Wednesday, February 01, 2012

An Open Letter To Barnes And Noble

It seems the giant has finally woken up and decided to declare war on Amazon. This is not surprising in and of itself. Any person who follows the publishing industry would have been waiting for such a declaration of war. However, it is not a matter of the old adage of "too little and too late", it is a matter of the fact that you, Barnes And Noble are concentrating on the wrong things and seem to have a very misguided impression of where the market is and how it is going.

You are not only under attack from Amazon, who has been literally leagues if not a whole universe ahead of you in how it read the map of the future. Apple has now made a frontal attack on your first and most treasured claim to fame, that of "textbooks". Not that IAuthor, will be in its current rendition, the end of your mastery in the field, but it is clear now that the writing is not only upon the wall, but is engraved in it. 

Let me make this clear. I am not a Barnes & Noble fan anymore than I am an Amazon fan. Indeed, I happen to love book stores. And I think B&N did an incredible job with VISION on its stores. But now it is time to apply that same vision to the "new emerging world".

And yet you continue to misinterpret or not understand or even think that you can decide the rules to the game. Here are a few pointers which somehow I think the high echelons at B&N are missing.

1. The market of "publishing" books is changing radically and at a pace that is beyond comprehension. This should not be news to you. Just a few short years ago, publishers and agents were the Kings & Queens and indeed the bully on the block. Authors would go to great lengths just to be noticed by them. They would bow down, grovel, beg, borrow and do anything and everything to get noticed. They would spend weeks just composing a query letter that maybe would get read by some first year college student. They would, even after email became the norm, put up with arcane policies of "snail mail" and "printed on paper" manuscripts. Oh! Those were the days, weren't they? 

Publishers and Agents could bully whomever they pleased. And they got used to it. They thought their seat was cemented into the firmament of heaven for the next 1000 years. But then wait a sec...something called technology crept up on them. And suddenly in the space of 3 years they watched, first with amusement then with growing concern as normal people literally said "to hell with this". The normal user-base was way ahead of your IT teams and departments and your visionaries, and they began to use the technology at hand. And they used it to great effect.

It is true at first the terms "self-published" and "vanity publishing" and "POD" caused most to turn their noses up and laugh away. Even I admit I did the same thing. But the numbers kept on growing. The market was just too large. Not that everyone is a writer. And not that everyone can be an author. And certainly much of what appears today in "Indie" publishing as it is now known, needs serious editing and re-writing or just to be scrapped. BUT and this is a big BUT...lo and behold there were real authors out there. REAL WRITERS. People who could not get an agent or publisher to look at them no matter how much they tried and grovelled and begged. Yet they wrote and they hired editors and they fixed and they changed and they edited again. Isn't that what real publishing houses do? Correct me if I am wrong here.

And guess what? Well all these people had computers and the Internet and a host of fast developing software and the urge to write and be published. And they said..."Screw the bully on the block."

Amazon caught on real fast. That is the genius behind their market position today. They simply caught on. And instead of snubbing, instead of saying, "Not real publishing houses, not real agents, not real books" they said..."GO FOR IT". And they hired a team of programmers to do just that. To make it work. To fix the interface. Not only searches. Not only for affiliates selling their books. But this was a whole new world. Whomever it was at Amazon, whomever was responsible had vision.

So Amazon went to the Ebook market. Big time. They made it incredibly easy to publish a book put it up for sale or for free, and said, "Let the Market Chose". Barnes And Noble kept their nose in the air for too long. Of course, cause they were part of the bully clan. The message took too long to reach them. The vision was simply not there.

So along came the Kindle and the Nook. It was not just the "war of reading tablets". I invite the CEO, the COO, the CTO of Barnes And Noble to go to Amazon and see how it easy it is to publish to a Kindle book. Then I invite you to go to your own site and see what is entailed in publishing a Nook book. Then compare the times. In this age of instant and immediate gratification Barnes And Noble failed miserably.

