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Dec 22, 2014
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Barnes & Noble: If You Want Competition, Compete!

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“If Barnes & Noble want to truly compete with Amazon, they need to stop tilting things in favor of their friends in Manhattan. They need to stop treating self-published work with disdain, and, it must be said, their customers.”

Featured, Homepage Sub  •  Mar 14, 2012

It has become common within the publishing industry to complain about Amazon’s dominance, with many incorrectly throwing the dreaded “monopoly” word around. I wrote a post last month showing why the monopoly accusation is particularly ill-informed and further argued that Amazon is creating competition, not killing it, through offering writers more choices than ever by providing the most viable self-publishing platform out there.

Today, I would like to focus on Amazon’s competition – in particular the current darling of the publishing industry, Barnes & Noble – in an attempt to explain why they are losing the battle for readers’ and self-publishers’ affections. As you will see, the two issues are very much related.

An informal survey of my Nook-owning friends reveals that many of them regularly use Amazon’s website to discover books they want to read then switch over to BN.com to purchase the Nook version. Given the increasing amount of titles exclusive to Amazon, Barnes & Noble should be worried about this phenomenon (indeed one of those Nook owners has already indicated that their next e-reader will be a Kindle for just that reason).

Why aren’t they using Barnes & Noble’s own website to discover new novels? A quick tour around solves that riddle. It’s clunky, it’s slow, and browsing for books is a painful experience.

They can’t even get simple things like categories right. There are five main fiction categories on the Nook Bookstore homepage: Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, and Teens. That’s it – a stark contrast to the easily accessible encyclopedic list of categories and sub-categories on Amazon.

While there are more categories than that on Barnes & Noble, the list is hidden away. In any event, it’s hardly comprehensive, nor an enticing menu to browse from, and navigation is far from intuitive. For example, once you have drilled down to the sub-category you want, it’s hard to get back to that list of categories, or to switch categories at all. There are some minor advantages (Historical Fiction has a range of sub-categories on Barnes & Noble and none on Amazon, and Teens have better categories overall), but they are few and far between and the interface is so screwy that it hardly matters.

It’s also telling to examine how the books in each category are presented. Here Barnes & Noble’s history as a bookseller, rather than a user-focused tech company, comes to the fore. Like Amazon, “Bestsellers” are pushed pretty hard – as you would expect – although, strangely, “New Releases”, “Staff Picks” and “Coming Soon” are given far more prominence.

What’s missing is a category to match Amazon’s “Top-Rated” which shows the books that have been given the most favorable reader reviews in each sub-category. Rightly or wrongly, all of that give the impression to me (as a reader) that they care more about selling online co-op than what readers think. To me, that’s just like the front table in bookstores: piled high with books I don’t want to read, spots which have been purchased by large publishers – except this table follows me around the whole store, getting in my way.

Categories are but one area where the Barnes & Noble website is far behind Amazon’s, but a similar analysis could be presented on search, tags, and the recommendation algorithm. Taken together, the whole recommendation/discovery system, by accident or design, seems to push readers towards books from the large publishers (especially those that have shelled out for online co-op).

Unsurprisingly, the net result of this is that self-publishers (with Romance authors generally providing the only exception) tend to perform poorly at Barnes & Noble. Despite Amazon being estimated to have around 60-65% of the US e-book market, self-publishers regularly report that 90-95% of their sales come from Amazon (and this was before the advent of KDP Select, which saw over 100,000 self-published titles granting Amazon exclusivity).

Why are self-publishers doing so well at Amazon and so poorly at Barnes & Noble (and everywhere else)? Well, it’s quite simple. The discovery tools that Amazon gives its readers to find new books are not only easier to use and better at their job, but are also (largely) agnostic towards who has published the book. In short, Amazon will either recommend to readers (or help them discover), the book they are most likely to purchase – whether that’s published by their own imprints, Simon & Schuster, a small publisher, or a self-publisher like me.

Because of this level playing field, self-publishers perform far better at Amazon than any of their competitors (and I’m no different). Indeed, they are beginning to outperform books from publishers. A recent data-mining survey showed that self-publishers had captured 61% of the Top 100 Science Fiction e-books on Amazon. I don’t have corresponding figures for Barnes & Noble, but I would be surprised if the percentage is anything other than miniscule.

The reason for this seems clear. Books from larger publishers are much more likely to be recommended on the Barnes & Noble site. By favoring certain books by virtue of who has published them, Barnes & Noble are – by definition – recommending books to their customers that they are less likely to buy. It can’t have escaped customers’ notice that, as a result, the average recommended book on Barnes & Noble is likely to be far more expensive than the average recommendation on Amazon.

U.S. self-publishers can upload to Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing arm, PubIt!, where they have to deal with more website clunkiness, poor customer service, and the aforementioned cooked recommendation/discovery system.

