Barnes & Noble rejects criticism of buying practices


CARLE PLACE, NEW YORK – MARCH 20: A pedestrian walks around a mostly empty Barnes & Noble parking lot on March 20, 2020 in Carle Place, New York. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11th. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Authors are criticizing a rumored policy change at Barnes & Noble on social media, saying it acts as a barrier to marginalized and upcoming authors and limits the books widely available to young children.

One author, Kelly Yang, announced on Aug. 18 that her title “Key Player” — the fourth book in her award-winning “Front Desk” series — would not be available at Barnes & Noble stores, though it is listed for sale on the book store’s website.

In a Twitter thread, Yang claimed Barnes & Noble would only accept the top two children’s books per publisher each season.

“I hope they know that when kids see this cover of a 10-year-old Chinese American girl who is just trying to go for her dreams, a girl who believes she has a shot the same as everyone else, how much this cover means to kids,” Yang said in a video. “We all deserve shelf space, not just the top one to two people. We all deserve a chance to go for our dreams.”

In an email to NewsNation, a Barnes & Noble spokesperson denied Yang’s claim.

“The notion that Barnes & Noble will only take 1 or 2 titles for each publisher has no foundation,” the company spokesperson wrote. “Most likely, it derives from someone’s observation that 1 or 2 titles are bestsellers each month. Barnes & Noble stocks tens of thousands of books that are not bestsellers, even if we hope each may become one.”

Yang could not immediately be reached for comment.

Author Britney Lewis said she was told by a Barnes & Noble representative the company was taking a “wait-and-see approach” to ordering hardcover debuts and middle-grade (ages 8-12) books.

The discovery came after the author realized her debut book, “The Undead Truth of Us,” wasn’t in stock at Barnes & Noble, she said.

“When there’s not an opportunity to buy books by a certain author, then those books don’t get bought, which tells publishing and the industry that no one’s buying those books, but really no one knows about those books,” Lewis said. “It’s a double-edged sword and it’s so frustrating because there’s so many barriers you have to kick through to get your book out there, especially being a Black author like myself. …”

Barnes & Noble is the world’s largest retail bookseller. Amid rising requests to ban certain books from school libraries, reduced availability of books for children and young adults at Barnes & Noble threatens to further limit children’s access to lesser-known titles, said Jenn Northington, anthologies co-editor and manager of product operations at Riot New Media. Northington recently wrote about Barnes & Noble’s alleged policy changes for the website Book Riot.

“It does absolutely mean that readers have less choice and are less likely to find titles that are not already big,” Northington said. “And this is again, something that booksellers and readers have been talking about for a long time.”

Some anticipated changes when Barnes & Noble fired its chief executive in 2018 and hedge fund Elliott Advisors purchased the chain. It placed James Daunt in charge — a longtime bookseller who successfully resurrected the UK chain Waterstones after it fell into bankruptcy. Part of his strategy included delegating more book-ordering duties to local stores, rather than the corporate buyers, Northington said.

According to Barnes & Noble, the quantity ordered of each title is judged, as closely as it can be, relative to expected sales. 

“We do not stock all books that are published and have never done so,” the company’s public relations team said. “Millions are published, so this is impossible, and also it is the role of a bookseller to curate their bookstore. Inevitably, some authors are thereby turned down and quite understandably this is disappointing to them.”

Authors voiced particular concern about Barnes & Noble’s alleged scaling back of hardcover books — the form in which many debut and middle-grade books are released, Northington said.

Hardcovers tend to be more expensive and therefore bring in more money, but not if consumers strapped by inflation and other expenses can’t afford to buy them. It’s a battle that companies such as Barnes & Noble as well as indie bookstores have been grappling with for years.

It’s unsurprising then, that with limited shelf space, stores would be “shy” about bringing in titles they’re not personally familiar with, Northington said.

“There’s all kinds of reasons why people prefer paperbacks to hardcover, so it’s smart business,” Northington said. “But if you’re an author who gets a hardcover debut, which many authors do, where does that leave you?”

Daunt addressed the matter last month in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. Notably, he told the publication that about 80% of middle-grade hardcovers were being returned and that, “B&N for many years abrogated this responsibility, filling its stores with anything and everything and sending back what did not sell.”

“What we are doing — with middle grade and adult, fiction and nonfiction, alike — is to exercise taste and judgment,” Daunt told Publisher’s Weekly. “This is to buy less but, if it is done with skill, it is to sell more. Far from being just for proven authors, this will allow the new that is good to have the space and attention to find an audience.”

His response didn’t land well with the authors already criticizing Barnes & Noble’s practices, however.

“So the 100+ BIPOC early readers for my book just don’t have ‘good taste’ then,” Lewis responded on Twitter. “Oh, ok. Taste is clearly subjective, but this statement is a joke. If you don’t want marginalized voices on your shelf, just say that.”

This story has been updated to include comments from author Britney Lewis.

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