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At the end of this article there are useful tips for those who are passionate about publishing and want to make this passion a job, a bit like us.

But this time the advice comes from a business story that amazed us a lot and that is worth telling you, to understand how much the publishing world has reached senseless, dull and out of control excesses that are leading to ruin the very giants who they fed them. It is a story that has nothing to do with independent bookstores, or with independence in general, because it is about business and billions of dollars. However, it is worth telling it because it is observing the world outside of what we often forge ourselves to define "market niche" that we build the basis for the publishing that we and many others look for every day can become an increasingly widespread, living system. sustainable, able to spread culture and, why not, finally get out of the old idea of a "niche" for a few educated people or philosophers of paper regardless and finally become a solid system of cultural diffusion that accepts plurality.

The story begins December 5, 2020 with a front page book seller in the Wall Street Journal. Yes, you got it right, a front page book seller on the leading US financial newspaper. This seller, of course, bills some $ 3.5 billion a year, is called Barnes & Noble, and is the largest bookstore chain in America with over 640 stores and a robust distribution system.

The news to give, as often happens in the months of the second COVID wave, is that of a dramatic crisis in physical stores, in this case bookstores, which for Barnes & Noble together with distribution are the main sources of income.

In recent months, many of its bookshops have seen turnover decrease by up to 50% and a very deep crisis emerged in 2020, capable of wiping out a large part of the company.

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, a journalist who signs this long article, has been writing for the Wall Street Journal since 1989 and one of his sectors is the publishing industry.

And for someone who understands the best opening words to narrate this  dramatic situation is describing the absurd story of John Redford, manager of the Barnes & Noble store in Idaho Fall, in the state of Idaho. The store manager, now exempt from his function as a bookshop, tells how he now has no control over the management of books in his shop: some Director from the New York offices takes care of it.

Mr. Redford is forced to keep dozens of books by James Patterson and John Grisham on his table even if they are of little interest to his readers and often has to return almost all of them after a few months. The average return of Barnes & Noble? Between 25 and 50% of the titles that pass through its bookstores return to the publisher because they are unsold.

The publishing system that we have inherited for several decades works like this: it is absurdly based on the principle of surrender. The publisher, the first pillar of the system, needs to sell a book to prove to the company or shareholders that they have the numbers. And then the distribution floods the libraries of titles "with the right of return", or with the possibility of returning them to the publisher if unsold. Often he sends them regardless, without any logic, contextualization or selection. And since disposing of books costs money, the price to pay are very low margins for the bookstore, often below the limit of economic sustainability.

A useful system for small experiments, which, however, given the precarious financial situations of bookstores, often concerns 80-90% of the titles present. And soon the library turns into a pout pourri of everything, with the great physical limit of space that nothing can against the vast and indistinct Amazon catalog.

The first lesson of this story is the confirmation that the sales account is an unsustainable system, which feeds the death of bookstores despite the illusion of helping them, sometimes using the bookseller's scarce financial knowledge.


The story of Barnes & Noble continues by telling how top managers are in charge of everything, making general agreements with publishers who, in order to sell their books, are willing to pay extra contributions in order to see them put in the foreground in the store.

And then the small Idaho Fall bookstore finds itself exhibiting the books not according to what customers would ask for and perhaps would make more money, but according to an upstream agreement with the supplier. This makes massive libraries standardized showcases of books often unsaleable.


The other cornerstone of Barnes & Noble in the relationship with publishers is the search for the maximum "economy of scale", which to make each copy cost less for production (because if you don't sell the cost becomes a loss) it creates books that are all the same , monotonous, identical objects that often do not do justice to the content. The economy of scale pleases managers, but considerably flattens the appeal of the book as an object.


Still talking about the management of a bookshop as a department store, the bookseller selected as manpower by the great managers who are looking at all costs for a “shelf” at the lowest possible cost arrives. Not everyone is made to sell books, and if you like books but don't know how to recommend them, forget about this profession. Mr. Redford from Idaho Fall is clamoring for less personal but passionate about reading and paper, rather than the many who arrange the shelves to get their paycheck at the end of the month. The result of having fewer staff able to recommend books? Sell less.


This reconstruction that we found in Trachtenberg's article tells the evidence of some of the pillars they have

The turning point in this affair comes at the end of 2019, the Wall Street Journal tells us, to direct Barnes & Noble comes James Dunt, who has to face the nightmare turnover of 2020 while having all the inefficiencies of the system under his eyes just illustrated. And his plan since the end of 2020 is the largest anti-system action carried out by the very system of large publishing carried out to date.


In a recent meeting between publishers, dune states: "We have no divine right to exist as book sellers", finally ruling that the book itself is not a simulacrum, "How do booksellers justify themselves in the Amazon era? Only by creating places of joy, pleasure and serenity ”impossible to recreate online in the cold chaos of that department store that is Amazon.

Daunt says one thing that, even on the side of those who must have the manager's label on, we consider valid for many who do publishing: books and print media in general should not be saved at all costs. There is no written right to its existence, because it itself is sometimes ugly, inconsistent, has no specific purpose or economic or cultural utility.

The paper


Daunt on very large-scale systems which, despite the losses already inflicted by Amazon, does 3 things:


  • The success of a bookshop lies in the book. If he's not good, the library won't work.
  • In standardization and in the price competition, the biggest always wins, often Amazon.
  • Each place, each person, each has its own particular interest. It is useless to sell the same thing everywhere, but the key to success is specialization
  • Few people are needed who know how to do their job well.
  • If you are unable to work well in a library, it should be closed. The alternative is to perpetrate a slow agony



From this lesson written in financial language we read between the lines that the greatest in the world to save themselves are trying to apply to their companies those concepts that, more or less consciously, today determine the success of a few independent bookstores that despite everything go well, they grow and broaden their horizons. We do not know how it will end, but we believe that even if the great overseas are realizing that

Last weekend we went to a bookshop in Forlì, unusually crowded and not very independent, and we noticed that almost all the mistakes mentioned by Daunt were perfectly committed.

So, in the hunger for beauty that makes us spend hours and hours (even the weirdest) working at Frab's Magazines every day, we summarize some rules we have learned and which this lesson from the USA confirms:


  1. In the world of publishing there are many titles, production greatly exceeds demand (see Italy for example numbers). It is useless to all sell the same thing that "sells a lot", because margins will be low and Amazon will be the first to beat us. Better to focus each on their own industry, specialize and try to be the best in that field.
  2. The sales account is a useful tool in the short term, but the low margins in the long term will not allow the business to survive. 
  3. Selling publishing today is a bit like selling art. The 2-euro glossy magazine that relies on advertising is largely supplanted by the internet. To sell beautiful things you need skills and passion. If you do it "for business" the chances of failure in not even a long period are very high.







NB: the article from which  Jefrey A. Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal, available at the link https://www.wsj.com/articles/barnes-nobles-new-boss-tries-to-save-the-chainand-traditional-bookselling-11607144485)

December 28, 2020 — Dario Gaspari

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