International self-publishers fare even worse. PubIt refuses to accept work from them, forcing them to go through an aggregator like Smashwords. There are numerous anecdotal reports that uploading via a middleman results in less visibility than going through PubIt! directly. At least part of the reason for this seems to be the miscategorization of Smashwords titles (e.g. my historical novel is classified as non-fiction under the bizarre sub-category of “Mapped Essays & Letters”).

Given that Smashwords demands this metadata, and other metadata such as price transposes to the Barnes & Noble site without error, this is something that really could and should be fixed. Maybe issues like this (and allowing international self-publishers) are simply not a priority for Barnes & Noble.

Most of the sales I get on Barnes & Noble seem to be customers I bring to the site myself. In other words, nobody is discovering my books there. In the last nine months, I’ve sold fifty times more books on Amazon – and only a tiny percentage of those Amazon sales were customers I delivered to the site. New readers have no problem finding my books on Amazon and the vast majority of self-publishers I speak to are the same (which is why so many of them have abandoned Barnes & Noble altogether and granted exclusivity to Amazon).

In case you think the above is mere supposition extrapolated from limited experience, here is a direct quote from a PubIt! customer service email:

“We’ve found that most our PubIt! publishers sell eBooks to customers who have found their page by a direct link thanks to marketing efforts of the author and/or publisher. (Not by browsing.)”

That’s pretty damning. Don’t they realize that if self-publishers are bringing all the customers themselves, that there is no point giving the retailer such a large chunk of the royalties? Don’t they realize that these self-publishers could just start selling the e-books to those customers themselves seeing as they are doing the legwork of finding them anyway?

If Barnes & Noble want to truly compete with Amazon, they need to stop tilting things in favor of their friends in Manhattan. They need to stop treating self-published work with disdain, and, it must be said, their customers. They also need to give readers the right tools to find the books they truly want to read, instead of hawking the ones that publishers are paying them to push.

The net result of doing that will be quite simple: Barnes & Noble would start recommending books to their customers that they are more likely to purchase, and the average price of those recommendations would drop. Self-publishers’ sales on Barnes & Noble would increase dramatically, and this would help keep them out of the clutches of programs like KDP Select – which hand Amazon the competitive advantages of exclusivity, increased selection, and lower prices.

Self-publishers aren’t looking for any favors. All we want is for Barnes & Noble to stop putting roadblocks in-between readers and our work. As the gradual takeover of the Kindle bestseller lists by self-publishers shows, readers will thank you for it.

David Gaughran is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. Born in Ireland, he now lives in Sweden, but spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories.

  • Genevieve

    All very, very true. I hope the guy they just hired to spin off the Nook pays attention to this. I would love, love, love to see Barnes and Nobles become more reader-friendly. Bonus: I think that would make B&N more indie friendly, too.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Me too. There could well be a review of operations. If it doesn’t happen before any potential sale, it would certainly happen afterwards. I can just imagine the conversation:
      “Give me the numbers for international sales.”
      “Em, we don’t have any.”
      “Numbers or sales?”
      “Sales.”
      “Why don’t you sell to international customers?”
      “Um…”

  • http://www.kenyawright.com kenya wright

    Loved this article!! I’m actually considering taking my books off of B&N and putting them in KDP. I have one novella Incubus Hunter in KDP and its doing awesome. My urban fantasy novel Fire Baptized sells really well on Amazon but on B&N sales are maybe 5 a month. Its also painstakingly hard to do simple changes to pricing and the book on B&N.

    Additionally, I had several of my international fans tell me that they couldn’t get the nook version of my book.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Barnes & Noble won’t sell to international customers at all (I believe you need a US address and US credit card). I can’t understand that policy – simply put, it’s leaving lots of money on the table.

      I direct these international customers to Smashwords, who have no such regressive policy.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I should point out one drawback for KDP Select regarding international readers which you may not be aware of. While Amazon’s international reach is considerably larger than B&N (who only serve US customers), they aren’t quite global. Large swathes of Asia, most of the Middle East, and nearly all of Africa are unable to purchase e-books from Amazon.

      In addition, outside of USA, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the countries served by the Euro Kindle Stores, readers must pay a surcharge of $2 on most e-book purchases.

      I direct these readers to Smashwords also – something you won’t be able to do if you are in KDP Select.

      • http://jeannetomlin@gmail.com JR Tomlin

        Oops, you left the UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy off your list. Maybe you considered those a given. :)

        What you put in your post is exactly my feelings about B&N and the iBook store to a lesser extent. I think Apple is evolving but they still don’t have enough of the market to be much of a player. I am not sure how much Apple pushes their (very dear) Manhattan friends, but they do offer at least some benefits to self-publishers. I’ll waiting to see what happens with that and keeping an open mind.

        B&N has pretty much thrown away the game as far as self-publishers are concerned and I can’t tell you how little patience I have with their whining about Amazon being a big meanie. The ‘big meanie’ sells my books. They don’t. For the foreseeable future, my books will remain in Select.

        • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

          I was hoping “Euro Kindle Stores” would work as shorthand for “the various European countries served by their own Kindle Store, which includes not just Germany et al, but such e-book titans as Liechtenstein and Vatican City!

          • http://RedTash.com Red Tash

            I’m big in Liechtenstein.

  • http://aliciastreet-roystreet.com Alicia Street

    Thanks for this astute post, David. I hope someone at B&N sees it.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Thanks Alicia. I believe it was picked up by the Huffington Post today, which should get it more eyeballs outside indie reader and writer circles.

  • http://www.marthamarks.com Martha Marks

    Excellent post, David! I’m proud to know you through the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (http://historicalfictionauthors.com).

    Your experience tracks very well with my own. I’ve abandoned B&N and gone “exclusive” with Amazon, because that’s where the bulk of my sales have (and continue to) come from and because I couldn’t stand dealing with B&N. There’s little point in wrestling with an archaic system that even Nook owners don’t like very much. Kindle is fast cornering the market, which is fine with me. I’ve confidently cast my lot with Amazon and the Kindle, and so far have seen no reason to turn back.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      HFAC in the house!

      Question for you: will you re-upload everywhere once your Select 90 days are up? Or have you gone all-in with Amazon now?

  • http://ryallon.blogspot.com/ John H. Carroll

    Excellent article. Another key difference is that Amazon has an author’s page for every author and it’s a powerful tool for Indies. B&N has nothing for the author and their search engine is spotty.

    As far as Pubit goes, I’ve published to B&N through Smashwords and Pubit. I sell more through Smashwords and it’s my intention to remove all my books through Pubit because there is no advantage to it.

    My favorite store is Smashwords, mostly because they care more about Indies than anyone else regardless of what their faults may be. Aside from that, I sell most books through Amazon and love their platform and how easy it is to use.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      The Amazon Author Pages are great. I can link up my two blogs, Twitter, upload a pic, write a bio, and even link to a Youtube interview or book trailer. Love it.

      On top of that, for authors with lots of titles out, it’s a nice place to link to – rather than just choosing one book.

  • http://goo.gl/51wPA Stuart Whitmore

    Part of being competitive is looking at what the competition is doing, not to copy them directly of course but to see what is working and then consider how to up the ante. I would say that Amazon KDP is something that is working well; hopefully Barnes & Noble will find ways to up the ante. This could help them, as well as self-publishers and the marketplace in general (for the latter, consider that exclusivity is often not in the best interest of the consumer).

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I would love for B&N’s to revamp their discovery tools and recommendation algorithm. I think that would serve their readers better, and self-publishers better.

      I certainly agree that any exclusivity policies (whether Amazon’s or otherwise) don’t serve readers well, and I’m no fan of them. But one way to ensure that programs such as KDP Select (which demand exclusivity) are unattractive to writers and publishers is to have robust alternative platforms. For me, B&N fails that test currently, and it was no surprise to see a whole horde of self-publishers remove their books and sign on with KDP Select.

  • http://www.tkkenyon.com TK Kenyon

    Great post, David! Well-thought-out and grounded in data. Love it!

    TK

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Thanks TK. I’m fine once someone crunches the data for me. But if you ask me to look at a spreadsheet, my brain turns to soup.

  • http://fashionismurder.com Christine DeMaio-Rice

    Expect B&N to go out of business clutching their old ideas about who should be on the front table. Or that a front table is even necessary. They do not have the flexibility of mind to make it work.

    But I could be wrong. I’m open to being stunned by people’s ability to adapt. However, my openness is rarely rewarded with a truly stunning turnaround.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      There’s a lot of talk (again) this week of the Nook being spun off. The first thing a savvy investor will do is a top to toe review of everything. Plus, I suppose, they will need their own website, won’t they? Things can change very quickly in digital publishing. Maybe some new people could lead to a totally different mindset. I agree that the bookstore background can be a hindrance online, as some will be wedded to certain ideas that simply don’t translate to the web. It will be interesting to watch. I get the impression that they aren’t 100% sure they even want to sell. But maybe that’s a ploy to get a good price.

  • Ashley Prince

    As a Barnes and Noble bookseller myself, I too find myself using Amazon frequently. I hate the B&N website. It is incredibly slow and seriously needs to be updated. And yes, they do need to start treating their self-publishers better. It drives me crazy. I actually have a NOOK Simple Touch AND a folder on my husband’s Kindle. There are certain books I can’t buy with B&N because the authors have self-published. I don’t find that fair in any way.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I wonder if I write an email to B&N if they would take me seriously since I’m an employee. Hmmm. You have given me a lot to think about.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Thank you for commenting Ashley. It’s great to get the perspective of a Barnes & Noble bookseller.

      I hope you do write that letter (as long as it doesn’t get you into any trouble). If they respond, I would love to hear what they have to say.

