Guest Post: On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble

7259353838_052b453e0d_ha guest post by Rich Adin

After this week’s news that Barnes & Noble has lost money yet again, I decided that perhaps I should begin thinking about writing B&N’s obituary. After all, I am a B&N member and I buy a lot of books from B&N and I will miss it when the last store and website is finally shuttered.

But I was told not to don my mourning clothes yet. B&N has a plan. Great, I thought, until I realized that the same people who have brought B&N to its knees are the ones with the plan to save it. Not very likely.

The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step’s worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from the precipice, but each would have to begin with a recognition that today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.

Start with customer service. How poor can customer service be? I don’t know but B&N is surely leading the way. Consider what happens when you call customer service. If you are lucky, you get someone who speaks English like a native and without a thick brogue that makes them incomprehensible. You know you are in trouble when the representative calls you “Mr. Richard.” The reason this is a problem is that the reps do not understand the problem you are trying to convey and so insist on a solution that is no solution.

For example, I recently ordered a book from Amazon Canada. I had to order it there because neither B&N nor Amazon US was showing the book except in their marketplace and the marketplace pricing for a clean copy was double or more the price Amazon Canada was asking. (The book cost over $100 to begin with, even at Amazon Canada.) When I received the book from Amazon, it was the right book but not the advertised book. The advertised book was for the correct print year and did not state that it was a print-on-demand reprint; in other words, I thought I was buying an original copy.

I realized that because of the book’s age, all that would be available would be like this, so I wrote Amazon Canada and told them I intended to keep the book but that they should note on their website that the edition they were selling was a POD reprint. Within a few hours I received a reply thanking me, telling me that the information had been passed on to the appropriate people, and because I planned to keep the book, Amazon was refunding 25% of the price.

The book from Amazon was the first volume in a nonfiction trilogy. Volumes 2 and 3 were available from B&N, and so I ordered them from B&N. Volume 3 was just released, so it was not a problem. Volume 2 was released several years ago but not so long ago that I should expect a POD reprint — but that is what I got. So I called B&N customer service (sending an email is, I have found, an utter waste of time). I got one of the “Mr. Richard” representatives. I tried to explain the problem and explicitly said I planned to keep the book and that my only purpose in calling was so that they could adjust their website to indicate that it is a POD reprint. After all, this was another very expensive book and the website implies you are getting an original.

I might as well have been talking in a hurricane for all that the representative either understood or cared. The rep “resolved” the problem by ordering another copy be sent to me because he agreed that website did indicate it was not a POD reprint that was being offered. I tried to prevent this, but after a few minutes, I gave up. I received the second copy of the POD reprint and sent it back with a detailed note indicating what was wrong and what I thought they should do. And so the tale ends.

There was no follow-up from B&N and the rep didn’t understand the problem or the solution I was suggesting. (He did say that there was nothing he could do about the website. Apparently that includes notifying anyone of an error at the site.) Bottom line is that B&N customer service continues to be an example of what not to do and Amazon continues to be an example of what to do. This same complaint about customer service was made several years ago on AAE and elsewhere and the same management team continues to do nothing.

The second place for B&N to go is to improve the interaction between buyers and B&N. B&N needs to be innovative, especially when it comes to its members. How difficult, for example, would it be to let members create a list of authors in which they are interested and for B&N to send a monthly email saying that a new book by one of my listed authors has been announced; click this link to preorder.

Along with that, B&N should guarantee that the preorder price is the highest price I would have to pay (which it B&N already does do without saying so) but that should at anytime before shipment the price be less, B&N guarantees that the lower price will be the price I will pay. As it is now, because I preorder books months in advance, I need to constantly recheck and if a price is lower, I need to cancel my existing preorder and re-preorder. Can B&N make it any more inconvenient for the customer?

In addition, B&N should be sending me monthly emails telling me of upcoming or newly released (since the last email) books that are similar to books I have previously bought. I know they have the information because both online customer service and the local store management are able to peruse books I have bought. To entice me to buy from this list (or even to preorder), B&N should offer me an additional 10% discount on the listed titles, which discount is good until the release of the next email and the next list of books.

Members of B&N are the prize for B&N. Members are likely to be those who buy exclusively or primarily from B&N and not Amazon and are the people who are more than casual readers. If you buy 1 or 2 books a year, you wouldn’t pay for a membership; it is people who buy a large number of books who pay for membership (e.g., just before writing this essay, I preordered 1 hardcover and ordered 2 others). So why not reward members based on their buying? For example, buy 15 books and beginning with the book 16, you will get overnight shipping or an additional 5% discount or something. Buy 20 books and get a gift certificate. Think up rewards that encourage more buying and offer those rewards to members. Make membership valuable. It isn’t rocket science.

Much (but not all) of B&N’s problems are from a mismanaged ebook division. Even though ebooks aren’t the bulk of sales, B&N should not be conceding the market. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to improve sales or get more Nook loyalty. A simple way is to make it so that when a person buys the hardcover they can get the ebook for $2 more if they would like both options. Buy the first ebook in a trilogy and if you buy books 2 and 3 at the same time, you get book 2 for 50% off and book 3 for free. Maybe these won’t work but they are worth exploring and cutting special deals with publishers to make them happen.

The publishers have an interest in B&N remaining afloat. Should B&N shutter its brick-and-mortar stores, publishers will lose showrooms as well as major sales outlets. Publishers should create special editions available only at B&N. They should make shopping at B&N and at brick-and-mortar stores worthwhile. Make these deals available only through physical stores.

There are a lot of things that B&N — and publishers — can and should do to rejuvenate B&N. Unfortunately, these things require imagination, something B&N has in very short supply. Consequently, because I do not expect any miracles at B&N, I will continue to prepare its obituary. Maybe I’ll be fooled and my masterpiece will never see the light of the Internet; if so, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But until B&N calls me and asks me for my ideas and calls other members and asks for their ideas, I won’t get my hopes up.

