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The Passion of Barnes & Noble

The actor after successful performance.
Image – iStockphoto: Anja Peternelj

‘Do You Think It’s Serious?’
—Rodolfo, La Bohème

Rodolfo fears for Mimi, of course, as she dies (and dies) in La Bohème. But Puccini’s heroine doesn’t do herself in. Consumption gets her. Many of opera’s longest expirations are suicides.

Some say that Massenet’s 1892 Werther has the longest death scene. It takes the entire fourth act for the titular character to leave this Earth (and the stage). He has shot himself.

And then there’s Meyerbeer’s 1865 L’Africaine, much of the fifth act of which is Sélika’s tragic death. “Every time I thought ‘This is it!'” writes one opera wag, “she popped up again.” Sélika precipitates her own slowly sung departure by inhaling the poisonous perfume of the manchineel blossoms.

barnes-and-noble-logo-png-10But no one takes the vapors like Barnes & Noble.

Now, in what may well be the final act of its agonies, the hulking bookstore chain sprawls on the divan of America’s Bayreuth, rising from the silks to sing another negative earnings report, recently with grace notes about restaurants being added to some locations—and stylish firepits! Hopeful flutes chatter in the orchestra, never mind how urgently Bradbury tried to tell us that books and flames are bad together.

Like those operatic slow deaths, this show, too, is about self-harm.

In “As Feared, Barnes & Noble Reports Poor Quarter, Reduces Sales Guidance [1],” Michael Cader quotes B&N chairman Len Riggio singing, “We did shoot ourselves in the foot somewhat by making unprecedented inventory reductions…which were ill advised, and by cutting in the worst area—retail floor personnel. These are being remedied as we speak.”

“Being remedied as we speak.” Opera code translation: Look out, she’s going to sing again.

At This Point in the Libretto

Barnes & Noble's former flagship Fifth Avenue store in a shot by Beyond My Ken. CC BY-SA 3.0. (The new flagship store is in Union Square.)
Barnes & Noble’s former flagship Fifth Avenue store in a shot by Beyond My Ken. CC BY-SA 3.0. (The new flagship store is in Union Square.)

What has occasioned the latest Chorale of Concern, of course, came near the end of August, the scene in which CEO Ron Boire was hurled overboard after less than a year in the job. At The Hot Sheet [2], my colleague Jane Friedman and I wrote of the position as “perhaps the fastest revolving door in publishing industry. Ron Boire—whose background lies in general retail at stores such as Sears, Toys“R”Us, and Best Buy—was given the boot by B&N’s board of directors, who cited a poor fit.”

And it would fall to Mike Shatzkin, consultant and Cader-confidant to sing the set piece of the dilemma, “Barnes and Noble Faces a Challenge That Has Not Been Clearly Spelled Out. [3]” He then clearly spelled it out.

“The big bookstore model is an anachronism. Just making it big doesn’t pull in the customers anymore. So a new strategy is definitely called for. B&N is going part of the way to one by recognizing that they need to do more to bring in customers and, at the same time, they can’t profitably shelve 100,000 titles across hundreds of stores. Taking their capabilities to where the customers already are would seem like an idea worth exploring.”

Before the violin section gets going again, let me bullet it out for you:

Mind you, Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, has issued a stirring challenge, captured by Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly as “Len Riggio Promises To Fix Barnes & Noble [5].” It includes Riggio’s defiant earnings-report lyrics:

“I’ll not rush headlong this time because I am more than willing to put the time and effort into all the tasks at hand. We are not just going to close stores and go home. We are committed to this business.”

Riggio got through to our good friend and colleague Laura Dawson, who—a former Barnes & Noble employee—rushes in with “Rumors Greatly Exaggerated [6],” experienced support for Riggio:

“As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too. It began as a college store and it may well end as one. But it will persist as long as Len wills it to. Do not expect him to turn off the lights and lock the doors.”

But, then arrives that quiet messenger who always turns the tide in the plot. In a private publishing listserv, he stage-whispers to Dawson:

“As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too? Len is 75.”

And the stage lights go out on the realization that not even the determined Lord Riggio may save this story.

Intermission. You see the problem. You hope no one caught you drying your eyes. And my provocation for you, here in the lobby (thank God for the bar), is this: If we’re now watching The Twilight of the Superstores, how bad is that, really?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Shall We Contemplate Life Without B&N?

One person close to the Writer Unboxed community sends me this message:

“I feel like Barnes & Noble has been a part of the publishing problem, honestly. They still have such tremendous influence on what publishers decide to do with their books. I’m not just talking about orders, but things like which books are going to be published in paperback and which authors are going to get (essentially) blacklisted. It’s pretty incredible.”

And in working with Phil Sexton, publisher of Writer’s Digest, on our Hot Sheet programming of his new DBW Indie Author [7] conference in January in New York, I’m reminded of his Dirty Little Secrets session, just seen at the Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference. In it, he talks of the scant 15-minute meeting that a Barnes & Noble buyer allows a publisher’s salesperson, a fleeting window of time in which so many books must be pitched at a rate of one every couple of minutes.

B&N has been the best-recognized go-to store for book shopping in the United States for decades. No one wants or needs to deny its importance to bookselling in America. Indeed, there are some who find a Borders-like catastrophe unthinkable and hang back in the lobby as the bells are rung for this final act. “Please return to your seats, ladies and gentlemen. Curtain in two minutes, thank you.” That damned kid with the glockenspiel keeps coming by, we’ve got to go back in.

What say you, the Unboxed audience? Will this grand opera end well or badly for authors and publishers?

About Porter Anderson [8]

@Porter_Anderson [9] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [10], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [11] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [12]