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The unthinkable may be looming for retail book giant Barnes & Noble, and plans for more store closings by year’s end are sending shockwaves through the publishing world.

In the past two years, Barnes & Noble has closed an average of 20 stores each year, although more than 600 remain, spread across all 50 states. Michael Levin, writing in the Contra Costa Times, warned that gift cards from the book chain might be worthless by year’s end.

“If anyone gives you a Barnes & Noble gift card, be sure to cash it in by the end of the year. This may be the last year that Barnes & Noble bookstores remain open.”

Levin added that publishers are closely watching Barnes & Noble’s struggles.

“The publishers have to be running scared,” he wrote. “If B&N suddenly shutters its doors, then billions of dollars of books, which the bookstores take on consignment, go into the limbo of bankruptcy court.”

Industry insiders agree that the chief reason Barnes & Noble finds itself in a precarious position is the ease with which book buyers can purchase through Amazon.com. Everyone from agents to publishers is following the saga closely.

“The future of brick-and-mortar bookstores is a concern that keeps many publishers up at night,” said Marji Ross, president of Regnery Publishing. “Most of us have spent countless hours browsing through long aisles of towering bookshelves, discovering new delights and rediscovering beloved old favorites. Our personal attachment amplifies our professional concern: Where will readers go to browse? How will readers discover books that are merely ‘future classics’?”

Ross sees the brick-and-mortar store difficulties impacting several areas of publishing.

“Even at Regnery, where we excel at gaining massive publicity and visibility for our books, we worry about the impact of fewer bookstores and less square footage for the retail space that remains,” she said.

“The short-term impact of this shrinking footprint is an increasing divide between celebrity authors and everyone else,” Ross said. “The longer-term impact could be a narrowing of our public discourse. For all those reasons, publishers are, and increasingly should be, dedicated to helping keep brick-and-mortar stores viable. They matter more than you might think, not just to American publishers but to American culture.”

Joyce Hart, for several decades an industry veteran in sales and agenting, understands that technology threatens to dismantle the necessity of brick-and-mortar stores.

“I have seen many changes in the book industry, especially in the last five years,” she said. “We’ve seen the demise of many of the independent bookstores. Borders is gone, and now what is the future of Barnes & Noble?”

Hart said she loves bookstores and does her best to shop locally.

“However, online shopping is so easy, and if you spend ‘X’ amount of money, you get free shipping,” she pointed out. “Digital publishing has made huge changes in the way we read books. I still prefer holding a book in my hand, but I have a Kindle, a Nook and an iPad, and I read from those readers.”

Now as an agent, Hart also keeps apprised of how publishing changes affect writers.

“Many people are self-publishing, some with success, others not so good,” she said. “However, this does not get their books on the bookshelves of bookstores. What is the future of bookstores? I hope we still have some brick-and-mortar stores in the future, or will bookstores go the way of the small, independent grocery stores?”

In 2011, Barnes & Noble’s chief competition, Borders, ceased operation, shutting down almost 700 stores and sending more than 19,000 employees to the unemployment lines. Although Barnes & Noble went forward with one less competitor, several factors have caused the New York City-based company to find itself on the edge of extinction, including deep discounts on books at Walmart and Costco.

In addition, Barnes and Noble’s once-vaunted Nook reading device has not been able to keep sales pace with Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad.

Observers say all these factors appear to be adding up to trouble for the retailer and ominous trends for publishers everywhere.

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