    • http://www.voldamar.com Deeitras

      Are you aware of Barns and Nobles epub self publishing? http://pubit.barnesandnoble.com/pubit_app/bn?t=pi_reg_home Perhaps more indy writes still don’t know about it. Demesne Aithera and Valley of Mystery are indy published to Barns and Nobel through pubit.

      • Mara

        Deeitras:

        Are you aware that Barnes & Noble don’t allow international authors to self-publish? This is one of the major points of discussion.

  • http://www.elenaderosa.com Elena DeRosa

    Excellent post. The only Nook versions sold of my novel have been from personal contacts. I published it through Smashwords and have found B&N to be extremely slow in reporting sales, paying & changing the price back to reflect the correct amount after I’ve held a “discounted special.” Although I was initially against the KDP Select program, after enrolling my short story there I have changed my mind. Based on the exposure it received and subsequent sales I now plan on enrolling the novel I said I never would enroll. Lesson learned…never say never.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      When KDP Select was first announced, I wrote a strongly worded post objecting to certain aspects of it, and said I had no interest in enrolling anything.

      After seeing it in action though, I can’t ignore the evidence. Some writers have done phenomenally well out of it.

      While I’m not currently considering enrolling any existing titles, if things remain as they are for the next couple of months, and growth doesn’t really take off on the other retailers, I’ll probably put my next book in Select for 90 days, then upload everywhere else after.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com Henry Baum

    One other thing: several months ago, B&N removed their “free” link in the Nook tab. They even make it hard to give away books! Which then makes it hard to build momentum from a giveaway that leads to sales.

    B&N seems to be running like the publishing industry – trying to maximize profits however they can in the short term out of desperation. It’s very expensive to pay rent on all those brick and mortar stores – which Amazon doesn’t have to contend with. But it’s mystifying how a bad user experience is a good business model, even for the short term.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Interesting Henry, and that would explain why my free downloads were less then expected during a recent experiment (and miniscule compared to Amazon). And in fact, clever use of “free” has been a way that small publishers and self-publishers have bolstered sales on Amazon. There is a marked difference in visibility of free titles in both stores, and, given the above, you would have to ask: who does that serve?

  • http://www.joanszechtman.com/ Joan Szechtman

    Very interesting analysis. I’m currently publishing my ebooks on Smashwords and KDP and so far, sell about twice as many ebooks on Amazon than B&N. As a result, I’m reluctant to go select, but it’s something I need to consider since my ebooks aren’t flying off the virtual shelf. One reason I’m not using PubIt is because I can discount my books to free through Smashwords and then use Amazon’s price matching to promote my books.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Joan, selling half as many on B&N as Amazon is a better performance than 90% of self-publishers I know – and a very good reason for thinking twice about KDP Select.

  • http://www.remcdermott.com R.E. McDermott

    David, I agree absolutely with all your points concerning difficulty of discovery and the general ‘indie unfriendliness’ of the B&N site. However, and for some reason that I’ve been unable to determine, my single book sells quite well there. From the time my sales started to grow last October until now, B&N sales have never accounted for less than 30% of monthly sales, and at times have been a multiple of Amazon sales. I wish I knew what it was and I’d share, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out. It actually makes me a bit nervous. Happy, but nervous.

    FWIW, they also seem to fluctuate much more widely, but I suspect that may be due to glitches in the B&N reporting.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I suspect the fluctuation is reporting glitches too – I’ve heard a few folks who sell well there report the same.

      What genre do you write in? Pretty much the only self-publishers I’ve heard who do well there are romance (with a handful of thriller writers and one historical fantasy author).

  • http://www.ingridricks.com Ingrid Ricks

    Great post. Thanks, David!

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Thanks Ingrid.

  • http://www.authormarketingclub.com Jim Kukral

    “Most of the sales I get on Barnes & Noble seem to be customers I bring to the site myself. In other words, nobody is discovering my books there. In the last nine months, I’ve sold fifty times more books on Amazon – and only a tiny percentage of those Amazon sales were customers I delivered to the site.”

    Amazon is the new Google. As an Internet Marketer, I know that that’s where the needle gets moved, so I play there. The other search engines are almost a waste of my time. Same analogy. You’re exactly right. You want to compete? At least try.

  • http://alannacoca.com Alanna Coca

    I’ve got my fingers in just about every pot mentioned. I’ve got books published with four houses. I’ve done the Smashwords to BN for my free titles, I’ve done the PubIt for some paid titles, I’ve got 8 titles on KDP, but I cannot for the life of me see why I should try the KDP Select. I feel like that’s punishing my readers who are Nook owners, and for that matter, every other e-reader out there.

    Yes, I sell between 50-300% more (varies by title for some reason) ebooks at Amazon vs Barnes & Noble, but I doubt that by going exclusively Kindle it would boost sales, unless I’m totally missing the point. (?)

