The outside of a Barnes & Noble store. Image: Sean from Flickr. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/22280677@N07/2196111505

Barnes & Noble Strategy Shift Already Proving Disastrous For Marginalized Authors

Barnes & Noble corporate has quietly shifted into a new business model that deprioritizes hardcovers, allowing newly published titles by authors (debut and veteran alike) to be put at odds with each other more than they already are. Essentially—as initially reported via anecdotes from authors and booksellers—the bookstore chain is no longer carrying as many hardcovers (especially from “unproven” authors), instead waiting on paperbacks that come to some authors months or years later. It’s bad enough this is confirmed as something happening to children’s literature (which encompasses picture books to YA), but it may affect the larger store, including adult fiction.

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This is an issue for two major reasons. One: by buying less, this means riskier and less mainstream titles won’t stand a chance. Not to say this didn’t already exist to a degree, but if publishers can only pick a handful of titles to offer to B&N for hardcover stock, that is assuring that more authors won’t even get a fighting chance. The second big reason is that while the milestones an author or title must hit to get a paperback edition may vary, many authors are required to hit a hardcover sales threshold first. It’s going to be very hard to hit that when your book is not available at the last physical bookstore chain in the country.

B&N CEO James Daunt recently confirmed these fears in a statement to Publishers Marketplace by saying, “Barnes & Noble now works hard to improve its selection, precisely to be able to present a more dynamic bookstore. It will buy fewer titles inevitably – this is what happens if taste is exercised – but also more copies of those it seeks to champion.” While a different medium, this approach to picking whose story to tell is very reminiscence of Warner Bros. Discovery’s recent statements as they cut back on animation and live-action projects led by and about underrepresented communities. Words like “merit,” “taste,” and “viable” are excuses to resist criticism about representation and access.

Speaking of dog whistles, B&N might want to retract or update its 2020 Black Lives Matter statement because their action plan is in direct opposition to these choices. It will hurt all authors but especially authors of color and those from lower-income backgrounds. This is also happening in the background of increased hostility towards LGBTQ+ and stories about non-white people. The company is facing censorship in Virginia courts for even selling Genderqueer and A Court of Mist & Fury.

Authors and B&N employees respond

An email I was able to obtain from an anonymous source showed this messaging has reverberated on the marketing side of the industry for a bit now, and with authors that don’t initially make it, the strategy is to repitch to B&N after some weeks of showing strong sales elsewhere. Elsewhere, agents confirmed once a book is released in paperback, then B&N has signaled it will no longer replenish hardcover copies, too. In response to the news around August 17, many authors have taken to social media to express their frustration.

https://twitter.com/brownbookworm/status/1560361305118236675?s=20&t=hGuf1V6Kr3nwRLvqgrHwJw
https://twitter.com/Karahdactyl/status/1560370716339765248?s=20&t=fMKuXbxJLzrdYrRj8npu-Q
https://twitter.com/Keah_Maria/status/1560389907234824192?s=20&t=1brknRqzm7_PUhzk5iOZsw
@kellyyanghk

Bookstores are for all books, and all kids, not just the top 1-2! Unbelievable breaking news dear readers… ??? #barnesandnoble #KeyPlayer #ShopIndie #FrontDeskSeries #Booktok #BookNews

♬ original sound – kellyyangauthor

Authors were not a united front, however, as some online initially questioned the validity of these whistleblowers (the majority of whom were Black) until the evidence mounted.

There’s also been this back-and-forth tenison between stores, as they must follow corporate rules and aren’t allowed to be culturally responsive to their regional community. Allowing individual stores to run TikTok accounts, for example, shows the positive that can come from allowing wiggle room, something this new policy won’t.

While it feels justified to be upset at just B&N (and unchecked monopolies that put the power in the hands of mostly them and Amazon), publishers are also to blame. Not only are they on a similar path of anti-competitive behavior (see Department of Justice v. Penguin Random House), but B&N has been telling the company it needs to prioritize paperbacks for certain age groups and/or market their titles better—the latter of which has been a part of author and publishing discourse for years.

(image: Sean on Flikr)

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Author
Image of Alyssa Shotwell
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.