Barnes & Noble vs. the Browse/Discovery Model

Mpepper/ August 19, 2022/ Think Pieces

I have never, to my knowledge, had any of my books stocked in a Barnes & Noble. Not for lack of trying; I have contacted my local bookstores multiple times in hopes they would at least consider putting one of my books in a “local authors” section. (This is true of local indie stores, too.) I usually get very kind but meaningless feedback of the “we’ll see” sort, but follow-up attempts have always come to nothing.

Now, B&N is under fire because it has announced a new policy in which it will no longer stock… as many books as before? Basically, the store is saying it will reduce the hardcover orders* for new releases until those books have somehow proven themselves worthy of shelf space. Like, B&N wants to make sure there is demand for books before bothering to go through the whole order-sell-remainder-return process.

It makes sense to some extent. More and more there is a focus in movies and other content-creation industries on the “sure thing” and the “safe bet.” Why stock something that may not sell when you can give that premium shelf space to books you know people will be looking to buy? Known authors and titles, the stuff that’s hot on TikTok or whatever social media is dictating our tastes this week? From a business perspective, it’s a solid strategy. Sell people what you know they want, what they say they want—the stuff that, historically, has made money for all involved. The stuff with built-in audiences ready and waiting to spend.

But (and I’ve said it before), the result of this is a bunch of the same kind of content being produced and marketed over and over until everything is more or less more of the same. Movies—and, if bookstores follow this new plan, books too—are starting to look and sound the same, blurs of color and sound and quick edits, and not very interesting. It’s like a pizza buffet. I like pizza, and there are a lot of options for toppings, but sometimes you want something else entirely. Not even fast food, but a nice steak, or maybe Japanese, or… Well, you get my drift.

The chief problem with B&N narrowing their selection is that authors’ chances for discovery go to basically nil. I’ve written about this before, too, but for those of you who are new here (welcome!), I’ll reiterate. Amazon is where people who know the book and/or author they are looking for go to buy. Though Amazon attempts to suggest similar titles or whatever, people don’t really go there to browse. That happens in bookstores and libraries. Those are the places new, or mid-list, or just lesser known in general authors need to be in order for readers to find them.

It’s never been easy for indie authors like me to get into libraries and bookstores. But authors with solid publishers behind them have a reasonable expectation of having their books stocked there. In fact, that is one of the big reasons so many authors want an agent and “big” publisher—they want that marketing and publicity support that will make their book more discoverable.

Now, though, the marketing department will have to narrow down who to spend money on and support in that way. No sense in doing it for an author or book that the stores don’t want to carry, right? The big names will get more opportunities, and the rest will have to hope for a miracle. Or they will have to do what we indie authors do and go knocking on doors themselves, hoping for even a spot on a shelf in the back somewhere so that maybe just one reader—the right one—will find us and our work.

It’s a weird time to be a content creator. In some ways, it’s easier than ever as access to publishing platforms, filmmaking equipment and software, etc. is increasingly widespread. However, the opportunities to make a film or publish a book in more traditional ways—with the backing of agents, studios, publishers, and other professionals—are actually more limited. The industries are ever more narrow minded and limited in scope. They are risk averse, focusing more on profits than on putting out anything interesting or new. And it seems bookstores feel the same. B&N thinks that in order to compete with Amazon it needs to be more like Amazon, which means making the big titles easy to find and buy and not worrying about the little guys. (Indie bookstores, too, tend to give a fair amount of space to known titles that they hope will lure in customers—at least where I live, anyway.) In reality, the best thing B&N could do would be to differentiate itself by saying, “Sure, go buy the latest big title from Amazon, but look at all the wonderful, interesting treasures we’ve stockpiled here for you to find!” Wouldn’t you love to visit a store like that? Too bad there aren’t any.

* Why is the “hardcover order” thing so important? Because most publishers put out hardcover books for the first year before moving a title to paperback. That means success for an author is often dependent on hardcover sales. But if the bookstore isn’t stocking your hardcover book…

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