Sunday, January 29, 2012

Somewhere between wishful thinking and delusion: Can Barnes & Noble save print books?

There's an article in today's New York Times about Barnes & Noble titled "The Bookstore's Last Stand". The central premise of the article is that publishers are depending on Barnes & Noble to keep the print book alive. The tone of the article, or at least the quotes from publishers, is somewhere between wishful thinking and delusion. Here's an example:
Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, says the biggest challenge is to give people a reason to step into Barnes & Noble stores in the first place. “They have figured out how to use the store to sell e-books," she said of the company. "Now, hopefully, we can figure out how to make that go full circle and see how the e-books can sell the print books.”
"...we can figure out...how the e-books can sell the print books"? That's like saying that if we wish hard enough, we can use calculators to sell abacuses. There's an incredible denial of reality going on here: Print still represents a majority of book sales, but it's been declining for years, while eBooks' share of book sales has been growing. If you're fixated on maintaining your print book sales, you're guaranteeing that your business will be marginalized over time.

If trends continue, eBooks will represent more than 50% of trade book sales within the next two years. Textbooks and specialty titles will take longer, but they'll likely reach or exceed the 50% point before the end of this decade. Denial of reality is only going to make the transition more painful. Publishers can survive in a majority-eBook market, so long as they manage their businesses to do so.

So, what can publishers do? They can consolidate their warehouses and get rid of excess capacity. They can move to a "digital first" model where eBooks, not print, drive the editorial and production process. They can anticipate smaller print runs and start implementing print-on-demand production. If they don't do these things, they'll have no one to blame but themselves when their companies fail.

As for Barnes & Noble, it too has to manage for a future when eBooks comprise most book sales. It has to be prepared to shrink the size of its stores, dramatically decrease the amount of display space dedicated to print books, and use electronic displays to replace physical shelves. It should already be privately prototyping and testing these new-generation stores, so that it's ready to start rolling them out in the next few years. It can't go forward by staring in a rear-view mirror.

The handwriting is so clearly on the wall that any publishing or bookselling executive who ignores it is guilty of willful ignorance.
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