Barnes & Noble: The Anti-Amazon

After decades representing them, I am not particularly sentimental about giant corporations.  They do not exist to care about their employees, their officials, or their customers.  They exist to organize economic activity and produce a return on capital.  If that requires that they undertake an action that would seem caring if performed by an individual, that’s generally an accident.

But the story about Barnes & Noble in this morning’s New York Times coincides with some of my recent thinking, so I want to get a few points off my chest.

  • The survival of B&N stores is really important to those the book industry — people working in it and people who enjoy reading books.  Don’t get me wrong — I love independent bookstores.  I’m a devotee of Politics & Prose in this region.  But B&N has over 700 stores and is the remaining premium retail outlet for books in this country.  It is an unrivaled showroom for new books, which is REALLY important to those of us who write them.  Even with all the space devoted to selling its Nook e-reader, its stores are still a good place to browse.
  • I’m not opposed to Amazon.  If I can get something on Amazon that I can’t get anywhere else, that’s fine.  But I am trying to change my habits to make Amazon a last resort when I’m book-shopping.  I can get e-books for my Ipad from B&N.  I can get used books from B&N, also, or from, an amazing site for more obscure titles (check it out).  If I shop through B&N, I’m supporting their overall business and those all-important showrooms.
  • B&N’s website — as near as I can tell — is collecting tax to pay to state governments for sales into that jurisdiction, which is something Amazon has never done.  At the risk of sounding naive, I think that’s terrific.  No, I’m not crazy about paying taxes, but it is the price of being part of civilized society, and it’s lousy when there’s a glaring example of non-compliance which requires that others pay more.  Individual states are slowly forcing Amazon is to collect sales tax, but I like a business that has decided to comply with the law all on its own.

There are more steps I need to take.  I should put a buy-the-book button for Barnes & Noble on this site, though I’m not sure I’ve actually sold any books through this site . . . ever.  And over at the Washington Independent Review of Books, the online book review that I and some amazing people have been operating for almost a year, we are going to install such a button; we do sell books through that site, and would invite you to use it!

But when you’re looking into e-books, used books, or online ordering of real books, think about B&N.  Even though it doesn’t care about us, it’s important to us.


  1. Rebecca Staton-Reinstein on January 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    David, I couldn’t agree more…I guess I’m old school but nothing is more delightful than spending a few hours wandering up the aisles of my local B&N, delving into things I would have NEVER thought to look up on line. Just the feel of a book and turning real pages is fun. I almost never get out without buying a book while I’m there. Sure I love my Nook and it’s great for my long plane rides or taking to the beach or downloading things I don’t really want to buy in hard copy. And even though we all want to save a little money, I also agree about the sales tax. Our cities and states are all hurting these days so every little bit helps. A few cheers for the bookworms among us…think Captain Picard on the Enterprise…he always had a “real” book to read.

  2. Darrell Delamaide on January 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    David, let me play the contrarian. The New York Times article was couched in terms of book publishing professionals worried about their future if B&N folds. There are many of us that feel these professionals should be out of work, that they have not served the reading public all that well, and that for too long they have operated as gatekeepers with outsized profits at the expense of authors. Digital technology has created a new environment for authors to connect to readers and I for one will not bemoan the disappearance of the gatekeepers. Keep in mind, this B&N is the same one that let many midlist authors languish in obscurity by centralizing book purchases and refusing to buy a single copy of many books for its 700 stores, forcing publishers more and more into a narrowing field of blockbuster novels and how-to books. In any event, I wouldn’t count on the B&N CEO as the savior of books, after the Times pointed out he knew nothing about bookselling three years ago and feels like learned everything he needs to know picking somebody’s brain over lunch!

    • David Stewart on January 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      II don’t disagree with anything you write — the purchasing power of the B&N big shots is more power than anyone should have. Like all power, it hasn’t always been exercised well. But the disappearance of 650 Borders stores blew a hole in the business that e-books is not filling, and it will be worse if 700 B&Ns go away. Maybe 50 to 100 authors make money on self-published e-books now, by most estimates, most in genres. More will figure it out as we go along. But lots more authors need the bricks and mortar showroom today, and reach their audience through it. We shouldn’t let our desire for the perfect bookseller prevent us from understanding the cost of losing B&N.

  3. Walter Stahr on February 2, 2012 at 8:03 am

    David, I am not sure Barnes & Noble should get such high points for collecting sales tax. If they have a store or facility in a state, they have to collect sales tax; if they do not, they do not. Amazon has very few facilities so it does not collect sales tax in that many places.

    My own (limited) experience of doing book events at Barnes & Noble stores has been disastrous. Their idea of a book event is an author standing near a table with a few books, talking to people as they walk by. This is one area in which independents, in my experience, are far far better.

    If we imagine a world without Barnes & Noble, some of those spaces would become other book stores, and other book stores would be easier to start / maintain. But would it affect the overall $ spent by people on books? I doubt it, although it would probably accelerate the move from physical to electronic books.

    • David Stewart on February 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Good point about the sales tax — I guess the states can get their hooks into B&N pretty easily! Still, it is a basis (for me) for favoring B& over Amazon.

      As for book events, I have done them at B&N stores in Bethesda and Rockville here in Maryland, and they all involved the traditional book talk plus signing. I have seen people (at Books-A-Million, I think) doing the sort of camping-out that you describe, and it seemed a pretty poor idea.

      As for the world without B&N, it might not be so bad, but I tend to think it would be pretty bad. I believe that no more than 20% of the Borders locations have been “repurposed” as book stores (independents and the aforesaid Books-a-Million). A survey found that one-third of the people buying books at book stores had not intended to buy a book when they stopped in. That’s a lot of sales that might never happen if there are a lot fewer stores to stop in to.

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