Everyone’s Praising Barnes & Noble While Marginalized Authors Are Suffering
Barnes & Noble (BN) is once again in the news this month as the last brick-and-mortar bookstore chain in the U.S. continues to change its sales model. Since former Waterstones managing director James Daunt took over as BN CEO in 2019, he’s introduced several innovations aimed at increasing BN’s sales and restoring it to the dominating force it used to be in the book industry, pre-Amazon.
The company plans to open 30 new stores in 2023, most of them smaller than previously shuttered locations. While that’s good news, in some ways, these changes also come at a cost—particularly to marginalized authors and independent publishers.
Barnes & Noble is changing its rewards structure
Last year, BN quietly began to de-prioritize hardcovers in its stores, particularly those from “unproven” authors. Although publishers have the opportunity to re-pitch BN after hardcovers have been on shelves for a few weeks and are selling well, the truth is that BN is more likely to wait for the paperbacks to come out for authors who aren’t topping bestseller lists (or who don’t boast hundreds of thousands of social media followers).
For some authors, that means their books won’t be carried at BN for months or even years—if at all. This ultimately creates a negative feedback loop in which sales of their book will be down from the publication date, making it harder for them to get published again or to get better advances on their next titles.
Now, BN is restructuring its rewards program and eliminating its free educator program. Previously, customers could pay $25 a year for 40 percent off hardcover bestsellers and 10 percent off any in-store purchase, as well as free shipping online. Members also received bonus perks throughout the year.
The new program is split into two tiers. B&N Premium Membership costs $40 a year and offers 10 percent off nearly everything online and in-store, as well as free size upgrades on drinks from the cafe, a free tote bag each year (valued under $19.99), free shipping, and a stamp program that grants a $5 coupon for every $100 spent. Meanwhile, the free program only enrolls customers in the stamp program with no other perks.
Notice that neither of these tiers gives members 40 percent off hardcovers, which used to be a huge draw for BN customers. If anything, this indicates a further de-prioritization of hardcover sales in-store and online.
To make matters worse, BN is also discontinuing its free educator program, which used to provide teachers and other education professionals 20 percent off hardcover and paperback books, games, and toys for classroom use, as well as periodical 25 percent off sales. Educators can choose to pay $40 for the new B&N Premium Membership, but the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t work out. This is a huge blow to educators who are already underfunded and covering their own classroom costs.
Barnes & Noble localizing its selection has pros and cons
As Barnes & Noble opens new stores, customers will notice huge changes—namely that these locations are much smaller than their predecessors and are more tailored to look like independent bookstores, rather than cardboard copycats of each other. This strategy has pros and cons, not just for BN, but for the book industry as a whole.
First and foremost, it’s ultimately a good thing that BN is expanding and seeing profits after years in decline. Director of books Shannon DeVito told NPR that the company grew by four percent in 2022. BN doing well may keep publishers invested in physical stores, rather than pushing all their books toward online sales and Amazon (which continues to dominate). So, in a backward way, the chain could actually keep independent booksellers in the game, instead of gobbling them up and spitting them out.
However, BN is also modeling its stores after indies, which is something Daunt put into place upon his takeover as CEO. Essentially, BN booksellers now have the ability to curate store displays—including end caps and tables, the latter of which usually greet customers as they walk in the door—for their individual communities. Likewise, their inventory should reflect what their customers want to buy. This is how independent bookstores work, with one major difference: there’s seemingly no accountability process or diversity and inclusion effort in place at BN stores.
If every BN store begins to offer customers a totally custom experience based on where they’re located, that immediately devalues indie bookstores in the same area. Simultaneously, if a BN is located in, say, a primarily white Evangelical community, that bookstore isn’t likely to carry books by BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ authors.
As book bans and anti-trans legislature continue to crop up all over the country, this is a problem. BN’s previous model meant that its stores mostly carried the same stock. This gave customers the opportunity to browse and potentially discover a marginalized author’s work that might challenge their views or otherwise encourage them to diversify their personal library. The bulk of the work of finding and reading new authors was on customers themselves, aided by store selection and organization.
Historically, BN booksellers are paid between $7.25 and $15 an hour and aren’t provided with the necessary resources to develop an intimate knowledge of the book industry. As recently as last year, social media users shared photos of #OwnVoices display tables at their local BN stores featuring stacks of memoirs, rather than fictional books depicting characters who share identities with their authors. This fundamental misunderstanding isn’t the fault of booksellers—it’s the fault of big box retail models and companies underpaying employees.
BN employees should be allowed some autonomy when it comes to staff picks and curated tables and end caps. However, Daunt wanting each BN store to function like an indie requires a total overhaul of the company, not just the closing and reopening of stores in smaller locations with newer, more lightly-colored interior decorations.
So far, BN has proven that it cares very little about communities who love it, and each change it introduces further risks the livelihoods of marginalized authors and small publishers. If their books aren’t even on the shelves at BN stores, how can booksellers be expected to recommend them? If customers can’t get these books at BN and don’t have a local indie to browse, they may never discover these authors or their stories, and thus won’t be able to recommend them to friends or suggest them for book clubs.
If you continue to trace this line, it becomes a circle, which inevitably shuts out anyone who isn’t a bestselling author backed by a huge publisher that doesn’t treat diversity as anything more than a buzzword. And that’s a depressing thought indeed.
(featured image: Drew Angerer, Getty Images)
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]