Barnes & Noble: If You Want Competition, Compete!

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 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.