The Big Shift in Books Just Happened

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, when we are looking for the moment when the book publishing business was finally and fully transformed, we’ll surely point to this month in 2011. Of course, given what’s happened since Amazon launched the Kindle and Apple made the iPad an overwhelming success, it’s no surprise that Barnes and Noble would make some changes in the organization.

The fact that the bookseller reorganized its buying operations to eliminate 45-50 positions while trying to keep every detail quiet suggests there’s a real shift going on in buying habits. The lost positions at B&N primarily deal with the persons who choose which books go into the stores. The company says they’re being replaced with people on the digital side.

That dovetails with a report from USA Today that shows the heart of the business–bestselling books that bring traffic into stores–is rapidly moving to e-books:

For the third week in a row, more than a third of the top 50 books on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list sold more e-book copies than print versions. Among the 19 books more popular in digital form was Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, a sleeper hit from 2009.

Millions of readers got Kindles and iPads this Christmas. They clearly like the new devices. With more tablets on the way and Android’s Honeycomb OS teed up for a launch this year, one can only assume that the numbers we’ve already seen will only be amplified.

By the end of 2011, will the number of bestsellers that outsell in e-book be 32 instead of 16 for USA Today’s top 50? With much of the bestseller market already going to Costco, Wal-Mart and Target, how big wil the impact be on Barne & Noble?

Even with a successful Nook business, the physical stores will lose a key driver of traffic. The buyers who were let go this month didn’t just choose the bestsellers for the front of the store, they stocked the categories that are supposed to be the Superstore’s appeal. Barnes & Noble’s selling proposition is that their stores carry 100,000+ titles so you’ll always be able to find what you’re looking for. Will that be enough to drive foot traffic?

Probably not. With the loss of Borders, which will surely go out of business this year, and the potential for a greatly reduced Barnes & Noble that these staff changes portend, the distribution channel for physical books will only get smaller. That will put more emphasis on e-books to the point where publishers start orienting all of their publication strategies around generating e-book sales, a sea change in what it means to publish a book.

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