    I’ll tell you what I do like about the BN website. Their cover love. Seriously, pull up the same book page on both sites, and you’ll see what I mean. (That might also be slowing the site down?) The BN book page isn’t bombarding me with other images, other book titles, other things I can buy. It’s just the book I’m browsing and that’s it.

    BUT! I’ve also worked in retail for half my life, and I know that the add on sale/impulse buy is really where you can capitalize on a sale. There’s a fine line there. Also the review process is a lot easier at BN, reviewers aren’t required to leave a text review, nor are they required to leave their name, though on the other hand the anonymous reviews always seem sketchy to me.

    I’m a Kindle owner, lover, user, abuser, pimp etc, but my sister feels just as strongly about her Nook. Why in the world would we want a monopoly, right?

    Wow, I’ve rambled because it’s way late and the daylight savings has gone to my head. Apologies.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I do like the larger covers on the B&N site. Amazon made them slightly bigger in the last site redesign, but B&N have ‘em beat there, for sure. It could be slowing the site, I don’t know – outside my area.

      As I think I said above, I would love all e-reading and e-bookstores to be open. That means no DRM, no proprietary formats. Nook owners being able to buy from the Kindle Store and vice versa.

      I think that would really put the pressure on to deliver a great customer experience (and, part of that, in my opinion, is not hiding away self-published work – books that have been proven to be popular on Amazon).

  • http://graysguidons.grayarmybrat.com/?page_id=12 Beverly C Gray

    I’m a recent entrant into the self-publishing venue with my historical fiction series. At this time, my Amazon sales are far greater than other locations. Still, I like going through Smashwords for B&N and the non-Amazon sites since I feel the more exposure the better. Then too, I think some competition in the eBook market is a good thing for readers and writers both.

    For reading devices, I have both the Kindle and the Nook Tablet (comprable to Kindle Fire). I like them both equally for different reasons but agree that the B&N site is terribly cumbersome unless you have an idea of author/title. It’s not very useful for browsing. I have found things on B&N that I can’t find on Amazon and vice-versa so I really appreciate the competition.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I write historical fiction too. One of my pet peeves with Amazon is that they have no sub-categories for historical fiction, which means you need to be regularly in the Top 2000 to feature on any genre bestseller list. Whereas, with something like science fiction, you can be ranked way out and still appear on the outer reaches of some lists. That, of course, harms our visibility as historical fiction authors. In the end, I decided the best course was not to classify my book as historical fiction.

      There is an excellent article here (also by a historical fiction author) on choosing the right categories for your work to maximize your visibility and discoverability: http://mlouisalocke.com/2011/10/24/categories-key-words-and-tags-oh-my-why-should-an-author-care/

      • Beverly C. Gray

        Thanks David. Interesting observation. Still, Amazon is better than Barnes and Noble for category searches. On Amazon, I seem to be doing better in War Fiction (my secondary category) than Historical Fiction. I appreciate the link to the article.

  • http://docraptor.com Tyler

    “Why aren’t they using Barnes & Noble’s own website to discover new novels? A quick tour around solves that riddle. It’s clunky, it’s slow, and browsing for books is a painful experience.”

    Absolutely. I hadn’t looked at Barnes & Noble’s site in years, and it’s almost unusable. For a site that’s supposedly competing with Amazon, they’re not providing a very attractive alternative. When you factor other, more popular e-readers (Kindle Fire, the iPad) it’s easy to see how people forget about Barnes & Noble entirely.

    I don’t even know anyone who owns a Nook!

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      I’ve noticed a significant slowdown in the site since Christmas.

      I know a few Nook owners, but they are (vastly) outnumbered by Kindle owners (and iPad owners).

  • http://juliarachelbarrett.net Julia Rachel Barrett

    The positives – uploading to Pubit is easy. I like the features.
    The negatives – near zero discoverability for an idie author. As I mentioned on another site, I sold more copies of one book in one hour after my Amazon KDP Select promo ended than I did over a six month period of time via all other sites combined.
    Regardless of how I feel about Amazon’s growing monopoly, it’s very hard to say no to that.

  • http://www.deannaknippling.com DeAnna

    Nice.

    I just switched (a few days ago) from Nook to Kindle, and it’s true: I was always looking up books on Amazon then switching back over to B&N to buy them. And trying to find anything via the Nook onboard store if I didn’t know the name? Please.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      And this is the real problem. The system doesn’t aid discovery, in fact, I argue it impedes it.

      I think there is a fundamental difference in philosophy with Amazon, who will always put books under your nose that they think you are more likely to purchase, regardless of price or publisher. Barnes & Noble may well take the view that they prefer to recommend books from large publishers because they are more expensive and they make more money off them. But I think this is short-term thinking at its worst, and serves their customers (readers) badly.

      I would also argue that they would sell more and make more if they adopted the “price blindness” of Amazon and leveled the playing field.

