Wake up Barnes & Noble!

Growing up, my parents often took us to Barnes and Noble. Whether it was Friday evening after dinner or a rainy Sunday afternoon, trips to the bookstore were a rare occasion that fed the curiosities of everyone in my family — something they believed should be practiced often.

These trips to B&N planted seeds to learn something new. My sister would head over to the fashion section; my father to the business or new releases, my brother often to the video game magazines and my mother to the travel section or novels. Although we found ourselves browsing different areas, there were always new conversations at home that led to us understanding each other’s interests and goals better than before.
 
Since I grew up going to Barnes & Noble, the recent New York Times article, “The Bookstore’s Last Stand,” frustrated me even more.  In it, B&N spells out their plan to focus solely on selling the Nook and digital content to save the fledging company.
 
Sound familiar? It should: it’s an uninspired “me-too” strategy following in the footsteps of Amazon. But here’s the difference — if B&N continues down this path, they’ll be transforming a brick-and-mortar book browsing asset into a device retailer that more closely resembles Best Buy or Radio Shack.
 
Stores are an asset
I’m a self-professed Amazon fangirl and admire what they’re doing with the publishing industry. They’re taking an inefficient and unreasonable economic model and turning it upside-down, democratizing a platform that has been inaccessible to thousands of would-be writers. In the end, writers, readers and trees win.
 
Rightly so, B&N, as well as the publishing industry, is terrified of Amazon. But in the quest to drive more e-book sales, B&N risks overlooking one of its largest competitive advantages: its stores. Despite the profession that “our stores are going nowhere,” CEO William Lynch is focusing on the wrong areas of his retail spaces:

Back in New York, Mr. Lynch has been working to revamp the look of Barnes & Noble stores. Last year, the company expanded sections for toys and games and added shiny new display space for its Nook devices. In another sign of the digital revolution, Mr. Lynch expects to eliminate the dedicated sections for music and DVD’s within two years — while still selling some of them elsewhere in the stores. He also plans to experiment with slightly smaller stores.
 
I’m astounded by the shortsightedness. If these moves are taken to be true, Lynch will be ignoring the core tenets of the bookstore, cited elsewhere in the same article: 

 What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.
B&N doesn’t need to rethink the book — they need to rethink the store. Expanding the size of toys & games doesn’t cut it. People go there to learn something new, be entertained, or find information.
 
So how do you rethink the retail experience and take advantage of 703 stores in 50 states? Pull an Apple. Even better, it’s an area where Amazon will be hard-pressed to compete.
 
Barnes and Noble 2.0: Creating Experiences
What large bookstores have always been successful at is their ability to provide access to thousands of topics in a single place. B&N should embrace this promise by dedicating 15-30% of floorspace to a theater/classroom. The Prince Street Apple store in New York City comes to mind — offering a comfortable auditorium where ideas can be shared or classes taught.
 
Want to learn to cook? Interested in WWII history? Taking a trip to Thailand? All of these answers sit on the bookshelves of B&N. Harnessing all of the knowledge in the space to get more people into the store is only the beginning. Providing a third place in a community where people can spend time learning is the bigger vision. 
 
Educational content at scale
Providing in-depth classes, teachers and a curriculum is a huge undertaking but thankfully there is a growing trend in a new educational model. Instead of recruiting teachers for a strict curriculum, content will be driven by the community. SkillShare and Dabble, startups that allows anyone to teach or take a class, have proven there is demand for learning from our peers. “Teachers” (people with passion about a topic) offer their courses for a set price, attendees purchase tickets online and classes are taught in person. The company takes a portion of ticket sales.
 
Whether B&N would build the same technology or license/buy an existing company is up to them. They already have the advantage of an massive distribution system: email, retail, loyalty customers. This could see an additional revenue stream from their retail spaces and would match well to selling books that match the topic taught in each class.
 
Publishers need a new perspective
A seemingly misguided publishing president said, ”the biggest challenge is to give people a reason to step into Barnes & Noble stores in the first place. ‘They have figured out how to use the store to sell e-books,” she said of the company. “Now, hopefully, we can figure out how to make that go full circle and see how the e-books can sell the print books.’”
 
This overlooks two major opportunities for publishers. First, publishers, just like music executives a few years ago, have to realize that making money off of the content alone is a dying business. Packaging the paperbook as a limited edition, adding media or access to the author will become more common as ebooks drive down the price of books. B&N doesn’t have to just be a sales channel for paperbooks, it can be a personal plaform to sell the book, author and extra experiences.
 
Second, the key to a successful book is attracting an audience. Good writing is essential, but customers are key to making money. The publisher’s role is to distribute, promote and market the story to find the audience. Cutting through the noise of thousands of books on a bookshelf is no small feat, but there is a huge opportunity to reach the thousands of people walking into physical stores to make them part of that audience. Publishers should focus on how to grow the audience more than just the medium in which content sold.
 
How could book stores help with that? Imagine if media, video and voice recordings from the author came with the book. They could distribute the ideas of the author, her true voice and vision into rich experiences across the country. People would show up to be entertained and may leave as new readers. We’ve seen movies made from books drive more book sales, why not let every author have that chance using new media? Even a simple video of the author reading a passage is a low cost way to spread the message. If B&N can provide the audience and the instant gratification of retail, it seems like a win-win.
 
Bigger vision, bigger mission
In a country where unemployment borders double-digits and higher education is showing the signs of a bubble, there is a huge opportunity to create a third place to learn new skills and feed curiosity for new opportunities. Barnes & Noble already has an existing advantage of presence in communities across the country, so instead of being concerned about being disrupted by an online retailer, it should instead focus on disrupting another industry entirely: education. 
 
Barnes and Noble shouldn’t just be thinking about reinventing the book, but rather, the bookstore. And perhaps in the future, my family will travel to Barnes and Noble on a Friday evening to spend an hour learning together — and, who knows — we might even buy a book. 

I’ve made a habit to write when I have ideas about different industries. I’m going to start sharing them instead of keeping them in a folder. Comments, thoughts and advice on better writing are welcome! @br_ttany