Now go to CreateSpace. Then go to PubIt. The arcane and impossible requirements of PubIt, especially for non US citizens, and even for US citizens were beyond compare. You took the age of electronics and technology, my dear B&N and put it back a decade with all your rules and procedures.

Is it any wonder why people gravitated to Kindle Books and CreateSpace?

2. So now you say, B&N, you do not want those people. You want "real books" by "real publishers". To hell with Amazon books. This is war. Okay. I get that. I understand it. But if you are going to war, then at least use some weapons which will work.

Look down the road a bit. Lower your noses for just a second. Publishers and Agents cannot live without Amazon. They would, if they tried pulling books off of Amazon be major losers in the contest. Because yes, Amazon became a publisher as well. But ummm, B&N so did you. You too became a publisher with Nook and PubIt. But like in the Nook vs. Kindle war, you just were way too far behind in vision. And vision of the future is what Amazon has shown.

Publishers have no clue what to do. They cannot fight the Ebook revolution. They cannot fight the tablets and pads. They will not be able to fight the Textbook to Ebook format. Hell, they cannot even rejuvinate the "hardcover" snob appeal. So either they get their act together, and realize they are equals and not the bully anymore, or they will disappear. Yep, just like that. Just like well, hundreds of companies which went the way of the dinosaur.

So dear B&N. You want to give Amazon a run for their money. Listen up.
1. In 2-5 years no one will care less who published a book. The days of "I was published at X" as snob value are gone.
2. Work on your site. Your Search. Your offers. Your ability to ENGAGE the person shopping. I hate to tell you this, but your Web site is decades behind Amazon.
3. Great so you have a new Nook in the works. And let us say it is beyond staggering. Let us say you are going to give it away for free. BUT you still need people who want to publish to Nook. Not just the normative publishers. So you have to work on your submission process. You have to work on making it simple and easy to submit and then the speed at which it goes live. Smashwords is great. But why should anyone wait in this day and age for a book to appear AFTER they have it approved around 4 weeks? Speed, ease of use, simplicity -- learn the lessons. Amazon learned them. Apple learned. Google learned. Maybe it is time for you to learn them as well.
3. You can continue to be snobs. You can also continue to sell "snob" value, because in the end B&N and its advertising sells just that. When I was in college if you had a B&N canvas bag - hell you were IT. So you can continue to be the snob on the block. And continue to have your arcane procedures for Pub-It and Nook. And you can continue to mosey up to the publishers, who are right now scurrying like rats in a maze trying to figure out just how they suddenly are no longer the Kings but the plebeians.
You can get your act together. Understand that you cannot point a finger at Amazon for becoming a publisher when you are one as well. Understand you cannot scream at Amazon for producing a better product than you did. Understand that your web site needs a swift and total overhaul. And both Nook and Pub-It submissions have to be at least as easy as Amazon makes Kindle and CreateSpace and just as inexpensive.

But most of all - the publishers and agents are NOT your customers. WE ARE. And guess what? We do know what we want. And we do know how to vote with our fingers. And we do know how to make it happen. 

Indie and self-publishing is kind of here to stay. Standard publishers are as well. But let me ask you this.
More and more self-published authors are finding their ebooks and their printed books on best seller lists. That will only grow in time. Do you really want to alienate this growing source of revenue? Do you really want to keep your "snob" value, while watching your expenses grow and your profit dwindle? I think not.

B&N you have ignored the first law in business:
Know thine own customer.

Either you make it or you do not. Time will tell. But going against Amazon without anything to really show for it except for a new Nook, - boy do you guys need a lesson or two. It is not just the is the way it gets to the tablet and allowing your customers the freedom to chose.

So by all means go ahead. Do not sell Amazon published books. Go to war. And watch what the authors and your customers do. Keep it up and you will be calling of us "past customers".

Initiative, vision & deployment. Simple rules of the game. Put them to use now, because soon it will just be too late.

