Dear Mr. Daunt:
I was excited to read that you will be taking the helm of Barnes & Noble when its acquisition by Elliott Advisors is completed later this year. I hope you can help this great retailer, much as you did U.K.’s Waterstones bookstore chain.
Do you mind some advice? For some time, I’ve been bumping around the publishing world as a reader, author, and freelance editor. My window on that world might be narrow, but it still offers a decent view. Here are some things I’d love to see happen as you strive to make B&N the go-to bookstore for millions of Americans:
1. Sell books. I know that seems obvious, but sometimes when I go into a U.S. bookstore, I feel as if I’m in Tchotchkes & Games R Us. Don’t get me wrong—I like the displays of toys and gewgaws, but they take up an awful lot of store real estate. One of the things I loved when visiting London bookstores (Foyles in particular) was the sense of being surrounded by so many books. Books everywhere! You couldn’t help but want to buy some.
2. Advertise your wares. It amazes me that the book industry, which is part of the entertainment industry in terms of competition for similar dollars, does very little advertising. While we’re all bombarded with messages urging us to see this movie or that streaming series, we rarely see anything urging us to lose ourselves in a written story. Selling books is hard. Selling them with little to no paid advertising is even harder, and, I believe, a remnant of a previous century’s thinking about how books should be promoted.
3. Advertise the bookstore experience. Going to a bookstore is different than going to a clothing store, hardware store, grocery store, or other stores. You’re not always looking for something specific. You might just have a vague idea, in fact, of what you want. While other kinds of shopping can seem frenetic, book shopping can be calming and restorative. Remind your customers of this in paid ads, maybe even featuring celebrities who’ve made some books popular—Oprah Winfrey or Reese Witherspoon, for example.
4. Help readers find books. I don’t just mean having helpful staff. I mean finding ways to get the books customers want into their hands as quickly as possible, even maybe as quickly as that e-tail behemoth, whose name rhymes with schmamazon, does. Look at ways to get a book into the store for a customer in 24 hours. Look for ways to use print-on-demand technology for backlist items and classics. If people want a book quickly, make Barnes & Noble the store where they can get it faster than from anywhere else.
5. Mix things up. The book industry is now divided into some pretty rigid categories; these categories can help readers find what they want, but they can also stymie exploration. Even the romance genre has subcategories that could boggle readers’ minds if found in an SAT analogy question (“Steamy romance is to erotica as sweet romance is to...”). Those categories can be useful, but readers don’t always think in such strictly regimented terms. One of the delights of visiting a Daunt store in London was finding a section of it arranged by geographic region, which meant that Tolstoy novels were on the same shelves with guides to Russia, biographies of French painters were near Victor Hugo classics, etc. It was a wonderful way to showcase areas of interest for customers to explore further.
6. Recognize that writers are customers. Amazon realized this at the dawn of the e-reader revolution. They created a platform for authors to sell directly to customers without a gatekeeper publisher. Barnes & Noble was slower to see the value of this customer segment and to figure out how to help authors reach readers. (I will confess to bypassing its e-publishing outlet with some of my own self-published novels.) Look for ways to make the e-publishing experience easier and more attractive to authors. If you help them make money, you’ll make money, too.
Maybe you’ve thought of these ideas already, but if not, I hope they are helpful. Like readers and writers everywhere, I want bookstores such as Barnes & Noble to thrive. Good luck, Mr. Daunt, and welcome to America!
Libby Sternberg is a novelist and Edgar finalist whose romantic comedy Fire Me (published under the name Libby Malin) was recently bought for film.