Barnes & Noble: A Lonely, Forbidding Place for An Innocent Young Book

I used to regularly do retail surveys of bookstores, typically Barnes & Noble or the late, lamented Borders, but also independent bookstores and delightful bookshops of all sorts. With all the Barnes & Noble troubles and struggles, I hadn’t visited our local store (Aliso Viejo Town Center) for several months. The store and its offerings seldom changed, and I typically only went in to meet with friends and colleagues in the always-packed coffee shop. There are at least half a dozen other coffee alternatives within walking distance of this coffee shop; so there’s something about the studying tables, or ability to snatch magazines and have a cup of coffee or dessert that keeps customers there. It isn’t the availability of outlets for laptops, as Starbucks and Peets have … there aren’t any in this charming location and the employees are glad to tell you so. It isn’t usually the service, and it’s not the coffee: “Seattle’s Best” can’t hold a candle to Peets, Bagels & Brew or the lovely Neighborhood Cup that’s INSIDE the Aliso Viejo Library.

So, the Barnes & Noble coffee shop thrives!

The rest of the store? Not so much. Barnes & Noble is a lonely, frightening place for a young book to be all by itself. And this, in a real world where more young people are reading (books) than ever before, and younger readers say they prefer real, paper books to e-books or tablet reading (before you, reader who says “She is always wrong, they’re all reading on e-readers … try this additional). Because I actually speak with my students and others I meet in different environments who are age 28 and younger, these surveys are confirmed by my in-person market research. Younger people like real, paper books, and when they find books they enjoy, they will buy and read them.

On to the rest of the store:

Someone may or may not have bought one of the boxed sets (display up prior to March 20th)

Children’s and YA areas

One mom, two little ones, reading and playing in the worn and torn “children’s corner.” Judging by the racks, the big-sellers in that area were the inexpensive picture books: various Disney princesses, old-standards like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Golden Books, and Berenstain Bears. The same books I bought for Meredith almost 20 years ago. The fevered fervor for YA books I saw 5–10 years ago: gone. Rick Riordan languishes. The stalwart, standard fantasy/sci fi YA books (Harry Potter, etc) sit untouched. The glossy “Spirit Animals” series with writing by such incredible talents as Sean Williams — man, these books look like total kidbait and — really kind of not moving. What was selling, judging by what needed to be restocked: . . And, selling so well that the only available copy said “To be a feature film coming soon,” Lois Lowry’s .

See the endcap above? Not quite so “packed in” as the one I saw last year in the grocery store “bestseller” (paid, TNG) display. This book and its various editions, packages, special-whatevers, is selling about as well as a Hot Cheetos/Mountain Dew display at Whole Foods. Despite the (the quality product made 4 times the amount Insurgent did on its opening weekend).

Anne Rice: selling

New Releases in Hardcover

Yesterday (Tuesday, April 21) was release day for Greg Isles and by Anne Rice (A.N. Roquelaure). The only new hardcover moving at all in the store was the Anne Rice book, with evidence of 5–6 copies selling at the front of the store and additional 4–5 out of this dump. Greg Isles? I lost my $10 bet that it would center on the discovery of a nude white female body. It’s about the killing of an African-American nurse. I couldn’t tell if she was discovered clothed or nude from my cursory overview. Greg may have sold one book at this store. All other dumps and paid displays pristine and untouched. Greg Isles v. Anne Rice Amazon rankings … Anne Rice #457 in Books. Greg Isles an amazing #85 in Books on Amazon — the book was barely ranked yesterday.

According to Booklist, “Absolutely compelling… A beautifully constructed story, some extremely fine writing, and some hard-to-bear tragedy.… Everything is big about this one: its epic scale [and] its built-in readership based on the success of its predecessor.” (Greg Isles — The Bone Tree — a sequel to “something else with a dead female body”).

Other evidence of hardcover sales at the front (paid) discount display portion of the store included mostly business and self-improvement titles and very limited action among others. The store is near a number of large employers and headquarters including Pacific Life (the planner/developer of Aliso Viejo).

