On the second day of the U.S. Book Show, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt offered a keynote address that touched on many topics that the executive has been focused on for several years, including the need to empower booksellers with decision making, his choice to no longer accept co-op for book displays, and the need to update the chain's website to bring it more in line with that of competitors.

After admitting that B&N had become a bookstore chain that had become "not very good," he went on to explicate the "process of change" he had implemented since he took over as CEO. Daunt emphasized that he recognized the need for Barnes & Noble to evolve, and that this need for change extends to their relationships with publisher partners and the process of understanding and adapting to changing market dynamics. He added that the company needs to strike a balance between consistency and maintaining the distinctive, curated experience that bookstores traditionally offer.

One of Daunt's concerns is that too much standardization might make the bookstores dull and boring. “How do you bring the ability to curate from a vast catalogue of books that are published every year? How do you create individual estate interest in distinctiveness on the live app to a book setting team who are enjoying their job?” Daunt asked rhetorically.

His aim, he reiterated, is to foster more autonomy and independence within each bookstore, allowing for personalized selections and display of books based on regional preferences and other factors. To this end, the company is pushing towards harnessing the knowledge and expertise of store teams and fostering their growth and development.

Daunt explained that all new initial book buying is still done in New York, while managers oversee reorders. Local managers have more freedom in how to display books, with more power to the store managers to put titles of local interest front and center. There has been some "confusion" on the part of booksellers on how to display books, but the move has been especially fruitful for the children's and especially YA sections of the store, he said, as booksellers at B&N tend to be younger and more familiar with these topics.

One challenging area is backlist, which Daunt said the company was working to curate better, with a marked rise in paperback sales in the category. Other areas—he noted history in particular—need reassessment. "We previously shelved history alphabetically," Daunt said, pointing out that this made browsing and discovery more difficult.

In addition, the company has changed its previous hierarchical employment structure, with a focus on better compensation and career development opportunities for bookstore employees. (This part of the conversation elicited several comments in the online chat following the livestream wondering why the company has not raised base pay.) And while a few outlets are pushing for unionization, Daunt did not directly address whether the company is seeing a move toward unionization by store employees.

As far as the company’s online presence, Daunt noted that the company is striving to modernize and improve the company's online shopping and app functionalities to better serve and connect with customers.

Daunt ultimately believes in the elasticity of the market for books, and implied that there is potential for growth if they can create a dynamic and inviting atmosphere within B&N stores. “They are important community spaces,” he said, stressing the value of inclusivity in attracting a wide range of customers.

Asked by an audience member how B&N sees success, Daunt said he favors "qualitative rather than quantitative" data rather than standard KPIs.

The company is opening 30 stores this year, often in a smaller format, which necessitates more curation. This new format means reducing space for some slow-selling categories and replacing them with book-related sidelines and fast-growing categories, such as graphic novels and manga. Existing stores may be shuttered or fully renovated, which makes that figure of 30 stores fungible, Daunt said—especially when considering that several locations have been simply moved to a new location in same city which has lost a B&N location in recent years.

Referring to the wave of change at the chain, Daunt told PW, “About 25% of our employees like it, 25% hate it, and 50% aren't yet sure."