Big changes in the bookselling landscape were the subject of several of the industry’s top stories in 2019, along with publishers’ relationships with different partners.
1. Elliott Advisors Buys Barnes & Noble; Daunt Named CEO
After struggling for several years to find ways to boost the bookstore chain’s sales and to improve its bottom line, B&N’s board of directors approved the sale of the company to private equity firm Elliott Advisors in a deal worth $683 million. The transaction didn’t come without some drama, as another company—widely believed to be ReaderLink—was working to make a counteroffer. In the end, the B&N committee charged with evaluating all offers voted in favor of the Elliott cash deal, believing it had the necessary financing to get the purchase done quickly.
Following the completion of the deal on August 6, Elliott officially named James Daunt B&N CEO. Daunt already served as CEO of the U.K.’s Waterstones bookselling chain, which is also owned by Elliott. Among the changes Daunt has discussed implementing in 2020 at B&N are an overhaul of its merchandising approach and returning the responsibility of each store’s performance to local managers.
2. B&T Exits the Retail Wholesale Market
In early May, Baker & Taylor announced that it was closing its retail wholesaling business, which supplied books to bookstores and other physical retailers. The decision came following months of rumors that some deal between B&T and competitor Ingram was in the works. When no deal surfaced, B&T began phasing out its retail operations, a process that lasted into the early fall. The move was made, B&T explained, to better align itself with its parent company, Follett Corp., whose strengths include working with schools and school libraries. B&T’s library wholesaling operations were not affected. Publishers and booksellers were both concerned that B&T’s exit from the retail business would slow shipments to stores, especially to the West Coast, where B&T fulfilled orders through its Reno warehouse, which was set to close. Publishers, as well as Ingram and Bookazine, came up with plans to alleviate any potential problems, with Penguin Random House perhaps coming up with the most aggressive plan of all: in November, it announced it was taking over the operation of the Reno warehouse, which it will use to service West Coast stores.
3. Macmillan Implements E-book Windowing for Libraries
In late July, Macmillan announced that, beginning November 1, it would implement a two-month embargo on library e-books across all of the company’s imprints. Under the publisher’s new digital terms of sale, library systems are allowed to purchase a single perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication for each new Macmillan release, at half price ($30). Additional copies will then be available at full price after the eight-week window has passed. All other terms remain the same: e-book licenses will continue to be metered for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first, on a one copy/one user model.
The decision outraged librarians across the country, who see the move as a direct attack on their ability to offer timely services to their patrons. Scores of library systems are boycotting buying Macmillan e-books in protest of the move. For his part, Macmillan CEO John Sargent says “frictionless” e-book loans by libraries reduce the value of the books and hurt overall sales. Sargent is set to appear in a session discussing the matter at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, which runs January 24–28 in Philadelphia.
4. Audible Caption Proposal Called Copyright Infringement
When word began circulating in July that Audible was developing a new program called Captions to run text alongside its audiobooks, publishers, agents, and authors all called the proposal copyright infringement. Before the program could be launched, the AAP filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Big Five trade houses, as well as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Scholastic, asking for a preliminary injunction; the lawsuit was subsequently backed by representatives for the Authors Guild and the Association of Authors Representatives. At year end, Captions had still not been implemented, and the judge overseeing the case has urged the publishers and Audible to settle the matter out of court.
5. Tariffs Imposed on Books Manufactured in China
As part of its trade war with China, on September 1 the Trump administration slapped 15% tariffs on most books manufactured in China. Excluded from the tariffs were children’s picture books, coloring books, and drawing books, as well as Bibles and religious books. Children’s books were subject to possible tariffs on December 15, but the administration suspended imposing those tariffs after reaching a “phase one” agreement with China over trade. The other book tariffs, for now, remain in effect.
6. Citing Problems, Publishers Cut Ties with Authors
Given the charged nature of the times, publishers have been keenly aware of the reputations of their authors. In 2019, that led to a number of publishers dropping authors following various allegations or charges. Three instances of this in particular were among the most read stories on PW. After allegations of inappropriate behavior made against Tim Tingle by two booksellers, Scholastic dropped plans to publish his middle grade book Doc and the Detective; Tingle, who had his rights to the book returned, denied the allegations. Author Kosoko Jackson requested that Sourcebooks withdraw publication of his debut YA novel, A Place for Wolves, following concerns raised on social media. And in June, after a Netflix drama reopened interest in the Central Park jogger case, in which five black and Latino teenagers were falsely accused of assault and rape, Dutton and author Linda Fairstein terminated their publishing relationship; Fairstein was formerly chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit and oversaw prosecution of the case.
7. Indie Booksellers Incensed over Breaking of ‘Testaments’ Embargo
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments was expected to be one of the big books of 2019, especially for independent booksellers. So when it was discovered that Amazon had broken the September 10 embargo date, booksellers were furious. Publisher Penguin Random House acknowledged that a retailer had inadvertently released copies before the official on-sale date and said the situation had been corrected. The incident highlighted the frustration many booksellers feel about the enforcement of embargoes, which are frequently broken by one retailer or another.
8. The Netflix-Literary Connection
Streaming services have increasingly been looking to book publishers for source material, none more so than Netflix, which was on a book acquisition spree over much of 2019, developing screen adaptations of dozens of novels, series, short story collections, and graphic novels, with a particular interest in those aimed at children and teens.
9. AWP Fires Executive Director
Less than six months after being named the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ permanent executive director, Chloe Schwenke was fired in September. She had succeeded longtime executive director David Fenza, who was dismissed in April 2018. Schwenke, a transgender woman, alleges that her firing was primarily based on discrimination.
10. Allison Hill Named ABA CEO
Allison Hill, president and CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., was named the next CEO of the American Booksellers Association. Hill succeeds Oren Teicher, who has served as ABA CEO for the past 10 years. Hill begins her new job March 1.