Big News at BN.com

slideImg_cardI stopped at my local Barnes & Noble today, on my annual post-Christmas pilgrimage to pick up a desk calendar and Christmas cards on clearance. (Hey, I’m a mom on a budget.) At the checkout, the cashier reminded me that it’s almost time to renew my annual B&N membership.

“And we’ve made one small change to the program,” she said, handing me my receipt and a slip of paper entitled New Member Program Benefits.

Wow. Here’s the small change: Barnes & Noble is no longer offering members a 20% discount on all adult hardcover books. We still get 40% off hardcover bestsellers, 10% on all other B&N merchandise, free shipping, and other goodies. But the traditional 20% adult hardcover discount has been cut in half.

And they’ve added one new benefit, spelled out in boldface type at the top of the slip: a $25 discount on a Nook Color.

“In other words,” I said, surprised that I hadn’t heard about this, “Barnes & Noble would prefer that its customers buy Nook books instead of hardcover books.”

“Well …” The cashier glanced nervously over her shoulder at the manager and lowered her voice. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

Maybe it’s just me, but this “small change” seems like big news. The nation’s largest chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores is encouraging its customers–its most loyal, frequent customers–to buy more ebooks and fewer hardcovers.

In all the talk about the demise of physical books, most pundits have foretold that mass-market paperbacks would be the first to go. Readers of popular fiction are happily going digital by the millions, and MMPB sales have been cut in half, according to GalleyCat. (Notice the ebook sales in that same chart? Up by 100.9%.) Hardcovers, the conventional wisdom goes, will survive because they appeal to a different audience.

Now B&N is giving that audience a subtle nudge in the digital direction. A 20% discount made it worthwhile to get in my car and drive to B&N to pick up the new hardcover I just read about in People magazine. But a 10% discount? Meh. Might as well stay home and buy the e-book. And if the ebook edition isn’t available yet? Maybe I’ll just wait.

If more and more B&N customers start making similar decisions, what will it mean for hardcover sales? And what will it mean for B&N’s bottom line? Mass-market paperbacks are an endangered species. If hardcovers also begin to lose their appeal, while ebooks continue to surge … why would B&N need brick-and-mortar stores at all?

  • Wow, this is kind of what I’ve been posting about for the last week without even knowing the change at B&N. Where’s it all going?

  • I think hardcovers have always only been read by a certain crowd and libraries. They’ve always been too expensive to produce so it was only a matter of time. I think hardcovers will eventually be what vanity publishing was years ago. Something only very wealthy people do.

    With the advent of new technology, e-readers will be how everyone reads and bibliophiles will be a very rare breed of person. I think there will always be books, and bookstores, but with the advent of POD publishing, I think the whole industry is going to end up that way. Not only self/indie writers.

  • Speaking only for myself and my own reading tastes, I never bought hardcovers in the first place. I just found them too heavy and cumbersome. I do, however, enjoy reading trade paperback the best, especially when the font can be slightly larger or with more space between the lines, because of my aging eyes :). I just like the feel of a larger book vs a mass market size paperback.

    I do own a Kindle and and Ipad, and I love that I can get books immediately on impulse, but at the end of the day, I still prefer reading a print book. But that’s just me :).

  • I find this really interesting. I wonder what data made them adopt this change. Now that would be interesting!

  • I’ve always bought hardcovers of books I wanted to keep (unfortunately, according to my groaning shelves, that seems to be most of them). What B&N doesn’t seem to realize is that 1) a one-time discount on an e-reader is not the same as 20% off on “keepers”, and 2) this will drive the folks who DO buy keepers to Amazon.com (I have already cancelled my automatic B&N membership renewal as a result of this decision).

    B&N’s sole advantage in its war with Amazon has always been that it sold BOOKS, and you could walk into a store and browse and talk to someone face to face who also knew and loved books. Now it’s throwing that away. I give them three years or less to go out of business entirely.

  • Shelly, interesting post and interesting comments. I’ve always read paperbacks (mostly) while my husband loves hardbacks. Perhaps that’s one reason I transitioned so easily to an ereader while he is still clinging to his hardcovers. I wonder how he, and other lovers of hardcovers, will react when more and more releases become available only as ebooks.

  • Excellent post. I think B&N knows its stores will eventually become broad retail outlets that carry only a few physical books. The money is in the digital market.

  • Thanks for the insightful comments, everyone. I’ve always been a MMPB reader for fiction, but often bought non-fiction in hardcover. Now I’ve gone digital for just about everything. I love being able to carry my entire library wherever I go.

    It seems like B&N is abandoning print books at surprising speed. Now they’ve put their traditional publishing unit up for sale: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/01/2012/barnes-noble-aims-to-sell-publishing-unit/

    They’re clearly focusing more on e-commerce, but will they abandond bricks-and-mortar completely? I’m not sure they could survive as an e-only company.

  • L.J. – I think you’re right. There was a cartoon recently (can’t remember where I saw it) that showed a customer in a “bookstore” looking past shelves full of scarves, toys, gadgets, etc. — and peering at a small selection of books on a bottom shelf. That may be the B&N of the (very near) future.

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