On Thursday, James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, gave the keynote address at the Independent Book Publishers Association's annual IBPA Publishing University, where he was in conversation with Karla Olson, publisher of Patagonia Books and IBPA chair. The conversation covered a range of subjects, from the impact of 2020's store closures due to Covid-19, the growing autonomy of individual B&N store managers, and how independent publishers can get their books into B&N.

Daunt began by reporting that as of today, "all Barnes & Nobel stores are opened." He emphasized that when the stores were closed last year the chain began to return the company's focus to stocking and selling books. He said the mix of books and non-book products, is 65% to 35%, something he wants to change. "I would like the percentage of books [as stock] to be 75%," Daunt said. "As soon as you approach 25% non-book items," Daunt said, "you should look long and hard" if additional items belong in a bookstore. He said the chain was especially keen to add more backlist, an area he admitted B&N had been neglecting.

Last year's retail pause also gave the company an opportunity to ""tear the stores apart," including throwing out old furniture and rethinking the merchandising, especially how the books are presented. "How do you arrange the history section, for example? Do you do it alphabetically by the author, as we have been doing, or chronologically, which is easier for the browser?"

He said that some of the changes were done to make the merchandising more visually appealing, which he felt would appeal to both shoppers and publishers. Another big change he emphasized was the buying and merchandising autonomy that has been granted to individual stores. "We trust booksellers to know what books will sell in their store, they can make their own decisions about what to buy and how to display it," he said. As a direct consequence of this decision, B&N is no longer taking co-op advertising from publishers. "You cannot do what we have done, giving so much responsibility to stores and charge for co-op, unfortunately. [The booksellers] will choose what they want to sell and where it will be on display. Nobody's paying for it to be there."

Now, individual stores will also be responsible for their own stock replenishment. The hope is that this move will help reduce returns, which are hovering at a 25% rate. "We know that there are boxes of books that get shipped to stores, get opened in the back and never get shelved because they just won't work in some stores.," Daunt said. He said the goal is to get the percentage of returns down to 10%, before "we will drive it down into the single digits."

Asked how IBPA members can get more books into B&N, he was circumspect. "Talking to booksellers in stores is always practical and enjoyable," he said, noting with a caveat that "we need to be able to get books relatively easily and it is best to talk to someone who knows how to do that." Daunt mentioned working with Ingram specifically.

"The brutal truth is that we carry in our bookstores a fraction of books published. The role of the bookseller is to curate what we want in our bookstores. We often ask 'do we want any at all?' and quite often we don't. The standards of the book will have to be high: cover design, texture of the book, paper and feel, and above all, the content. My frank view is the very few readers buy books because of the publisher. They buy books because of the subject or the cover."

Though Daunt did not volunteer specific data about last year's sales he did say that the company's larger stores in urban downtowns were the most negatively impacted by the pandemic. "With offices effectively empty and the reduction in travel and tourism, we have seen a reduction in sales in downtown bookstores. That is a step back that may be relatively permanent," Daunt said. He added, "Given the sense of total crisis we were in a year ago, we can all feel things are much better now."

Referencing last summer's Black Lives Matter protests and the push for more diversity in the book business, Daunt said, "Retailing is more socially diverse than publishing, so it is beholden on us to move this forward. When we look back on 2020, memories of the pandemic will recede, but Black Lives Matter will remain in consciousness as a social movement that was long overdue."

He acknowledged that B&N's management was not racially diverse, but was diverse in terms of gender. The company is aware of the need to become more racially diverse. "It will only serve to make us better booksellers overall," he said.

Questioned whether the boom in online bookselling in 2020 impacted B&N in any material way, Daunt said that the relevance of shopping in physical stores is "intact" and any shift to online sales has been "relatively minor." He said: "I do truly believe that the bookstore remains relevant in this world. I don't think the book you get in your mailbox delivers the same pleasure as the book you selected by interacting with a knowledgeable bookseller."

As far as B&N.com is concerned, Daunt implied he was aware there were problems. "I think we are getting better at [online bookselling]," he said, and suggested the company was going to put more effort into communicating to customers that the online store was a viable alternative to shopping at Amazon.

Looking ahead, Daunt emphasized that a key to B&N's success will be ensuring that its staff sees bookselling as a true vocation and the employees get the support they need to grow. That will ultimately be what will help a conscientious consumer choose shopping at B&N over Amazon.

"As a chain bookseller, we are now allowing genuine autonomy to individual booksellers to curate books and create really dynamic bookstores. You should have in those stores a passionate team of dedicated professionals. We as booksellers, within the context of the large chain, ply our passion with genuine commitment and with genuine purpose. In that sense, we are a million miles away from Amazon."