What The Sale of Barnes and Nobel Means To Reading

Not too long ago, on the outdoor-shopping-mall-like 86th street in New York City—chain stores everywhere—Barnes and Noble opened a new store. Enormous, wide aisled (a rarity for stores in the city), plenty of space for videos, music, games, stationary, seating, author speaking room, kids play area, coffee, biscuits, and on and on.

There’s books, too. But not too many because people aren’t buying a lot of them.

So if you’re thinking about buying B&N just for the real estate, you won’t need that big a truck to haul off the merchandise.

If you can afford the mortgage, you won’t just get the store on 86th, but the stores in the giant strip malls in various rural neighborhoods, like Los Angeles and Dallas.

But before you put in a bid, it might help to know that last month was the first time that more e-books were sold than real ones. At Amazon, of course. B&N sells books for their rival Nook reader, but only a trivial amount.

Thus, you’ll be buying a store that is selling a product—real books—that fewer and fewer people want.

B&N recognized this years ago when they began swapping out space used for books for expensive biscotti, lattes, and discounted Sports Illustrated calendars.

We can bet that whoever buys the stores, a good many of them will be closed. The people in the area of those closed shops who still want books will be forced to drive a long way to rival stores, or, more likely, they’ll just log on to Amazon.

Which will put the pressure on the remaining physical stores, and a lot of them will go bust. Forcing more people to go on line. And so on.

Books, of course, will survive, but in greatly diminished number. Ten years from now it will be a rarity to find a store devoted to selling new real books.

Now, once a person has bought a real book and read it, or bought it and acknowledged that they’re not going to read it, they can haul it down to a used bookstore and sell it.

Other people will wander into that store to discover new authors, or just to buy cheap books.

But if fewer are buying new real books, then it follows that there will be fewer used books to sell. Ten years from now, used bookstores will still exist, but the survivors will call themselves variants of “Antiquarian” or “Rare” book dealers. These people will be selling antiques, not books to be read.

The shift towards buying e-books will increase—this does not mean that reading will increase. I predict fewer people will read complete books in electronic form.

Novels will be read completely at rates greater than non-fiction. This is true for real books, but the proportional difference in rates will increase, while both rates decrease absolutely.

Worse, if everybody buys e-books, then there will be no used books. Strike that: you don’t buy an e-book, you license it. You do not own the e-book, you are granted permission to use it for as long as the owner decides. There is nothing that you own that you can sell.

Specialty markets will continue, such as kids book-toys (which are meant to be played with, not read), gift books (which are designed not to be read), and college textbooks (which are rarely read).

Since people’s patience for reading hundreds of pages of uninterrupted text is rapidly waning, e-books will usher in the new golden age of the short story. These fiction pieces will be just long enough to sustain a commute, say, between two- and four-thousand words.

Books and long-form reading will survive, but will be seen as a curious but interesting hobby, much like wood carving or choral signing.

Those found perusing thick tomes will be assumed to be scholars, big-brained folks who possess secret powers. This is already true.

There is a stock scene in movies where the protagonist is shown reading a battered copy of Plutarch, Herodotus, or perhaps William James. The intent of the scene is two-fold: to demonstrate that we’re dealing with an obviously intelligent person. But it also instills envy. The viewer thinks, “Boy, I wish I could read like that.”

The idea of reading a book is so strange that the viewer doesn’t discern that he can if wants to. All he must needs do is to enter the library and borrow these books—at no cost.

At least, that’s what he can do until libraries stop stocking real books.


  1. JH

    Darn, reading is not among the top ten kids’ excuses for not doing chores.

  2. j ferguson

    “…. Plutarch, Herodotus, or perhaps William James….enter the library and borrow these books”

    Fat chance of finding any of these in any public library outside the big city or maybe a university town.

    We’re itinerant and have been in and out of smaller town libraries for years. My first test is Herodotus, then Tacitus, almost always no joy.