      I used to work for Google a few years back. At the time, Yahoo were still quite strong, and there was a real battle in the search arena (and for advertisers). Yahoo’s policy was to simply sell off the prime ad spots to the highest bidder. Google had a more complex system that prioritized the relevance of the ad (determined, partly, by click-thru rate). While this cost them money in the short term, through allowing lower bidders to “win” the auction for the prime spot at the top, it made them lots lots more in the long term, because users trusted the ads more, and clicked on them more, because they were more relevant.

      I see Amazon’s algorithm as adopting the Google approach, and B&N are thinking like Yahoo. And that’s why Amazon are winning.

  • http://blog.taleist.com Steven Lewis

    Others have mentioned the impact of KDP Select. I can add that the the Taleist Self-Publishing Survey that Dave Cornford and I are putting together will reveal that bestselling self-publishers are more likely to participate in KDP Select than self-publishers at large.

    Because these bestsellers use more channels than the rest, that means they are much more likely to have to withdraw their books from other channels to participate.

    The survey, which ran in February, had over 1,000 responses (thanks in part to you, David), so the data are significant. We are working through this rich information now and plan to publish our report at the end of May.

    • Amy Edelman

      Been meaning to reach out to you. If it’s OK, we may want to pub some of the info. Pls be in touch!

      Best,
      Amy

  • Elizabeth Lang

    “I wrote a post last month showing why the monopoly accusation is particularly ill-informed and further argued that Amazon is creating competition, not killing it”

    Really? I’ve seen this ridiculous logic bandied around so much that I have to say something. How exactly does killing the competition create competition? Or am I missing something?

    “through offering writers more choices than ever by providing the most viable self-publishing platform out there.”
    This makes me roll on the floor. Sooo, providing the SINGLE self-pub platform out there equates more choices? Last time I checked ‘single’ means ONE. I can’t see how providing a SINGLE of anything equates more choices.

    And I checked out B&N, Amazon and the Kobo site and B&N and Amazon are far superior in terms of featuring books than Amazon. How exactly does having Books and Kindle buried in a long list of items show that Amazon values books, more than say toasters, and make it easier to find books? Plus you do realize you have to do 3 separate actions just to get to books at all? Oh yeah, I can see how that makes Amazon much easier to use than B&N that only requires one. Plus I see that Amazon has just recently copied B&N’s style of mouse-over listing because it was obviously much better.

    And the assumption that Amazon’s bestseller rankings is according to reader reviews. Wow. No one has been able to get a straight answer from Amazon on how it calculates those rankings, so how anyone can claim that Amazon does it by merit according to reader reviews. Oh boy. And anyone who studies the rankings, taking into account sales and reviews, knows its a mystery.

    And to think that it’s some kind of phenomena that people are going exclusive with Amazon because it’s so great? How about Amazon sells books as a loss leader? It not only encourages writers to give away their books for free, it pushes them to sell under all the competitors prices if you take a look at the fine print of the royalty calculations. So far, they’ve only pushed those rules on publishers, not self-pubs, but you know that isn’t far behind. Not to mention, they’ve required an oppressive 90-day exclusive in order to use their ‘wonderful’ KSP program. Plus they have been squeezing sites like Goodreads to go exclusive with Amazon if they link to Amazon at all or use any data from Amazon. Oh yeah, info like number of pages, author names, isbn numbers…Amazon thinks it owns them and can push you into using them exclusively if you dare use your own information that you uploaded to their site. Plus they are also squeezing reviews now. Really? Did you know that if someone writes a review on Amazon, their automated bots better not find you using that review somewhere else, not even your own site, because Amazon thinks it owns reviews once its put on their site. So be careful if you get reviews from valuable reviewers who will put that review on multiple sites so that everyone can have the freedom to use any site they want to buy books, because some people have already been dinged by them.

    So, do people use Amazon because it’s so wonderful, or because there is so much free stuff and because Amazon’s policies are so oppressive that it cuts everyone else out from using other sites.

    Goodreads was so pissed off at Amazon trying to force them to use them exclusively and cut their members free access to other book sites from their pages that it cut all ties from Amazon.

    I love how people blame B&N for not being competitive. Competing against a company that can sell at a loss in order to destroy the competition, how exactly does one compete against that?

    I’ve actually stopped buying from Amazon even though there are so many free and nearly free titles. I refuse to buy from a company that is destroying this industry.

    • http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ David Gaughran

      Hi Elizabeth,

      I’d like to deal with your points in turn, if I may.

      With regard to my view that “Amazon is creating competition, not killing it” the reasoning is explained in some detail here – http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/1786/ – and I would love to hear your views on that rather than the one sentence summary of the argument in this article.

      In short though, that single self-publishing platform has allowed small presses (many use KDP too) and self-publishers to reach customers all across the world. Writers now have more choices than ever. They don’t have to accept the (often crummy) terms offered by the large publishers. They can now go with a small publisher, with increased confidence that they will be able to reach readers (as they are often excluded from chains like Barnes & Noble). They can also opt to self-publish, and virtually match the digital distribution of the largest publishers.

