Are Chain Bookstores Good or Bad for Bibliophiles?

There has been a good deal of press about Barnes and Noble this summer. First, reports came out that first quarter revenue fell by over 3%. Then, the stock fell almost 40% when the college bookstore division was spun off. Most recently, the CEO of less than a year has been fired. None of this is good news for the only large national physical bookstore chain left in the US.

Some people see Barnes and Noble’s downfall as a good thing, as it was Barnes and Noble – along with other large chain bookstores that no longer exist – that drove many of the small, independent bookstores out of business. Now that Amazon is doing the same to Barnes and Noble, it is hard not to see it as a nearly karmic sense of irony.

However, the loss of Barnes and Noble – should it not be able to survive – creates two pretty significant problems for bibliophiles. The first is that it leaves Amazon as the sole major national outlet for books. While I certainly patronize Amazon, this would be fairly catastrophic in terms of publishing. Amazon would use that power with little regard to the ecosystem of publishing which would inevitably lead to far fewer traditionally published books. I have nothing against self-publishing but Amazon doesn’t actually treat authors very well and it’s very hard to make money by self-publishing unless you are already a big name.

Which leads to the second problem as discussed in this New Republic article – Barnes and Noble is the only seller that currently buys very large orders of pre-publication books which publishers need in order to produce and market books. Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc. do this as well but not nearly to the extent that Barnes and Noble does and, of course, the Targets and Walmarts only order books from very well known authors who are basically guaranteed to sell. So if you get rid of Barnes and Noble, publishers will basically not be able to have midlist authors, nonfiction, literary fiction, or take a chance on an unknown author because there simply won’t be money to do so. As the article states, “…the death of Barnes & Noble would be catastrophic—not just for publishing houses and the writers they publish, but for American culture as a whole.”

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