With publishers large and small fixated on what will happen to Borders, the news last week that Barnes & Noble had reorganized its buying group and in the process laid off a number of veteran booksellers, including v-p of merchandising Bob Wietrak and Marcella Smith, director of small press and vendor relations, came as a surprise. Publishers were waiting last week to hear from B&N about how the duties of those let go—reports said about 50 jobs were eliminated—will be divided up.
The dismissal of Smith was disappointing for many independent publishers, who regarded her as their champion within B&N and wondered whether the company's commitment to small presses will now decline. Smith's departure, said Florrie Kichler, president of the IBPA, "is a tough blow. She was a tremendous advocate for small presses." Kichler said Smith's influence went beyond buying. "She was an educational resource," Kichler said, noting that Smith helped hundreds of publishers change covers and make other adjustments that enabled books to succeed in the marketplace.
B&N's action stung small presses all the more because the retailer had surpassed Borders as an important outlet for their titles. "Borders has not been a significant part of our sales for some time," Fred Ramey, publisher of Unbridled Books, said. "But Barnes & Noble has remained an important element in our distribution." Ramey added, "We valued the fact that Barnes & Noble even had a director of small press relations," but observed that Smith's departure "certainly implies a lessened commitment on their part to what arrives from beyond the hallways of the conglomerates."
Most presses were withholding final judgment about the impact of the B&N restructuring until they hear how the chain intends to support them in the future. "Marcella has been a fantastic ally for indie presses and it's very sad that she won't be there for us anymore, but at the same time, B&N's commitment to indie presses goes a lot deeper than just one person," said Johnny Temple, president of Akashic. There was a consensus, however, that with the B&N changes and the downsizing of Borders, there will be less shelf space for indie titles at the chains. One president of a small press said he envisions a trickle-down effect—B&N will treat indies like Borders had while Borders will treat those presses like Books-A-Million. With fewer people to do more work, he feared both chains would adopt a cookie cutter approach to dealing with most indie houses. There was also a feeling that, while B&N still has lots of solid book people, the cuts in buyers in general may mean B&N will lessen its commitment to selling books through its stores.
Compounding the loss of Smith for indie houses is that some, if not all, of B&N's regional buyers were let go, and with many indie houses specializing in regional titles, the loss of those buyers reduces another avenue small presses had to get into B&N. Staff reductions at both B&N and Borders will "just make it that much harder for small presses to get attention," the head of one press said.
With shelf space at the chains almost certain to shrink, the importance of selling through special markets and other alternative channels has never been more important, indies agreed. "We always tell our members not to rely on one outlet for their sales," Kichler said. "[Smith's departure] is another example of why that is good advice." And as important as the chains can be to indies, the fact is that all publishers have a lot more selling options than they did 20 years ago, Kichler noted.