      That’s the kind of choice I am taking about, and Amazon has done more than any other company to make self-publishing a viable option.

      With regard to the various e-bookstores, there certainly are minor aspects of some of the stores which are an improvement over Amazon’s. For example, I like that Smashwords sell both Nook and Kindle compatible files. I like the bigger cover pictures on Barnes & Noble. And I like the way Sony has began pulling reviews through from Goodreads.

      Overall though, I don’t think any of Amazon’s competitors come close to matching the entire store experience – and I would bet any survey would back up that opinion. You don’t have to take my word for it though, read all the above comments – most seem to agree. Also, this article was republished by the Huffington Post on Wednesday. You can read the numerous comments agreeing with my assessment here (including many Nook owners too who admit to browsing on Amazon before shopping at B&N): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/14/nook-versus-kindle-self-publishing_n_1343392.html

      I would like to correct something. I never said that “Amazon’s bestseller rankings is according to reader reviews.” I was referring to another list, called “Top Rated” which show the most highly rated books in each genre and sub-genre. You can see a sample list for Thrillers here, so you know what I mean: http://amzn.to/w1cAwm

      I would like to correct something else. Amazon’s KDP program does not require exclusivity. I use KDP, and all of my books are available on Apple, B&, Kobo, Sony, Smashwords etc.

      I think what you meant was KDP Select, which is an *optional* program, which some self-publishers (and small publishers) have enrolled in.

      Again, a choice. One I have chosen not to participate in, but others have. Choices are good, aren’t they?

      As for the Goodreads/Amazon dispute, I’m sure there is a lot more to it. My understanding was that Amazon were providing data (such as book covers and blurbs) to Goodreads for free or for a nominal charge. My hunch is that since Goodreads started to partner with Amazon’s competitors (Sony and Kobo – by providing reviews to them), Amazon decided to stop giving them this free data. Which sounds fair enough to me. Shouldn’t a company be allowed to do what it likes with its own data?

      It’s somewhat ironic that you defend B&N by saying that it’s unfair that Amazon can undercut them on price. Isn’t this exactly what B&N did to the indie bookstores? And you also forget about Apple. They are vastly richer than Amazon. If they wanted to undercut Amazon, they could do it tomorrow. But they don’t.

      With regard to how B&N can compete, I believe I’ve outlined a path above. In short, start serving readers instead of publishers.

      As for Amazon “destroying the industry,” I have a completely opposite view. By providing cheap books, cheap e-readers, and an excellent customer experience, they have reinvigorated a moribund industry. In addition, they have provided a platform that allows thousands of writers like me to bypass publishing companies and sell directly to readers (meaning cheaper books for them).

      • http://juliarachelbarrett.net Julia Rachel Barrett

        I think Ms. Lang makes some very valid points about healthy competition, which is why I wish Amazon’s competitors would make it worth my while – as an indie – to publish with all of them.
        As I said, regardless of how I feel about monopolies, Amazon is knocking it out of the park for me.

      • Tom

        The self and small publishers have more options when Amazon lets them. Amazon refused to accept IPG’s and the industry’s standard terms for ebooks. That’s 400 presses gone instantly. There is still some question about this. How can Amazon not like IPS’s wholesale ebook prices? And I’ve heard media reports that IPG was not the first just the first that refused to reject Amazon. The other presses lowered their wholesale prices.

        The Goodreads/Amazon dispute was disappointing, unbelievable, unreasonable and a little cruel. It is true that Amazon provided data feeds to GR that has ended. But Amazon also forced GR to remove existing data. This wiped out most Kindle only ebooks. The KDP Select and other self-published writers. The authors weren’t happy. Also, Amazon won’t let them extract covers and data even from Amazon published titles. There often is no other source for this info, if the author doesn’t have a personal website and many many do not. One of the indie’s biggest marketing tools hampered by Amazon.

  • http:/declanconner.com Declan Conner

    It says it all when Barnes and Noble restrict their top 100eBook chart, to books over $2.99

  • http://www.AdamPepper.com Adam Pepper

    Great piece, Dave.

  • http://www.stephentharper.blogspot.com Stephen T. Harper

    Great post, David. I would love to see B&N try a little harder to help readers find my work, but as you have pointed out, they seem to be trying to please their traditional relationships rather than working to create new ones.

    My book sells well on Amazon for two reasons – the product page is very compelling, and of course, people can SEE it. I do very little promotion outside of Amazon. I use Select and have noticed that the free days create very consistent numbers whether I tweet and blog about a promotion or not. The visibility created is pretty much all within Amazon’s inner machinery.

    Before switching to Select, I had zero sales on B&N after two months. One of the biggest problems I had was in creating a compelling product page. It’s a mess over there. Many believe that a simple, quick paragraph is the best way to sell books on your product page. I disagree. My novel is a complex and unique story,and I use a healthy chunk of real estate on the Amazon page to let any potential readers know what it offers. It’s sales copy, not just a summary. On the B&N site… it’s clunky, ugly, and the html programming doesn’t seem to work ( I certainly tried).

