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Bookish Diversions: ‘You’ve Got Mail’ Was Wrong
Barnes & Noble ≠ Devil, the Rise of Audiobooks, Technological Change, Technophobia, More
¶ To a certain group of filmgoers, there are few movies more iconic than 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. It’s prime Tom Hanks and peak Meg Ryan. And it’s about books! Particularly a David-and-Goliath tale of an indie bookseller battling the big-box retailer, Barnes & Noble. Yes, the store is called Fox Books in the movie, but we know it’s B&N; in fact, as B&N’s ascendancy faltered in 2013, the Onion ran this story: “Fox Books Files For Bankruptcy.” Everyone got the joke.
What You’ve Got Mail couldn’t anticipate was the impact of a marginal company founded four year’s earlier in 1994: Amazon. B&N may have put indies out of business at the turn of the millennium, but Amazon began chipping away at its market dominance soon thereafter.
In the decade following the Great Recession B&N’s luck soured. They churned through four CEOs in five years and shuttered 150 stores, the New York Times reported. Revenues cratered between 2012 and 2019, plummeting from $7.13 billion to just $3.55 billion. Some of this decline was its own doing—the result of poor leadership and bad strategy—but market pressure from Amazon raised the stakes while lowering the odds B&N could pull out of the death spiral.
Amazingly, they did.
Under new leadership they edged up 2021 revenue 3 percent over 2019. And now they’re set to expand. “Barnes & Noble plans to grow its fleet by 30 stores next year,” the Wall Street Journal reported in December. “The bookseller had been contracting for more than a decade as it struggled to compete with Amazon.com Inc. and other online retailers, and now has about 125 fewer stores than it did at its peak 14 years ago. But this year Barnes & Noble is opening more stores than it is closing. . . .”
Three percent growth, opening more than closing—we can be honest: This is a low bar. And it’s fascinating what that represents. B&N is now the underdog, like the Shop Around the Corner in You’ve Got Mail, and we’re all rooting for Fox Books now.
Why? For one reason, demonizing the chain always rang a little false to some of us. I never had the negative association with B&N that some did because I grew up in Northern Californian suburb with little bookstore selection. There were a few good bookstores in Sacramento—including a B&N—but as a teenager they weren’t easy to get to. Instead, I ended up frequenting a B&N in San Jose when visiting my aunt and uncle. There were more books on the shelves than I’d ever seen anywhere.
I can still recall specific books I purchased in the middle 1990s: Terry Teachout’s Second Mencken Chrestomathy, which had just come out, and C. S. Lewis’s Study in Words, my first clue about the wider Lewis corpus beyond Narnia and The Space Trilogy (both links show updated covers, not the originals). One thing that stands out from that memory: B&N used to have exceptional book selection. Outside a few famous urban bookshops, your best shot a finding something unique before Amazon was probably B&N; nobody was scratching that itch at Walden’s.1
That underscores a truth some might only reluctantly admit. For many of us, B&N always was the Shop Around the Corner. It was our local bookstore. It didn’t run our bookstore out of business; it finally brought the business to us. Say otherwise and we risk romanticizing what was for many of us a literary wasteland.
For those who once loathed Barnes & Noble for pushing their local bookseller out of business, which certainly happened many times over, B&N has now become their local bookshop, too, one of a few places in town where they can browse books instead of pixels. It can feel as though it’s the last redoubt against the total domination of Amazon. Publishers love B&N for that reason alone; it’s another account to carry inventory and a competitive hedge against Amazon.
That leaves open a question. How did B&N turn it around?has a helpful essay with his take.
It’s amazing how much difference a new boss can make. . . . In the case of Barnes & Noble, the new boss was named James Daunt. And he had already turned around Waterstones, a struggling book retailing chain in Britain.
This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books.
“Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”
Back when I was in publishing, B&N had centralized buying. I went with our sales team at Thomas Nelson on calls to B&N’s national HQ. One pitch meeting resulted in buys for the entire country. That meant, among other things, an author’s fate rested in the hands of one buyer—would they take thousands of units or a few hundred? It also meant that every shop tended to look the same with the same inventory, regardless of local tastes.
Daunt turned that around and allowed local shops to stock what they believed their communities wanted to read. And they should know—at least better than someone sitting in a tiny cubical in Manhattan. So your local B&N is truly local these days; Fox became the Shop Around the Corner. It’s also acquired more company, even some new competition. Independent booksellers are on the rebound; more than 300 have opened nationwide in the last few years, according to the Times.
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¶ Now hear this! While a decent majority of survey respondents consider listening to a book inferior to reading it, during the same period B&N struggled to survive the audio format experienced wild growth—and still is. “This segment of publishing is coming off nine consecutive years of double-digit sales growth,” says Shannon Maughan, citing Audio Publishers Association data. “And the Association of American Publishers reports that audio sales grew by 157% between 2015 and 2020.” Writing in Publishers Weekly, Maughan offers a thorough history of audiobooks, worth reading if you enjoy the format—and maybe even if you don’t.
One study by Beth Rogowsky, associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, asking students either to read a nonfiction book or listen to the audio version, found no significant differences in how much of it they absorbed. (Although when it comes to something complex or unfamiliar, the US psychologist and expert in reading comprehension Daniel Willingham suggests reading in print may be useful for going back to reread the difficult bits you didn’t quite get the first time, or stopping to think it all through.)
I love audiobooks, but Rogowsky’s finding doesn’t quite match my experience. I’d say I definitely retain more with print books. Then again, I can’t walk 5 miles and maintain a 17-minute mile while reading a hardback book. I’ve done it. Don’t recommend it. Audio works better on a stroll.
¶ Change is constant. One thing clear from the B&N story and Maughan’s history of audiobooks is that everything changes. Products, customer demand, competitors—there’s no end to the ebb and flow. As we look at the impact of AI tools such as ChatGPT and what they might mean for the book world, it’s and observation worth keeping in mind. Maughan addresses this directly in her piece:
Technology is nothing if not fluid, so audiobook publishers will certainly be facing new ideas about what an audiobook is in the coming years. First up, they’re considering if and where computer-generated narration and other forms of AI fit into the audiobook world. We’ll stay tuned.
We all will. And we all need to. Apple has, for instance, already announced AI narration on books in its bookstore with the express purpose of allowing small publishers who can’t afford audiobooks production a means of releasing their books in the format. Naturally, there are critics.
But we should engage these and other developments with the lesson learned from You’ve Got Mail. Taking a moralistic stance against economic or technological change doesn’t really get us anywhere. And the next wave of change might undermine our stance regardless.
¶ Something beautiful:
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We had one of those sad little Walden shops in a strip mall not far from where I lived in Roseville, California. Later, Borders opened up. I went to work there (which also had a fantastic book selection for the time) in the late 1990s. Before that I worked at a wonderful used bookshop I hope to write more about someday.