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A Big-Box Perspective: Notes from B&N CEO James Daunt’s Keynote Address

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by Kathryn Sparks, Senior Editor, American Academy of Pediatrics —

Kathryn Sparks

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt spoke with IBPA leaders at IBPA Publishing University 2021 about bookstore curation, DEI, print on demand, and more.

On April 8, 2021, IBPA Publishing University kicked off with an informative and exciting conversation between IBPA Board of Directors Chair Karla Olson and Barnes & Noble (B&N) CEO James Daunt. After a challenging year for many industries, top of mind was the status of B&N as the brick-and-mortar marketplace continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. This unexpected global shift provided B&N the time to pivot, pausing to reevaluate the chain store’s physical space.

The Physical Space

“It really gave us a chance to sort of fundamentally rip the store apart. Literally take all the books off the shelves,” Daunt said. According to the CEO, this vision allowed for two purposes: to create a more attractive space that allowed for more books, and to rethink where each book should be placed.

The big-box store mainly considered layout as key in ensuring the flow of sections and categories while making a strong effort to “have the right books in the right place.” Daunt explained that curation decisions are ultimately up to the individual bookseller, with various ways of categorizing: Do you put a biography of Abraham Lincoln in the biography section or in the US history section?

Olson conveyed the importance of the publisher role in book placement consideration and how they can assist booksellers on book positioning within the store. While independent bookstores typically already have a strong sense of their own curation, Daunt added, “I definitely think publishers can usefully try and understand how bookstores are arranged and where … the gaps are.”

Local Curation

With many IBPA members also representing small independent publishers, Olson emphasized how they continue to applaud the local curation in each bookstore and questioned the best way to approach local stores to stock their publications. Though email works just fine, Daunt
encouraged publishers to talk to booksellers, coupled with looking into distribution options such as Ingram’s.

“At the end of the day, we [Barnes & Noble] do need to be able to order the books easily and sensibly, bring them into our own DC [distribution center] generally, and then get them out to our stores,” Daunt said. Alongside book placement and updated layouts as freedoms recently allotted to the bookstore chain, more genuine autonomy was also given to each local store.

“One of the core principles we are trying to follow is to give much … greater freedom to the individual stores to determine what is best for them,” Daunt said.

With the ability to curate their own stores also comes accountability for what is offered. A recent controversy over a particular title being listed on Powell’s website led to protests outside the store. Ultimately, Amazon chose to remove the book from the website, citing objections over how it described LGBTQ+ as a mental illness. When asked about B&N’s stance on this, Daunt said, “Traditionally, Barnes & Noble has taken a very firm view that we should stock everything, and that it is the position of a bookseller not to censor and to ensure freedom of speech. I think that is certainly true. We, as booksellers, should stand by the books that we have in our stores. But there is a point at which the offensively, obnoxious, or dangerous has no place in the bookstore.”

While determining the line between freedom of speech and hate speech for profit can be a struggle, Daunt explained that there are different degrees to this conversation, agreeing that booksellers and publishers alike need to think it through very carefully.

Progressive Change

Olson segued the conversation to IBPA’s initiative to develop a strategic plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), highlighting the organization’s strong efforts to look inward at membership programs and policies, and asked what work B&N is currently doing in this important space.

Daunt noted that B&N, along with many parts of the industry, features teams predominately white and highly privileged. “We have to be able to reach out and become inclusive and not a place that feels intimidating for those who have not enjoyed the elevated education that has been the traditional route into places of power, and I think that is advancing. Seeing that happen at the top of our business is going to be relatively slow because the nature of turnover in our business is slow. We are coming to a natural point where there is beginning to be a cycle of change.”

Daunt is confident that change is currently happening and will continue.

“Clearly, Black Lives Matter as the social event of the year will hopefully remain in everybody’s consciousness as something long overdue and, after many false starts, has really precipitated a process of looking inwards … and actually making meaningful change,” he added. The DEI conversation led to other topics of discussion, including the content offered at stores, and how diverse content is chosen. Daunt explained that booksellers have been skilled at promoting the kinds of books that educate and encourage social change. “We have a responsibility to make sure that there is diversity both in the authors that we’re promoting and selling, but also the subjects that they’re addressing.”

Book Discovery

Angela Bole, IBPA CEO, joined the conversation and explained that making a book available is not difficult, but publishing a book with the various steps and professionalism involved is very difficult. With the publishing industry seeing a lot more print-on-demand (POD) opportunities, Bole asked whether B&N has any interest in participating in this effort.

Daunt admitted that B&N has no plans to include any POD features such as the Espresso Book Machine. “Print on demand is an efficient way to get a real book into somebody’s hands, and there is a clear place for it, particularly when print volumes are extremely low, but I feel it kind of belongs a little bit in the same way that online does,” he said. Despite being skeptical about POD, he acknowledged that many beautiful, high-quality print-on-demand books are published, and one option would be to have a POD machine within the distribution center to ensure swift logistics to update supply if need be.

Daunt explained that while the big-box bookstore concept predated Amazon, it was not conducive to the book discovery and browsing experience customers can find today, especially during a global pandemic, where the interest in reading and book buying seems to have increased.

“I think there has been a sort of general rediscovery of books and great strength in the market at the moment,” Daunt said. “We are now ultimately a bookstore that we hope is enjoyed by our customers, a place in which to discover books, to browse and find the thing that one hadn’t thought to buy, rather than a place that you come in with your predetermined book that you’re seeking.” When asked about Amazon alternatives, Daunt spoke highly of the book behemoth, attributing their success to their incredible efficiency and low prices.

“I think as booksellers who’ve suffered so hugely in having so much of the market share ripped away from us by Amazon we can feel sort of sore about it, but the reality is that it was ripped away from us because we weren’t efficient enough, and we weren’t clever enough, and we weren’t good enough, and they were.”

Daunt added that Amazon qualifies as a brilliant retailer and publisher. “But having said that, as a bookseller, you know they are terrifying and, therefore, one hopes that people … still support their bookstore, be that an independent or Barnes & Noble.”

The Industry’s Future

Daunt, who happens to also run independent publishing company Daunt Publishing, said one of his greatest joys of being a bookseller has been watching children grow up throughout his career.

“One of the key measures for me as to the success of a store is the diversity of people that they have coming into it and the age ranges that you have. … The energy of a store often comes from its young adults, the teenagers, those kids who are having fun in the store, just enjoying themselves.”

When asked how he plans on using his vision for the community-based store model to transform the book publishing industry, Daunt said it is not his position to do so. “I think if we are a responsible and energetic bookseller, we will allow the publishers to do their job, which is that it’s the publishers who are discovering new talent, nurturing, designing books, creating. We need to give them a predictable, responsible, quick, and decent means to prosper and sell.”

With that in mind, Daunt hopes more bookstores will be created and thrive in the future.

“We are a place that can amplify good books, and the better we get at that, the more effective we will be to publishers as a means to create good selling and profitable books.”

Kathryn Sparks is a senior editor at the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is also a member of the IBPA Board of Directors and Advocacy Committee.

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