Saving Barnes & Noble from Itself

I’m guilty. 

I go to my local bookstore, drink a coffee and
browse the shelves. When I get home, I rush to the computer and buy the books I
fancied – online! If it’s a business
, I download a copy on my digital reader, and if it’s a literary
, I buy the physical book at a discounted price. 

As a way to assuage my guilt, I’ve thought of
some ways to help my local bookstore survive – because, like so many of us, I
love the physical bookstore experience – nothing beats the Zen practice of
disinterested info-grazing – and I’d like to continue to enjoy it.

However, I notice at my local Barnes & Noble that
they’re busy selling Nook ereaders in every cranny. [Do they really think they
can compete with the iPad or even Kindle?] Is this really going to save the
physical store?  Nope. 

Most likely, it’s an idea dreamt up by the
financial types at headquarters who’ve been “missioned” to tap into the digital
value-stream. After all, why should B&N just stand there and watch their
profits drift lazily down a South American river? It’s important to note that
despite B&N saying the Nook is a “success,” they still rely on brick and
mortar stores (retail and college bookstores) for over 75%
of their revenue
and the competition is going to become even more intense with
dozens of new tablet and reader devices being introduced this year.

And how does B&N take a trip down the Nile? Apparently,
the secret sauce is that they allow Nook owners to take their devices into any
B&N physical store and read any e-book for free. Nooktalk
tells us  that in reality, it’s not
exactly a seamless reading experience. 
And now that Amazon allows Kindle owners to “lend
books to each other, the Nook may find itself in the, ahem, corner.

So what can your local bookstore do to take advantage of its strengths? 

Here are three suggestions to shake up the physical bookstore business model:

Daily Book Rental
Why can’t the bookstore become a pay-as-you-read library? As a kid growing up
in India, I remember borrowing books (alright, some these were Asterix and Tintin comics) from the bookstore for a daily fee.  This business model shows some reverse
promise. Can you imagine “tiered pricing” linked to free coffee
rewards?  Sign up for the all-you-can-read buffet. And of course,
we get to pay fines if we return our books late.

Publish and
Distribute Local Books

What if a physical copy of your book
gets published
and sold in your town’s bookstore? 
Can you visualize a “Newbie Authors” section where one copy of your book
gets to sit on the shelf for a week?  If
it doesn’t sell in a week, you can either pay for shelf space or you can buy
your books back.  The minute you or your
mother buys your Great American Novel, a new one is printed and placed on the
shelf. The top 5 bestsellers in each town get national distribution and
placement for a week.  Book fest!

Nurture Communities
of Interest
Some book stores think they are already doing
this by sponsoring author readings and cheese tasting events.  But what we need is more focused on the
actual needs and interests of the customer – practical and impractical.  Here are some examples of the types of
participatory communities that could be grown and nurtured in your local

  • Healthy Living
  • Relationships
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Food + Wine
  • Storytelling/Writing
  • Music
  • Art History
  • Travel

How does a bookstore do this?  If you’re Barnes and Noble, you could hire
retired teachers to do this; pick people who are enthusiastic and spread their
love of the subject.  If you’re a small
bookstore, you can still find enthusiastic community leaders to do the same –
in fact you can specialize, and create a niche around the main clientele in
your store.

Does all of this sound a bit off the wall?  Good, then it’s worth a try.  The Nook, I’m sorry to say, isn’t going to
save Barnes & Noble.

P.S. Over at HBR, Sarah Green gives us another suggestion: Amazon should partner with Independent Bookstores!