Sales at Barnes & Noble in 2022 were “very comfortably up” over 2018 and 2019, CEO James Daunt told PW in a phone interview last week from Columbus, Ohio—the most recent stop on his tour of the retailer’s stores. Last year was also the best year since Daunt took over the company in late 2019, an achievement that he acknowledged wasn’t that difficult, given that many B&N stores were forced to close during the first two years of the pandemic.

The increase came despite a disappointing December: sales in the month were doing fine until winter storms swept across much of the country just days before Christmas. “We had to close many stores on the busiest shopping days of the year,” Daunt said.

Book sales rose over 2021, led by solid fiction sales and another good year for manga. Books accounted for a larger share of sales last year compared to 2021, which was something of a mixed blessing, Daunt said, since newsstand sales continue to be weak and sidelines such as DVDs and music (with the exception of vinyl) have also declined. He added that B&N is in the process of revamping its gift offerings, removing things that “don’t belong in a bookshop,” such as “fluffy items” like blankets, in favor of items more tied to print and reading. (B&N’s owner, Elliott Advisors, also owns the Paper Source chain, which Daunt oversees.)

Increased reader interest in romance titles and the release of some new Nook devices gave a bump to e-book sales, Daunt said, adding that, in general, “e-book sales aren’t going anywhere.” He was much more bullish on digital audio, and said an audio subscription service introduced during the holidays is “doing nicely.” B&N has also recently started powering Macy’s online bookstore, which Daunt described as “one of a number of initiatives that begin to add up.” B&N is considering doing something similar with other retailers, but has no immediate physical store-within-a-store plans in the U.S.

Daunt said B&N has been able to take advantage of the increase in reading that occurred during the pandemic, as well as the continuing lift to sales provided by BookTok. Another important reason for the improved sales is the improvements B&N has made in the appearance and curation of its stores. Acknowledging that not all the stores are in the shape he wants, Daunt said it is indisputable that “the better the store, the better the sales.” B&N is still “resetting” many of its outlets. In the Columbus store, for example, the old media center has been removed, creating some 4,000 sq. ft. of space that can be better used to showcase books.

While B&N is refurbishing existing stores, the chain has drawn positive coverage from the mainstream press for opening new stores. Daunt said that though the number of new stores to be open is not set in stone, he hopes the net increase at the end of the year will be about 30. (B&N currently has about 600 outlets.) “We should be growing the business,” Daunt added, noting that the final number will depend on how many stores the company closes this year—a number that will largely depend on landlord demands.

As the population of the U.S. shifts, Daunt said B&N is on the lookout for new areas where it can open stores. He also observed that there is “a very long list of places where we used to have stores that were closed” by B&N’s previous owners and that those sites could warrant another look.

Though Prince Harry’s Spare gave a boost to January sales, Daunt remains concerned about the state of nonfiction. “We have been talking internally about how to do nonfiction better,” he said. “It is a weakness in the business.” As booksellers, he added, “we can present books more intelligently.”

Daunt said B&N needs to make it easier for customers to discover books rather than settling for titles that they already have in mind when they visit stores. Noting that many of the conventional outlets for promoting books, such as newspapers, “are fading away by the day,” he said it is incumbent on B&N “to up our game dramatically” in terms of linking books to readers. He hopes that by this time next year, B&N will be able to bring attention to books that need and deserve it.

As an example of the type of book he is talking about, Daunt pointed to Paul Harding’s This New Eden, which he called “a work of genius,” though it is “not getting the type of glare it deserves.” (According to BookScan, since its release on January 24, Eden has sold fewer than 1,500 print copies.) His goal is to create a system “that can bring good books to readers.” One approach will be to expand B&N’s membership ranks and to find ways to better communicate with members. Daunt hopes to rollout a new program in the coming weeks.

Despite the various challenges in the industry and the economy, Daunt remains upbeat about the prospects for B&N. “I’m feeling very, very good about things,” he said. “It is an exciting time to be a bookseller.”