Mass-market mysteries — popular with retro covers

Mass-Market Dumps and Displays by Genre

And here is an interesting change. Not only were a goodly number of the mystery titles moving, but the retro-cover and small, genuine pocket or pocketbook size has emerged. We can quibble about cover quality (there were some real doozies on the rack — in fact, the WORSE the cover from an aesthetic perspective, the better the sales …)

Theory here?

Well, here is one that showed action both at the front of the store and back in the stacks:

, by Dawn Eastman. Dawn’s book doesn’t have any starred Booklist reviews, but it is part of a series, about a female cop named Clyde Fortune.

“A tightly plotted, character-driven triumph of a mystery…Sparkles with charmingly peculiar characters and a fascinating heroine, Clyde Fortune, who effortlessly shuffles the reader into her world like a card in a tarot deck. Eastman is fabulous!” — Jenn McKinlay, bestselling author of the Library Lover’s Mysteries, the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries, and the Hat Shop Mysteries

Well there ya go. To the jaded Studio Art major and design aficionado’s eye, the “cover from Hell.” To the readers who like a good mystery that’s not overlong … those are two dogs, but that book cover is pure catnip. That cover, virtually indistinguishable from hundreds of “self-published” covers and worse than many from a design perspective (What is that Christmas Tree font???) — it’s doing its job. Everyone in the art departments for the mass market publishers has gone total 70s retro.



I have noticed fine details like “Colonel Chicken Teater” upon second glance — in its way, this cover is a magnificent achievement. In its way. Also selling. At least it can fit into the “Fun With Photoshop” category.

Recent sci-fi in-field controversy aside: Larry Correia Monster Hunter books were moving in all the dumps and shelves and those covers are not Rembrandt …

Death Aisles (Sci-fi and Fantasy)

I always hate going to the sci-fi and fantasy aisles. The only change seems to be in the negative direction. Few ever shop there. Those who do … you always see them reading David Drake or David Weber books. Sometimes Eric Flint. (Aside: anime & manga books packed in tighter than a tick … they may have utterly run their course).

These are the regular 3 George R.R. Martin shelves in the “aisle of death” (). Most of these are simply different size/age/format editions of the same books (self-explanatory). The one that appears to have sold (upper right, red spine) didn’t. We moved it to look at it. Outside this area was something that might be called an end-cap, but it was actually a pyramid-shaped display (stack or building project with book-blocks) of every imaginable Game of Thrones-related book and product stacked from the floor to waist-height. Similarly to the display, this appeared untouched.

Most-Active Shelves

  • Christian Books (including fiction, several genres, trade paper and mass market) — this section appears much larger than on previous visits, including more titles and rack space in all segments. B & N may have “noticed.”
  • “Other” Religious Books
  • Romance (mass-market)
  • Mystery (mass-market)
  • Classic Literature displays (sort-of)
  • Featured award-winners in children’s lit (Trade Paper) — “literary” or realistic seemed to be preferred

I’ve been involved in the publishing industry for almost 20 years now. The simple customer-oriented retail survey we just did is seldom found in any industry-specific publications. An article I read last year that was widely-shared (a single-author complaint about low gender diversity in UK bookseller Waterstones) was really, really personal, though it had specific marketing examples such as Waterstone’s old-fashioned, unattractive and male/70s/80s author-dominated sci-fi/fantasy in-store marketing posters. This is the kind of thing writers share around to make brownie points amongst one-another for their complaints.

So, the type of business that does well in our community of about 50,000 here in Aliso Viejo (South Orange County) is one that appeals to those who live here or nearby, or who work in one of the large businesses located here. It’s called market demographics; non-existent in the book trade since Barnes & Noble has pretty much the same books no matter where you go, just as McDonalds has the same food, and chooses to work, for the most part, with the same 5 primary suppliers aside from its own private-label product.

