B&N’s change in strategy harms marginalized authors


Barnes & Noble has quietly shifted to a new business model that deprioritizes hardcovers, allowing newly published titles by authors (beginners and veterans) to be more at odds with each other than they are. already. Essentially, as originally reported via Anecdotes from Authors and Booksellers, the bookstore chain no longer carries as many hardcover books (especially from “unproven” authors), but instead expects paperbacks that come in at some authors months or years later. It’s bad enough that this is confirmed as something happening to children’s literature (which encompasses picture books for YA), but it may affect the bigger store, including adult fiction.

This is a problem for two main reasons. One: Buying less means riskier, less mainstream stocks won’t stand a chance. That’s not to say it didn’t already exist to some degree, but if publishers can only choose a handful of titles to offer B&N for hardcover stock, it ensures that more authors don’t won’t even have a chance to fight. The second big reason is that while the steps an author or title must go through to get a paperback edition may vary, many authors must first reach a hardcover sales threshold. It is going to be very difficult to achieve this goal when your book is not available in the last chain of physical bookstores in the country.

B&N CEO James Daunt recently confirmed those fears in a statement to Publisher Marketplace saying: “Barnes & Noble is now working hard to improve its selection, precisely to be able to present a more dynamic bookstore. It will necessarily buy fewer titles – this is what happens if taste is exercised – but also more copies of those it seeks to defend. Although it is a different medium, this approach to the selection whose story to tell is very reminiscent of recent statements by Warner Bros. Discovery as they scaled back animation and live-action projects directed by and about underrepresented communities. Words like ‘merit’, ‘taste’ and ‘viable’ are excuses to resist criticism of representation and access.

Speaking of dog whistles, B&N might want to withdraw or update their 2020 Black Lives Matter statement because their action plan is in direct opposition to those choices. This will hurt all authors, but especially authors of color and those from low-income backgrounds. It’s also happening amid heightened hostility towards LGBTQ+ and stories about non-white people. The company is facing censure in Virginia courts for even selling genderqueer and A court of mist and fury.

Authors and B&N employees respond

An email I was able to get from an anonymous source showed that this post has been reverberating on the marketing side of the industry for a while now, and with writers who initially don’t, the strategy is to relaunch B&N after a few weeks of showing strong sales elsewhere. Elsewhere, agents confirmed that once a book is released in paperback, B&N has signaled that it will no longer restock hardcover copies as well. In response to the news around August 17, many authors took to social media to vent their frustration.

The perpetrators were not a united front, however, like some online like Alexa Donne (who has since deleted the videos) questioned the validity of these whistleblowers (the majority of whom were black) until the evidence piled up.

There’s also been this back-and-forth tension between stores, as they have to follow company rules and aren’t allowed to be culturally sensitive to their regional community. Allowing individual stores to run TikTok accounts, for example, shows the positive that can come from allowing wiggle room, which this new policy won’t do.

While there is reason to be upset with B&N (and the runaway monopolies that put power in the hands of most of them and Amazon), publishers are also to blame. Not only do they follow a similar path of anti-competitive behavior (see Department of Justice v Penguin Random House), but B&N told the company it had to prioritize paperbacks for certain age groups and/or better market their titles, the latter of which has been part of the discourse of authors and publishers for years.

(photo: Sean on Flikr)

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