    Encountered couple making their way as library consultants. I asked.

    “Shelf space is limited so if it doesn’t circulate, it goes.”

    I asked, “What about the minimum list that every library should have?”

    “Doesn’t exist.”

    Browsing in an Ebook is frustrating, search is nice, but finding something which was about 2/3 of way through and page is a bit soiled, isn’t possible.

    Despite reading extensively on Kindle and books Never available at local public libraries, Macaulay for example, still need real books. It’s hard to imagine using a Kindle for consultations with lonely planet guides, or Rand McNally historical map book.

  3. kabdib

    It’s incredibly easy to pirate an e-book. Even if you can’t crack the rights management, you can just hook a reader up to a scanner, automate the “next page” button pressing with a bit of hardware, and in maybe ten minutes have an error-free scanned text.

    Once most books are digital (and most technical documents are on the web behind pay walls, where the “ripping” challenge is only slightly more complicated) I would expect piracy to be rampant. Digitally speaking, books are smaller than movies and music, and torrents (or whatever replaces torrents) will be difficult to shut down.

    I don’t know the economics of the publishing industry all that well; I suspect that Stephen King wouldn’t notice. I don’t know what would happen to mid-list authors (maybe they will continue to get screwed as much as they currently are).

  4. Speed

    A few years ago, Seattle, Washington built a new library that was so strange or advanced or architecturally outstanding that it attracts tourists. Inside there are seemingly hundreds of people who, if spied on the street would be called street people or homeless, sitting in front computer screens. A few others can be found scattered throughout the building usually outnumbered by librarians.

    Slightly related: The Seattle library contains what may be of the only remaining bank of pay phones in the western world.

    Just like book stores have become places for coffee and free WiFi, libraries are becoming places to avoid bad weather and get free internet access.

  5. I look around and wonder. Renting – for surely that’s what “licensing” e-books is – versus owning a hard copy. Lots of pros but also some cons. Have too many of us been too swift to jump on the “new technology” bandwagon, fallen victim to snake-oil salesmen, and somehow forever adversely altered the worlds of literature and commerce?

    It seems to me B&N and others of their ilk grew a mite too fast. I never did get the mega bookstore scene, but have lots of friends who do [or did] so personally cared less. Most of my literary purchases were of the specialty type. Knew what I wanted and sought them out at the most likely – and reasonable – sources. But that might just my era.

    Back to wondering. Watching my grand kids with their Wiis, Playstations, xBoxes, etc., etc., knowing Kindles are just around the corner, and hearkening back to my adolescent days when I lived on Zane Grey western injections can’t help wondering if they are missing something, or did I?

  6. Ari

    Dare I say it? I don’t think I’m any worse of for reading my books on a device rather than on paper.

    I enjoy my e-reading experience, whether it be on the Kindle (as you all know) or the iPad. And as devices like the iPad get better at replicating the paper experience, the little annoyances disappear.

    I was, for a long time, somewhat skeptical of e-reading. Now, having read dozens of books on my Kindle library, I’m happy to say that it’s fine to give up paper.

    That said, I agree with Briggs on the licensing issue. This is also something that is rather troublesome in other media, namely music and games. However, I think it’s important to note that even in the past book publishers were never selling you a book to own, as odd as that sounds. They were selling you paper with ideas that still belonged to them. The difference now is that you have to trust the publisher to not rip books off your device.

    And yes, Amazon’s shenanigans in the past suggested that this may not be simple. However, it seems to me that public response to what Amazon did taught the e-sellers that removing books, even free books, is not a good idea.

    As always, you pay companies for trust. We’ll just have to see if they earn it.

  7. Steven

    I have a real problem with your use of the word “real” here. Your love for physical objects does not mean that only highly tangible objects are “real”. A philosophical definition of “real” from the OED is “Designating whatever is regarded as having an existence in fact and not merely in appearance, thought, or language, or as having an absolute and necessary, in contrast to a merely contingent, existence.” The trace of physical books can easily be perceived by a sense of touch, but e-books as well are physically inscribed as data on hard disks and are as “real” as anything printed.

