My Field Trip to Barnes & Noble
Last evening, I had to purchase a professional reference book that wasn’t available on Kindle, so I went to visit my local Barnes & Noble. But I didn’t just grab the book and run, because in addition to holding my day job, I’m an author. (Specifically, an author who has just finished a first novel).
It had been awhile since I’d been inside a B&N. Like many others in the industry, I’m a little obsessed about the future of book retailing. Can B&N survive? How long does it have left? Do brick and mortar stores really enhance discoverability? Should I focus my novel submissions on those publishers who can get me into brick and mortar stores?
So, with those questions in mind, I strolled around the place. Took (mental) notes and a photograph or two. Here ‘s what I took away from my visit.
Observation #1: The inescapable Nook display at the entrance of the store is still there, but it was no longer staffed. Granted, I visited on a Monday evening, so that might have had something to do with it. Hell, maybe the guy (or gal…but whenever I visited it was a guy) just called in sick. But, in any event, I was a little relieved to see the Nook display wasn’t equipped with a Nook-pusher. Sometimes they can be a little hard-sell.
Observation #2: I paid close attention to the amount of shelf space devoted to adult prose fiction. (And by “adult prose fiction”, I don’t mean erotica, but simply fiction for grown-ups. The kind of stuff I write; fiction not shelved in the — massive — children’s section, teen section, graphic novel or manga sections). Obviously, I couldn’t get out measuring tape and obtain a precise measurement of the percent of floor space devoted to adult fiction. But my rough estimate was somewhere in the neighborhood of just 25% (and that might even be on the generous side). There was a huge music and movie section (that had absolutely no customers in it, when I visited), and a huge children’s section. There were massive non-fiction sections. They still had a significant amount of shelf space devoted to magazines. Toys and games intruded quite a bit, too.
This makes sense. When C.E.O. Michael P. Huseby, reported B&N’s holiday sales numbers, he attributed the (relatively) stable brick-and-mortar sales to (among other things) “strong increases in our Juvenile, Gift and Toys & Games categories”.
The take-away here is that for a national brick-and-mortar book store to keep its head above water, it will have to stop trying to sell so many…well…BOOKS and start selling…well…CRAP! This isn’t just a trend at B&N. I also have noticed it when I’ve taken similar field trips to my local Books-a-Million store. If I recall correctly, they may have had slightly more floor space devoted to adult prose fiction, but were also integrating a vast array of toy, game, and novelty products. (Including lots of obnoxious Duck Dynasty products). In fact, if you’ve been observing closely, you’ve already seen that Books-a-Million is engaged in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) rebranding of itself as BAM! and touting toys and electronics, not just books, in their logo.
I want to emphasize this, because I think this is probably one of the most under-reported aspects of changes in bricks-and-mortar bookselling. The big question is not: “Can B&N survive?”. The question is: “What direction is B&N’s adult prose fiction shelf space going, up or down?” A B&N that survives, but only as a result of steadily decreasing the shelf space devoted to adult prose fiction titles is little better than a dead B&N, for an author like me.
Observation #3: I write
dark fiction, I mean weird fiction, I mean thrillers, I mean horror, and B&N isn’t exactly friendly to my genre. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Many bricks-and-mortar stores chucked their horror sections after the bust of the horror boom, in the ’90s. But, since it’s my genre, I think it’s a legit gripe. I think it’s also important to mention, because it gets to the heart of the debate over one of the advantages bricks-and-mortar stores allege to hold over online retailers: discoverability.
If I’m a horror reader going to visit my local B&N, I’ll find…
And, most confusing of all…
The novelization of The Lords of Salem and a handful of horror anthologies in…of all places…the Westerns section! (Alongside conservative commentator Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues , Amy Hempel’s New Stories from the South , and…erotica titles. Note: I posted this photo on Facebook earlier, and a bookseller friend of mine commented that what I was seeing was likely the end of the African American fiction section, followed by the anthology section, and then the Westerns section underneath. And, to be fair, I do remember seeing some actual Westerns on the lower shelves of the Westerns section. But it is confusing. And it still doesn’t explain the shelving of The Lords of Salem — apparently someone (customer or staff) thought it belonged there.
This same friend commented that Amazon had miscategorized his horror title as erotic fiction. So, yes, those mistakes don’t just happen at B&N. But at least he was able to catch the mistake and fix it. Here, though, we have a shelving scheme that by design scatters my genre’s titles throughout the store. And, short of a decision by corporate bigwigs, there likely is no fixing it.
Obviously, the conclusions that can be drawn from this little field trip are limited by the fact that we’re dealing with a sample size of one. This isn’t going to convince me to ignore traditional New York publishing as a possible career strategy. But it is another data point.