In the early '90s, I got a job as assistant manager of the medical department at the Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I sold medical textbooks to residents and nursing students; I sold stethoscopes and calipers. I hazed new staffers with forensic pathology and dermatology slides. I made "signage" out of BISAC categories.
The store was a weird mix. On the one hand, it was a textbook shop for NYU and other New York City colleges. On the other, it was the original Barnes & Noble, and something of a tourist attraction. So it sold trade titles and bestsellers in addition to fulfilling the syllabi of local professors.
Unlike the superstores, this shop was cavernous, with low ceilings and unbelievably creaky wooden floors. There were mice - mostly in the overstock areas, but occasionally one would make its way out to the sales floor, cough miserably, shoot one of us a baleful look, and wander away. All staff had to wear blue jackets, kind of like lab coats but shorter, so we could be easily identified.
That store doesn't exist now. The new flagship store is the Union Square superstore. The college division is a separate entity from the big stores. But one thing has not changed.
If Steve Jobs was Apple personified, Len Riggio is that for Barnes & Noble. In the 1990s, B&N was a juggernaut - seemingly unstoppable, perpetually plunking down new superstores, driving indies out of business, and generally behaving like an 800 pound gorilla.
Then came the internet. Then came Amazon. Then came the Kindle.
This triple whammy ultimately put competitor Borders out of business entirely, and weakened Barnes & Noble's position in a drastic way. (Ironically, B&N had been at the forefront of ebook sales in the early 2000s. But they didn't catch on, and once burned is twice shy.) The website just couldn't compete with Amazon, where you can buy shoes, home furnishings, and books all in one order. And the stores have faltered as well. Where they once boasted vast inventories, the web and ebook combination have seen B&N stocking games, bobble-head figurines, and stationery products in lieu of books. Indie bookstores have seen a resurgence, by adding coffee shops and wine bars and hosting events.
This week we learned that Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, has been let go. Len Riggio, on the verge of retirement, has decided to step back into the CEO role for the time being. This is not the first time that has happened. The position of CEO of B&N is coming to resemble that of the drummer in Spinal Tap.
Some see a long, slow death spiral in the making. I have to wonder about that. While music stores collapsed after iTunes and other services, and video stores after Netflix and streaming, books are a different proposition. Ebook sales have flattened. Print book sales are stable (once you remove the boost that adult coloring books have given them). The market seems to have found its footing after the digital disruption.
The thing that hurts publicly-traded companies the most is the expectation of increased profitability year over year. Stability is not enough.
In the course of his stewardship of B&N, Riggio has shown a willingness to spin off divisions into their own companies, acquire other companies, partner with larger companies, take his companies public, take those companies private again. When shareholders get disgruntled, Riggio readily buys them out.
So I wouldn't read a revolving door of CEOs as a harbinger of a death spiral. I wouldn't look at store closings, the failure of the Nook, and an influx of non-book inventory as indications of B&N disappearing from the landscape.
As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too. It began as a college store and it may well end as one. But it will persist as long as Len wills it to. Do not expect him to turn off the lights and lock the doors.
In 1997, superstore behemoth Barnes & Noble had launched their website in competition with Amazon. (As a matter of disclosure: I began working there in 1998, directing the database that served both the web and the stores.) Borders, Hastings, Books-A-Million, and others soon followed. There were numerous start-ups dedicated to selling specific sorts of books – Varsity Books for textbooks, FatBrain for business books. Companies were acquired, rose up, shut down – it was absolutely chaotic.
In the midst of all this, the problems presented by back-office, transactional metadata (truncated titles, metadata in ALL CAPS) were abundantly clear to consumers – these websites were ugly, clunky, and not very enticing. Publishers noticed. Distributors noticed. Everyone saw an opportunity to increase sales.
ONIX stands for Online Information Exchange, and was developed as a joint effort by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and EDItEUR (which originally stood for EDI-to-Europe, but which has evolved more broadly into a London-based standards body for the book industry). It was created to solve two problems: (1) that consumers were now looking at this data so it had to be more robust, descriptive, accurate, and reflective of what they needed to see, and (2) that ANSI X12, as a US-based standard, was insufficient for international communications about books.
I was on the front lines back then – it was hotly competitive between Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. There were lawsuits, front-page news articles, insults, and shade thrown. It was nasty. But everybody could agree that the metadata was causing us all the same headaches. So there was a parley.
In 1998, in the conference room at AAP on 5th Avenue, the Big Seven publishers (yes, there were seven at the time), Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, a handful of startups, and a number of other interested companies sat down at a large conference table and laid out the problems. It was the first time B&N and Amazon had allowed representatives to sit in the same room together – Cindy Cunningham and myself. (We later became good friends – largely due to this experience.) It was clear that we needed to present a unified front to persuade publishers to adopt this new standard that would benefit all of us. After two years of negotiations, ONIX 1.0 was published and its maintenance in the US was handed to the Book Industry Study Group, which created a metadata committee (now run by Richard Stark at B&N, who was one of my first hires there) to handle changes and fixes and additions to the code lists.
ONIX is not terribly sexy. But it allowed sexiness to happen. As we evolve through ONIX 3.0 and beyond, knowing how we got here will help us lay the infrastructure for whatever awaits the book industry as the Web itself advances.