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How to Revive Barnes & Noble: Get a CEO Who Loves Books

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2023

Ted Gioia is one of the best music writers and critics around but has proved an astute cultural (and even business!) critic as well. In a piece for his excellent The Honest Broker newsletter, Gioia writes about the recent turnaround of Barnes & Noble, which he attributes to the company’s new CEO and his love of books. James Daunt, who took the helm of B&N in late 2019, previously saved UK bookshop chain Waterstones, in part by refusing to take promotional money from publishers:

Daunt refused to play this game. He wanted to put the best books in the window. He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door. Even more amazing, he let the people working in the stores make these decisions.

This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books.

“Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”

This crazy strategy proved so successful at Waterstones, that returns fell almost to zero — 97% of the books placed on the shelves were purchased by customers. That’s an amazing figure in the book business.

On the basis of this success, Daunt was put in charge of Barnes & Noble in August 2019. But could he really bring that dinosaur, on the brink of extinction, back to life?

The boldface above is mine and it matches up with the bold text from Gioia’s conclusion:

Of course, there’s a lesson here. And it’s not just for books. You could also apply it to music, newspapers, films, and a host of other media.

But I almost hate to say it, because the lesson is so simple.

If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema.

One of the reasons I decided to take a sabbatical last year is that I was not loving what I was doing here and it was starting to show. Oh, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how to paper over the cracks. Also, I’m stubborn and will keep at something even if I’m not enjoying it, but the wheels were starting to come off of the wagon. Now that I’m back, I’m trying to figure out which bits of this weird job I’m really into and redirect my efforts there. Gioia’s piece is a good reminder to follow the love and the rest will follow.