    If you have complaints about the visual or other characteristics of e-books that is fine, but your argument here seems to have a bitter tone when it implies an end of paper books would be the end of all books that have solid existence.

  8. bob

    Sadly, I agree with your opinion. Paradigm changes can be a bitch to entrenched dependent businesses. I always seen Barnes and Noble as a social gathering place as much as a book store. The aroma of Starbucks coffee throughout the store is wonderful, but probably doesn’t contribute to the sale of books.

    I guess this leaves Borders and a couple of minor book stores.

    When I buy a text book I go to Amazon and look for used books classified in “New” condition. I get them for used prices, and almost always they have barely been opened. It’s a great deal.

    I think ebooks are great, but resent the “licensed only” limitation of the book. I want to own the book just like I had the paperback or hardcover version.

  9. DAV

    I like the paper books myself. The batteries never run down and they can generally withstand being dropped, kicked, sat upon and stepped on. I also write in them (the textbooks anyway). And if the author decides a better deal can be had with me no longer reading or having it or suddenly deciding to make me pay for it again — tough!! It also means the author can’t rewrite it under my nose.

    Not that I’m against electronic books. I prefer manuals for my equipment to be in electronic form. They are far easier to search. Indices are rarely complete. Some Adobe products even let me annotate and bookmark.

    Reading Joyce on a laptop/reader just wouldn’t be the same experience. Besides, I think I’d miss those jelly and coffee stains and other reminders of past sessions.

  10. Ari

    Dear all,

    I don’t think that B&N’s sale will mean the end of B&N. Just looking at their most recent earnings statement, it’s clear that the company remains a viable entity, if a bit on the weakly profitable side.

    I haven’t looked into the details, but I suspect that a lot of shareholders have expressed concern that B&N, despite its large footprint and well-known brand, has not provided much in the way of long-term vision or dividend potential.

    The sale may be an attempt to leverage its brand, maybe trim it down a bit, and get it some working capital to develop in areas that will allow it to be profitable sooner. There’s something worrisome about having $5b in revenue but only $72m in profit in 2009. I suspect they have a lot of overhead to clear out.

    If that’s the case, then I’m sure they’ll remain a presence, if only a reduced one.


    Writing in e-books is getting there. And while I agree with you on the battery issue, the two devices I read on (Kindle and iPad) have never had battery emergencies on me– you can take that with whatever grain of salt you want.

  11. j ferguson

    Do you read lengthy stuff on the iPad? I have Kindle 2 which can be read until I fade for reasons other than eyestrain, but I wondered about the iPad.

    I’ve also, with some help, assembled a routine which extracts only the thread from places like Climate Audit, converts it to MOBI, which can then be loaded on Kindle.

    This makes it much easier for me to carefully read and consider content of some of these complex discussions – something that is hard for me, at least, on the notebook.

    One of the benefit/challenges of the web has been more frequent exposure to things I have a difficult time understanding. Thank G* there are no exams.

  12. j ferguson

    not DAV, Ari for question above – need observation from experience.

  13. SteveBrooklineMA

    It seems like yesterday when we were mourning the loss of the small local bookstore to the big national chains. Now those chains are on their way out. What an amazing turn of events!

  14. TomVonk

    William this is a horror vision to me .

    Going to a bookstore , wandering among the books , opening them and reading bits belongs to one of my most favorite occupations .
    Alternatively sitting on my terrace , with coffee&cigarette , reading a preferably big book with a pencil in the hand and making occasional notes in it .
    Having books in my library and knowing where I will find what and where I did what note .

    All this is (almost) vitally necessary to me . When I come to the US , first thing I do is to look where the nearest B&N is . I remember the research in Phenix still 🙂

    I do not know if your thesis is right but if it is , I find it horrible .

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