and YA series. Of Amazon’s list of the best selling books of 2014, just 18 books intended for adult readers cracked the top 40. Of those that did, the bulk were SAT/ACT/college prep books and classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Alchemist. Meanwhile a children’s reader inspired by the blockbuster film Frozen, John Green’s tender tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, and installments of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series were among the titles Amazon customers couldn’t get enough of.

A months long standoff between Amazon and publisher Hachette that resulted in delayed delivery and unavailability did not seem to affect demand for print titles of Hachette’s Wimpy Kid, The Heroes of OlympusTo Kill A Mockingbird, Gone Girl, or Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch, which were among the e-tailer’s top 20 best sellers of the year. Proving recent findings that young people prefer print books to digital versions, 75% of Amazon’s list of Kindle best sellers featured books for adult audiences.

Interestingly, only three titles that made the books list’s top 20 were published in 2014: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul; The Heroes of Olympus Book Five; and Killing Patton which was co-written by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. On the Kindle list, six of the top 20 were released this year, which may point to adult readers’ desire not to add more  books to their print collections, or bolster the theory that the e-book is the new paperback, with readers preferring to invest less in certain genres e.g. romance and detective dramas.

Goodreads, which Amazon now owns, has posted a list of the most popular books published in 2014. Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire sits at the top, though it is #99 on Amazon’s books breakdown and #50 on the Kindle list.