Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Every Day I Hype the Book

I have to confess, I'd reached the point where I actually had started feeling sympathetic with Barnes & Noble. Haunted by the ghosts of Borders past -- it's hard to drive past any mid-size American shopping plaza without seeing the faceless hulk of one of their stores -- and realizing that, compared with the evil Amazon empire, B&N's market share was small. I'd become persuaded -- in part by a recent article from the New York Times --that perhaps yesterday's big-box Goliath was today's David, and might in fact be -- gulp! -- the "Bookstore's Last Stand."

But this morning, when I checked my e-mail and found yet another of the almost-daily promotional missives from B&N, I fell out of all sympathy. Under the dual headings of "Our Picks" and "The Books Readers are Talking About," I was treated to a virtual version of the same old Barnes & Noble bestsellers-first front table. Ken Follett, a name that always appears in 'all caps,' topped their list with Winter of the World, hyped as "a brilliant, page-turning epic from a master of the form." Fair enough, I thought at first, B&N has to make a living -- it's a business after all -- and scrolled downward. After a second "shelf" of bestsellers -- Sandra Brown, Joel Osteen, Salman Rushdie (I suppose he gets a pass), and the immortal 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging, there followed a few themed categories -- "New in Fiction," "Reads for Teens," "Best New Kids Books" (Lego Batman? Really?) The one that stuck out for me was "Discover Great New Writers" -- under which they offered Zadie Smith (why White Teeth and not NW?), Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and Mark Danielewski. All I can say is, if you haven't "discovered" these authors by now -- they've been writing for a collective 48 years -- I'm not sure you're actually much of a reader.  And, dismally, that's still who Barnes and Noble has in their sights -- people who are not actually, well, readers.  Maybe it's because their new CEO, William J. Lynch Jr., by his own account in the NYT article cited above, never sold a book in his life until 2009.  But I think it runs deeper than that.  Lynch is just the latest in a long line of bookstore chain management who don't, primarily, come from a book background, or realize that selling books isn't at all like selling shoes, cellphones, or sportswear.  Lynch, in the same article, happily declares that B&N is, in fact a "technology company." Ouch.

I began my post-college career as a bookseller, working the floor in the late great Yale Co-Op in New Haven, which we called, accurately, the "largest independent bookstore between New York and Boston." We carried 80,000 titles, more or less, and in those heady pre-internet days we did our own homework: we knew who'd just been on Oprah, which was the most anticipated cookbook of the season, and who'd just died.  And we had their books, or if we didn't, we'd nip over to the microfiche reader, check the Baker & Taylor inventory, and get it to you in three days. We sold books, as a manager at San Francisco's Books Inc. described it to me recently, "by hand." Of course, we also sold our share of bestsellers, but we didn't make the mistake of thinking that they were why most of our customers were there.

And then it started.  I'd moved on to grad school, but my friends in the bookstore trade -- Borders, as it happened -- saw the writing on the wall: those who really knew and loved books were passed over for promotion, while managers were hired from outside -- from TJ Maxx, PayLess Shoes, or Pier I Imports -- or trained in programs run by the chain's home office. Books, the gospel ran, were just like other retail products: have a lot of 'em, have the top brands and new products everyone is excited about, and they'll sell.  What matter if you misspell "Louise Erdrich" as "Erdich" and wrongly tell a customer you don't have any books by that author?  They probably really wanted Ken Follett, anyway.

So I'm officially out of sympathy with Barnes & Noble.  They haven't learned from the mistakes of the past, they're just repeating them frantically in hopes of a different outcome.  And, like most vendettas, mine has a personal element -- the old Yale Co-Op bookstore closed some time ago, and is now -- you guessed it -- a Barnes & Noble.

UPDATE JULY 9th 2013: Lynch is out. Many have blamed him for mismanaging the very part of B&N that he supposedly was best at managing: its Nook reader and digital products. But in the meantime, the retail stores are in free-fall ...

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