Even by the standards of the ailing book publishing industry, the past year has been a bad one for Barnes & Noble. After the company spun off its profitable college textbook division, its stock plunged nearly 40 percent. Its long-term debt tripled, to $192 million, and its cash reserves dwindled. Leonard Riggio, who turned the company into a behemoth, has announced he will step down this summer after more than 40 years as chairman. At the rate it’s going, Barnes & Noble won’t be known as a bookseller at all—either because most of its floor space will be given over to games and gadgets, or, more ominously, because it won’t even exist.
There’s more than a little irony to the impending collapse of Barnes & Noble. The mega-retailer that drove many small, independent booksellers out of business is now being done in by the rise of Amazon. But while many book lovers may be tempted to gloat, the death of Barnes & Noble would be catastrophic—not just for publishing houses and the writers they publish, but for American culture as a whole.
If Barnes & Noble were to shut its doors, Amazon, independent bookstores, and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart would pick up some of the slack. But not all of it. Part of the reason is that book sales are driven by “showrooming,” the idea that most people don’t buy a book, either in print or electronically, unless they’ve seen it somewhere else—on a friend’s shelf, say, or in a bookstore. Even on the brink of closing, Barnes & Noble still accounts for as much as 30 percent of all sales for some publishing houses.
But the focus on sales masks the deeper degree to which the publishing industry relies on Barnes & Noble. The retailer provides much of the up-front cash publishers need to survive, in the form of initial orders. Most independent bookstores can’t afford to buy many books in advance; a single carton of 24 books would represent a large order. Amazon also buys few books in advance, preferring to let supplies run down so as to prompt online shoppers to “add to cart” because there are “only five left in stock.”
Barnes & Noble, by contrast, often takes very large initial orders. For books it believes will fly off the shelves, initials can reach the mid-five figures—hundreds of thousands of dollars that go to the publisher before a single book is even sold. That money, in turn, allows publishers to run ads in magazines and on Facebook, send authors on book tours, and pay for publicists. Without Barnes & Noble, it would become much harder for publishers to turn books into best-sellers.
Even if Barnes & Noble doesn’t close, publishers are already starting to suffer from the chain’s decline. “What can happen is that their number of stores can shrink, their store footprint can shrink, so that the number of titles on which they put meaningful advance orders can shrink,” says Mike Shatzkin, an industry veteran. “Publishers are going to have to adjust to a model where they print what they know will sell rather than what they hope will sell.”
Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.
In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.
The irony of the age of cultural abundance is that it still relies on old filters and distribution channels to highlight significant works. Barnes & Noble and corporate publishers still have enormous strides to make in fully reflecting America’s rich diversity. But without them, the kinds of books that challenge us, that spark intellectual debates, that push society to be better, will start to disappear. Without Barnes & Noble, we’ll be adrift in a sea of pulp.
Alex Shephard is the culture news editor at the New Republic.