It's not the medium – it's the market

Newspapers and book publishers could learn some valuable lessons from one another. Unfortunately, it appears that the book industry’s going to make the same costly mistakes as the newspaper industry did, instead.

I thought again that as I read the New York Times’ story about Barnes & Noble from last weekend, The Bookstore’s Last Stand. The Times wrote of the publishing industry’s hope that Barnes & Noble will be able to stand up to the challenge from, preserving a major retailer where their companies’ products are king.

Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces. Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman — that is, traditional publishers — by publishing e-books directly.

Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brutal capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry’s future. Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books. If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and — well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.

If Barnes & Noble’s future is tied to that of the print book publishing houses, then Barnes & Noble is as doomed as Borders, Crown Books and the other brick-and-mortar booksellers that have proceeded it into oblivion.

The Nook alone will not save Barnes & Noble’s business because the change that is roiling the publishing business today – whether it be for books or for newspapers – is not simply a transition from printed media to digital. It’s a transition from a marketplace where information was controlled by a few gatekeepers to one where anyone may offer their content to a mass audience.

This isn’t about eBooks versus printed books. It’s about a book industry where supply is controlled by a few publishing houses or one where supply is opened to all who wish to publish something.

In short, it’s not the medium; it’s the market. If your business model is based upon controlling access to the information marketplace, you’re doomed. If your business model is based instead upon enabling and expanding access to the market, you have a chance of succeeding. And that is what has the book industry scared.

The traditional publishing houses, like traditional print newspapers, built their businesses as gatekeepers. And despite its development of the Nook to expand into the digital marketplace, Barnes & Noble appears to be playing along. I’ve written before about Barnes & Noble restricting independent eBook publishers to its hard-to-find PubIt! ghetto on the website. I suspected that decision was driven by a desire to protect traditional publishing houses and the Times article only strengthens the impression that Barnes & Noble and the publishing houses have tied their futures together.

But by favoring print publishers in its retailing, Barnes & Noble is under-utlizing the one unique tool it could be using to lure eBook publishers and readers from – its physical stores. Instead of consigning eBook publishers to a tiny link on the home page, Barnes & Noble could be incorporating titles by independent publishers into section by section best seller lists, and individualized product recommendations, as Amazon does. Barnes & Noble (or its book publishing partners) could be offering a seemless ePub-to-print-on-demand option for indie publishers, as Amazon does through CreateSpace. But one thing that Amazon cannot do is to move the best-selling indie-published print-on-demand books into physical stores, located throughout the country. Only Barnes & Noble can do that. Nor can Amazon conduct book reading and signing events for indie authors at bookstores around the country. But Barnes & Noble could.

A decade ago, newspapers had a similar opportunity. They could have used their print publications as a lure to encourage would-be bloggers and smart commentators to publish on newspaper website community portals instead of independent websites, denying those competitors many voices with which to grow. Just select the best community content from the website each day, and print it in the paper. But papers were slow to embrace web-to-print, and now they’ve lost too much of the brand-name appeal and traffic advantage they once enjoyed over online start-ups.

Sure, book publishers don’t want to lose market share to independents. But book consumers want to select from the broadest possible selection possible, with easy to find links to both the best and most popular selections in desired categories, whether they come from New York or an indie publisher with just a PC and an ISBN. Ultimately, retailers like Barnes & Noble have to decide: Do you work for your customers, or your suppliers?

The book publishers could have a future. Beyond controlling access to the marketplace, book publishers provided one other, very valuable service to authors – book editing. And the demand for editing, guidance and advice for authors is growing as the number of authors grows. Book publishers could find ways to transition their business models to serve the growing number of eBook publishers, instead of hoping that Barnes & Noble shuts them out. But it’s becoming clear that they won’t.

Don’t be fooled by the industry’s attempt to distract from their failure by conflating their future with that of authors in general.

While publishers’ fates are closely tied to Barnes & Noble, said John Sargent, the C.E.O. of Macmillan, it’s not all about them.

“Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.”

I call B.S.

If you are an author with a New York publishing house contract, perhaps your fate is tied to the publishing industry’s. But if you are not, well, you shouldn’t waste a moment of time rooting for a business that’s not rooting for you.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    You got it – I agree with you completely. Thank you for your insightful post. It is too bad that Barnes & Noble is not following a better business model because while the current environment is great for authors, it is important to keep a fair marketplace. Amazon currently offers great opportunities and pay for indie authors, but without competition they may not be so giving in the future.

  2. This article is amazingly insightful. I’d assumed only indie authors noticed the way Barnes and Noble all but ignored non-traditionally published authors and their books.

    Equally important to mention is Amazon’s KDP Select program. With it, Amazon has become extremely aggressive in their efforts geared toward wooing indie authors. Since Barnes and Noble does nothing ‘extra special’ for me, I signed one of my books up for the program and pulled it from every other site. With an immediate increase in sales, I’m contemplating doing the same thing for book two in the series and any new ones I publish.

    As proof Amazon’s plan is working, I was recently strolling through a website supporting indie books. Since the KDP program is so new, the Barnes and Noble’s & Smashwords’ links were still embedded. After clicking on dozens of very popular books, I found almost every non-Amazon link had been disabled.