Continued in my next post: "Revolution & Evolution - The Publishing Paradigm"

Books by Ted William Gross


J. R. Tomlin said...

There is more to it than just the ease of publication. The Amazon search function is excellent. Their algorithms ensure that a reader will find the kind of book they are looking for whether it is self-published or not. There is a reason why, when I had novels on both B&N and Amazon that my sales on Amazon were 50 times what they were on B&N. It is because Amazon makes them easy to find rather than in effect sticking them in a bin in the back of the store.

It isn't a matter of fixing how easy books are to publish nearly as much as climbing out of the pockets of the Big 6 and standing on your feet like a big boy.

Sarah Woodbury said...

Does anyone remember K-mart? Maybe it still exists somewhere but we had one here that the Wal-mart 'drove' out of business. Or so they said. But the truth of it, as a consumer, was that K-mart was run-down, dirty, had even poorer quality than Wal-mart, no customer service, and all in all, was trying to play up the poor-pity-me aspect of this rather than competing and changing according to the marketplace.

Amazon has gotten into the publishing business--as a publisher--and it's petty for B and N--a bookstore--to refuse to sell books. Why don't they revamp their search engine, recommendations, and also boughts? Why don't they open their arms to indie authors instead of limiting categories, and funneling them to the back room of their online store? It's not a mystery why Amazon is making a killing off indie authors and B and N isn't. There's a REASON so many indie authors ditched B and N in favor of KDP select (and this is from an author who didn't).

We need a competitor to compete with Amazon, rather than whine about how unfair things are.

Cora Buhlert said...

It's even worse for those of us not in the US, because Barnes & Noble will neither sell books to us nor let us use PubIt. This sort of provincialism is not acceptable in an increasingly globalized world.

Good post BTW.

Elizabeth Lang said...

I'm not sure I agree with calling agents and publishers bullies just because they don't recognize some people. Sounds more like sore losers trying to demonize people that are only trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability. They're human too and with ease of the internet, the number of manuscripts they receive have increased exponentially. Can you imagine getting not just ten mss a day but twenty, fifty a hundred?

The number is unmanageable, not to mention, they have to try to determine what will be marketable, something no author ever thinks about. It's stupid to publish something knowing it will be at a loss. But all an author thinks about is that they have a great book and damn the publishers for not recognizing it and publishing their great masterpieces.

I'm glad you mentioned that a lot of self-published stuff out there is crap. It was like that before the digital revolution and that percentage hasn't change. In fact, it has grown because anyone with a computer and a mss thinks they should be published and that's far from the truth. All we get now is a haystack becoming a mountain.

I don't care how 'wonderful' a boom it is for self-publishers now. It's the detriment to our industry to have so much crap out there and to bring the price of books down so much that you can get an author's lifeblood at 99 cents.

Just because there are exceptions, and there always were, and so much is made about them that we forget they are only exceptions, and exceptions don't make the rule.

And Amazon. Don't even get me started on them. A shark eats up the publishing industry, spitting out the bones of publishers, agents, book stores, other online booksellers.

How many people don't expect them to turn those sharp teeth on the hapless authors who blindly help them become a monopoly for the 'privilege' of making our books worth...nothing? They already shoved a knife into the backs of the publishers, making nice with them at the beginning until they all agreed to sell their valuable book lists on Amazon's site. Now that Amazon became successful, look at what they're doing to them? Do we seriously think they're not going to do that to the individual authors who have no power at all?

I think in a few years from now, it isn't only the publishers and agents who will be thought of as short-sighted, but all of the authors so desperate to be published that we unwittingly get get into bed with a piranha who thinks that because it has so much money to burn, they can burn the rest of us.

And I don't agree that it is petty of B&N to refuse to sell books in their bookstores. It is the only power they have left. It is the one thing Amazon doesn't have and they need.

What's petty is for Amazon to force authors to cut out all sales avenues except Amazon for the 'privilege' of giving away our books so that even more people will invest in Amazon and make them even more powerful or for them to bully their affiliates like Goodreads, demanding that if they use Amazon links then they cannot link to anywhere else that also sells the same book, and thus taking away the freedom of choice of their readers to buy their books anywhere they wish. That's an outrage. They're already trying to bully readers by doing that.