The Woes of Barnes & Noble

In 2012, I organized a panel at SXSW on the future of artificial intelligence with Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson.

I've spoken at SX many times, but I was pretty excited last year because it was the first time I was going since my novels had been published and, alongside Daniel, I was scheduled for an signing slot at the onsite Barnes & Noble bookstore. My first book signing!

Unfortunately, when I arrived, it turned out Barnes & Noble had failed to actually get any copies of my books, and so my signing didn't happen.

I had dinner with a Barnes & Noble Vice President the next night (a weird coincidence), and told her my story. She was very apologetic, and asked if there was anything she could do. Joking, I said, "It's OK, I just told everyone to buy my books on Amazon." She face-palmed, and we both laughed over it.

I'm going back to SXSW this year. I was invited to do a reading from my second novel, and again asked to do a signing at the bookstore.

But, once again, Barnes & Noble won't stock my book. (This time they at least told me up front.) It turns out they won't order copies because it's a print-on-demand book.

The reason this matters has to do with the relationship between publishers and bookstores. Traditionally, publishers take all the risk. The bookstore orders a book, and if they don't sell it, they send it back to the publisher, who gives them a full refund. It doesn't work this way with print-on-demand books however: if the bookstore orders it, they've assumed the risk and can't return it.

However, this is still a decision for the bookstore to make. Will they accept some risk in exchange for being able to make a sale they wouldn't make otherwise? (All business decisions carry some risk; if they choose not to stock the book, they're accepting the risk of lost sales.)

Amazon ordered several hundred copies of my print books going into the holiday season to ensure that they'd have sufficient stock to handle Christmas sales. They took the risk to stock those books (paying my royalties up front, and well as paying the cost of making a print-on-demand book), in order to be better able to fulfill their hoped-for sales.

I've sold tens of thousands of books in the last year, and though I have distribution of both ebooks and print through Barnes & Noble, 99.5% of my sales have been through Amazon.

When Barnes & Noble doesn't stock my book, they can't make the sale. They're choosing to give the sale to their primary competitor. Readers lose out on chance discoveries, indie-authors are alienated, and in the end, Barnes & Noble risks business irrelevance.

It's no wonder the financial news for Barnes & Noble looks bleak: Where Barnes & Noble Went Wrong, How Many Strikes Does Barnes & Noble Get? and Outlook Dims for Barnes & Noble.

By the way, if you'll be at SXSW this year, I'd love to get together. Along with Gene Kim, we'll probably do a bar-meetup one night and buy drinks. I'll sign Amazon-purchased books, kindles, or business cards. Just don't expect to buy my books from Barnes & Noble.





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