Editor's Note: Rising From the Ashes of Retail Giants
A voracious reader from when I first started to string words into sentences, some very fond memories of my childhood are visiting the tiny, but bursting-at-the-seams-with-books independent bookstore on the main street in my hometown. I could spend hours browsing through the shelves, discovering new and different titles—and new and different worlds—until my mother begrudgingly pulled me out. As with so many other book buyers, the Internet forever changed the way I shopped for and purchased books. Nowadays, because of the obvious benefits of speed, convenience and selection, I purchase most of my books—in both print and digital formats—online from either Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. Occasionally, when I have the time to browse, I'll visit my local Barnes & Noble or an independent bookstore, including that one in my hometown, which surprisingly is still in business, even after all these years.
When I first started working for Book Business, more than three years ago, most of the articles I read about the book retail landscape talked about how bookstore giants Borders and Barnes & Noble, online retailer Amazon.com, and big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, were helping to put the nail in the independent bookstore coffin. Now, it appears a new tide is starting to turn.
On Aug. 4, Barnes & Noble announced in a press release that its board of directors was going to "evaluate strategic alternatives, including a possible sale of the company, in order to increase stockholder value." A few weeks later, the company again made headlines when it announced that it was shuttering its 60,000-square-foot store near Lincoln Center in New York City. Around the same time, Borders announced that it had experienced yet another loss in total sales in its quarter ending July 31, and that it would be adding more non-book product in its physical stores.
It would appear that the mighty are falling. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article, published Aug. 18, about this recent decline of Barnes & Noble ("Clearance Sale: Barnes & Noble Didn't Evolve Enough"). In the article, the writer, James B. Stewart, reminisces about his own neighborhood bookstore and ponders the question of whether a B&N decline could pave the way for the return of the independent bookstore.
"… I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book," Stewart writes. "I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it. I think independent bookstores may be able to provide these services even while selling over the Internet. … Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think there are new opportunities for booksellers."
Independent bookstores rising from the ashes of retail giants? It's an intriguing idea, and one that may be less about naivety, as Stewart suggests, and more about reinvention.
That sort of forward thinking reminded me of Ken Brooks, senior vice president, global production and manufacturing services, Cengage Learning, who I interviewed as this year's book publishing inductee into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame. Brooks impressed me, as I'm sure he'll impress you when you read his profile on page 20, with his positive outlook on digital transformation and the opportunities that it presents for the future of the book publishing industry.
Brooks describes one of his biggest challenges as transitioning employees who have spent their entire careers in print into this new digital world. He makes the point that many of the skills needed to produce print books are the same skills needed to produce digital books, and that the key to overcoming this challenge is to reconceive the way we view our role in the industry. "… Many [production] folks view themselves and get a lot of their self-worth from 'I make beautiful books.' If you can … make that individual transition from 'I make beautiful books' to … 'I provide tools that help people learn,' it's a lot easier," Brooks says.
While Brooks may specifically be addressing book production in the educational publishing sector, I think his point can be applied to other areas of the industry as well. So many of us—from editors to marketers to booksellers and beyond—have the skills and experience to bring ourselves and our businesses into the evolving future of this industry. Our success may simply lie in how we reconceive our roles.
In that Wall Street Journal article about B&N, Stewart suggests that the retailer's decline may be because it never really embraced the Internet or e-books. "As B&N focused on managing decline, a much more nimble Amazon could concentrate exclusively on the new world it was forming," Stewart writes.
If Stewart's summation is correct, and I believe it very well may be, even a giant like B&N can't survive by resisting the change happening around us. If we're going to have a place in it, it may be time to stop debating the future, and start embracing it.