    I look forward to the day when I have enough books to cross promote and use every available outlet, but for now, with only one novel out, exclusivity to Amazon is a no-brainer. For one thing, it works and people are finding my book in numbers I did not expect. And for another thing, it doesn’t really even seem to matter. If no one can find it on B&N, it’s basically exclusive anyway.

    Here’s to hoping B&N and Apple start to believe in the value of promoting books and reading, rather than just promoting old friends.

    Cheers

  • http://mikedennisnoir.com Mike Dennis

    Great post, Dave. You know, it’s quite likely the big 6 armtwisted B&N into shunning self-pubbed authors in favor of their own more expensive books. As long as B&N is in the brick & mortar business, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

    I only have two of my seven titles now on B&N online and I’m this close to pulling them. B&N does nothing for me, I don’t sell anything through them (a good month for me is 5 or 6 copies), and KDP Select beckons. My other titles have been through KDPS with great success, so I think I’m going to say adios to B&N until they get their shit together.

  • http://pencilword.blogspot.com/ Victoria

    Excellent article David. Right now I sell more on B&N than on Amazon but that seems to be changing this month. I think it’s because of the genre I write (kids’ books) but when I start writing adult fiction I quite sure that I will have the same experience other indie authors are having.

  • Kevin

    Amazon’s category system is far from perfect. Especially the non-fiction categories tend to fill up with crud from sham e-publishers trying to sell you public-domain books from Gutenberg. Somebody in this Dickens novel spends money — surely that qualifies it as “macroeconomics”. A character in this mystery novel is a priest from the European side of the Atlantic — surely that qualifies it as “eastern spirituality”. And Amazon offers no way for customers to help get rid of this category spam.

    Not being in the US, I’ve never tried the B&N website. You mean their category system is worse? That’s frightening.

  • http://endless-satsang.com/ Nirmala

    I just read this post today and also read Kris Rusch’s post about Scarcity and Abundance (http://kriswrites.com/2012/03/14/the-business-rusch-scarcity-and-abundance/) and it struck me that all of the problems with B&N’s website could be due to their embrace of the scarcity world view that Kris says the legacy publishing industry is stuck in. They are trying to emulate Amazon which is based on an abundance world view, but they just can’t seem to fully make the switch, and so their website is structured more like their brick and mortar stores even though that does not fit with an online store. It is a classic example of the clash between these two business models, and B&N seems stuck somewhere in the middle.

  • http://planetpeschel.com/wp/ Bill Peschel

    This also applies to their book-buying section. During one of those times when Amazon threw its weight around, I decided to give bn.com some of my business. Buying a book there was such a clunky experience, involving numerous pages and problems, that it made me appreciate Amazon’s service much more. (And abebooks.com has a fantastic system, even if it does remember your credit card data a little too easily.)

  • http://dan-harris.net Dan Harris

    Great post, David – thanks. I’ve just published my first book on Smashwords, so I’ll be interested to see what category it ends up in once it hits B&N!

  • http://www.johnbetcher.com John Betcher

    Bravo! Well said.

    There are clearly reasons why B&N’s stock price keeps dropping and its Board of Directors can’t find a buyer for their “buggy whips” and “barrel staves” operation.

    I’d love to see B&N do better. But its got to be THEIR choice.

    Cheers!

    John

  • http://dreamsofcontrol.blogspot.com Marc Cabot

    True Story:

    A few months ago I realized that B&N had somehow tied one of my books (Author: Marc Cabot) to a fairly successful YA author (Meg Cabot.) Everything LOOKED right but somehow all the reviews for one of *her* books showed up on one of *my* books, and they were otherwise linked in strange ways: if you weren’t careful, you could end up on my page looking for something of hers.

    The point of this is not to back up your assertion that their system is effed. I think we can all agree on that. No, the point of this is the next comment:

    The book did not sell one copy on B&N for the month or more that this glitch was in effect..

    Think about that. It’s statistically impossible that if a significant number of people saw it that somebody wouldn’t buy it, either for the lulz or through sheer dumbassery. So the most likely explanation is that even though the book it was getting linked to was a new publication from a popular author, hardly anybody saw it.

    Amazing.

    Incidentally, they fixed it within 48 hours of having it brought to their attention through PubIt customer service, and they were very polite about it. This seems to be at odds with the experience of others who’ve had tech troubles with PubIt, but I add it for the sake of full disclosure.

  • http://petertcormack.wordpress.com Peter T Cormack

    Fantastic article!

    It’s been almost a year since this article was published, and I’m wondering if the situation has changed at all. I’m just about to publish my first novel, and I’m trying to decide whether to do Kindle Select or publish to BN as well. Any advice? Is B&N still not doing what they need to in order to help new readers discover our books? Or should I just stick with Amazon?