What would you do if given the opportunity to turn B&N around?

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by MikeKalasnik


  1. Geoffrey Kidd17 September, 2014

    First, I would go through their entire executive suite and offer them two retirement options: 1. Leave now through the front door. 2. Leave now through the window, which I assume is nowhere near the ground floor. This is simply because they all appear to have a nose-in-the-air attitude that “eBooks are just a passing fad,” and their behavior is saying it to people like me who have been all eBook all the time for almost fifteen years.

    Second, I would find Scott (I forget the last name.) who founded Fictionwise and put him in charge of the eBooks, offering him whatever he wanted as salary, including a share in B&N. HE had “notify me when this author publishes a new book” ten years ago. He also had a searchable eBook library (B&N doesn’t), store credits for overpriced eBooks ($20 seven years after the paperback had come out), etc.

    Third, I would bring back the chairs. B&N is no longer a place to “test-drive” books.

    Fourth, I would have some way to order eBooks in the store AND DOWNLOAD THEM TO ANY ePub-HANDLING READER (I use Marvin on iPhone)THAT CAN ACCEPT IT. If the publisher insists on DRM(*cough* Harper-Collins), invite the publisher to take his books and stock elsewhere.

    Many of your other suggestions, including guaranteed pricing have merit.

  2. Julez Brooks17 September, 2014

    Geoffrey your fourth statement is already happening at BN stores. you can go in and buy and ebook in store and they can help you load it to your device or app this has been going for I think two years now.

  3. Paul17 September, 2014

    I have to say though that their customer service in the stores is excellent. I broke the screen of my Nook reader and brought it into the store, asking whether they had a repair service and they replaced it for free, even though they didn’t need to. Apart from buying the insurance for the new one, it sold me on continuing to buy books for the Nook, even though the price is usually higher than Amazon.

  4. David Taylor17 September, 2014

    I would do a deal with Amazon on behalf of all Nook purchasers to allow the Nook to officially use Kindle books of all kinds.

    The deal would add all the Kindle and Nook books in the user’s libraries to work either way around converting Kindle books to read on Nook and Nook books to read on Kindle.

    Kindles would be on sale in the stores.

    Next I would kill all DRM.

    Finally I would compete hard on discounts against Amazon.

  5. William17 September, 2014

    I have a nookhd+ and like buying ebooks only. Now that I can put a kindle app, I have been price shopping. ie. Star Wars a new dawn is $2.10 cheaper at amazon for the ebook compared to B&N. So I buy from amazon. If the price is the same or we are talking pennies, I will still buy from B&N but wish they would get more competitive with amazon.

  6. puzzled17 September, 2014

    Maybe this is Kobo’s US strategy: Wait until B&N folds, then buy the ebook division for peanuts.

    1. Nate Hoffelder17 September, 2014

      Here’s an even better option for Kobo: Wait for B&n to decide to throw in the towel on Nook Media and then pull a Sony. Pick up the customer accounts for less than peanuts.

  7. Syn17 September, 2014

    Nook customer service is out of the Philippines. The website’s customer for things you order are mostly work at home sub contractors and very low pay, I want to say it was 8ish an hour. The stores I believe have an actual call center. Take a listen, next time you call B&N listen to the back ground, if its silent, they are at home. If you hear a noisey back ground with many people talking, they are in a call center.

    The customer service issue is the policies. The work at home workers are all in chat rooms. When a customer asks for something outside of their level of empowerment (which is no very much at all) they ask a supervisor in chat whom usually always says no if its not in the policy.

    The policies are not customer friendly at all.

    My problem with them and the whole Amazon thing. B&N wants agency. That alone is enough for me NOT to support them. They want Agency because then they can sit on their asses and not innovate to compete. Amazon doesn’t seem to ever slow down. They are constantly trying to innovate and their customer service seemed empowered to actually help the consumer from start to finish. This is huge. Its to bad B&N doesn’t think its important.

  8. Mamie Ney9 October, 2014

    I am catching up on my reading and am just seeing this article now. I purchased a Nook a year ago online as B&N’s closest stores are an hour away from me whether I go North or South. Within 2 months, the Glowlight stopped working. I called tech support and they told me that I needed to take it to a store. I then called customer service to complain about the answer from tech support. They were very accommodating, telling me that it was still under warranty and that the unit would be replaced. I sent them the original unit back . In return I got a “certified reconditioned” until. I called to complain that receiving a reconditioned unit in exchange for one that was less than 2 months old was unacceptable. It took a half-hour on the phone as I worked my way up the management chain but I did get a new unit. Since then, whenever I’ve had the opportunity to stop at a B&N, I have just passed them by. I can honestly say that whenever I’ve had problems with Amazon (primarily poorly packed CD’s that arrive with cracked cases), they have bent over backwards to help me. Sorry, B&N.

    1. Joe Luke14 September, 2016

      Amazon customer service is superb. Over the past 8 years, 2 of my Kindles died and after calling (actually you send them your number and they call you) customer service a new one was waiting on my front step the next morning. Any time there is a mistake in ordering books, even if I was the one causing the mistake, they instantly credit my account.

      I gave up on B&N many years ago. Many other companies have what they offer cheaper and have customer service that is willing to immediately do what they can to make whatever happened right. Their business model has failed so they have no hope in staying in business. They act as if it is 1995, and their management, including the founder, should have been replaced many many years ago. It is too late.

  9. […] however suggest not, though no doubt the whopping effect won’t show till next quarter. This guest post on The Digital Reader by Rich Adin rings warning bells about Barnes and Noble. Slate suggests that […]


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