Aliso Viejo 2013 population was 50,175, 4.3% population growth since 2010 Census, 7.7% under 5 years of age, 5.3% over age 65, 51.9% female, and 25.9% are 18 and under. This is a white town — 72%, even though the nickname “Asian Viejo” is commonly heard. About 15% of those who live here are Asian, and 17% identify as Latino. Median household income is over $99,000, and median individual income is $44,699, both significantly more than statewide averages. The median home value is $462,800, and 61% of those who live here own their own home. 30 percent do speak a language other than English at home — it’s South Orange County so this language may well be Farsi, Arabic, or Spanish. Nearly 60% of those who live here have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and 95.2% have a high school diploma. $662 million in retail sales were done here in 2007 and this figure is certainly higher today. The per-capita retail sales were $16,269 in 2007, and food services sales were $53.7 million, also in 2007. You would — like many of the thriving businesses here — want to open the right business in this community.

Guess which business recently : Burger King.

Guess which businesses recently opened (past 18 months)? Whole Foods and Peets Coffee (among many others, including numerous fitness/fitness related businesses).

And the Barnes & Noble is not moving merchandise. It is doing active insult to quite a bit of merchandise with its practice of creating fake “endcaps” by stacking books and related items on the floor underneath real endcaps. People will (and I’m sure do) trip on the books haphazardly stacked on the floor. Table displays are placed so it is difficult to walk between aisles. Other large metal racks are awkwardly placed, interfering with store traffic, with unnatural orientations. Much store space is devoted to ill-displayed toys, gifts and other similar items. A giant cardboard Walmart-style display for expensive retro vinyl records is jammed in the middle aisle. Employees do not dust; dust visible on every exposed shelf and surface.

The “first thought” about all of this is that “people don’t buy and read books any longer.” Again, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would have more than adequate capital to fund a really robust marketing program for every Chameleon book planned or imagined for the next two years. “Second thought” is “everyone is reading e-books.” A dollar for that phrase heard would pay for Rian Hughes to design every Chameleon book. Yes, Virginia, there was an extensive Nook display in the front of this Barnes & Noble (I was SO behind the times — B & N is keeping the Nook as part of its business. Now they are getting rid of their 600+ unprofitable college bookstores. I know. How is it possible to LOSE money on a college bookstore with a captive audience and mandatory sales?).

Statistics show otherwise. Aliso Viejo is the ideal location for this store to thrive. Yet, it’s not — and it is not 100% due to Barnes & Noble’s overall corporate problems. The average customer doesn’t “know” of the company’s financial struggles. They know the bookstore, where it is located, and will shop in it if they are having the customer experience they desire. If they follow today’s shopping patterns, chances are they very likely will shop online before going to the actual store to purchase — for price, other information, or ideas.

It feels like stuff in the store has just been there forever without selling … but that’s not 100% the case. Compared to some other retailers, there’s more turnover. However, Men’s Wearhouse and Books a Million, another large book retailer (1/3 the size of B & N) and Men’s Wearhouse, where the suits seem perennially the same, are both more profitable than B & N.

B & N 2014 Days Inventory 106.73 Inventory Turnover 3.42

Men’s Wearhouse 2014 Days Inventory 152.41 Inventory Turnover 2.39

Books A Million 2014 Days Inventory 219.31 Inventory Turnover 1.66

As to use of store real estate:

B & N sales per square foot $258 (about 15% less than 2003 figures I found) Walmart sales per square foot $424 Books-A-Million $198 (approx. 10% higher than 2003)

There’s a baseball analogy in the works. Like the “Big Bang” homerun style of AL baseball that was all shaken up by “Billy Ball” and the Oakland Athletics in the early 80s.

The Barnes & Noble, and ever-evolving big publishing “home run,” emphasis seems to be one of the key problems in the foot traffic/sales at these stores. And as the “biggest game in town” amid the fragmentation of the rest of the retail book industry and manufacturing supplier side … it is what it is. Not great for books and readers despite all the “choice” the stores offer.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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