Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg investigates Barnes & Noble’s plan to save traditional bookselling, led by CEO James Daunt. He reports:
A year ago, John Radford had little control over the book selection at the Barnes & Noble store he manages in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Executives in New York decided which titles to carry. The retailer’s 600-plus stores were expected to follow that blueprint.
Mr. Radford had to stock dozens of James Patterson and John Grisham books, even though there wasn’t that much local demand. Often, he’d have to return about half the inventory after a few months.
These days, he is the one calling the shots.
Led by Chief Executive James Daunt, Barnes & Noble Inc. is abandoning the strategy that made it a bookselling behemoth two decades ago—uniformity designed to create economies of scale and simplify the shopping experience. Instead, the company is empowering store managers to curate their shelves based on local tastes.
In recent months, Mr. Daunt has cut the ranks of once-powerful staffers who supervised large groups of stores and fired nearly half of the company’s New York-based book buyers, powerful tastemakers who decided which titles stores should carry. In the process, he has severed decadeslong relationships with publishers who paid to have their books placed in stores.
Mr. Daunt has made the most of pandemic-related closings in the spring to renovate and modernize stores. He also runs Waterstones, the U.K.’s largest bookstore chain, where his attention to detail includes the types of tables he thinks are best for book display—small round ones, not large square ones.
It’s the most ambitious restructuring ever undertaken at the company, one that will help determine the future for traditional bookselling. Mr. Daunt, who took the reins after hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. bought Barnes & Noble in August 2019, has little margin for error.