Barnes & Noble is in trouble. You hear that, in worried tones, when you talk to people in the book business.
You feel it when you walk into one of the chain’s stores, a cluttered mix of gifts, games, DVDs (DVDs?) and books. And you really see the problems if you dig into the company’s financial statements.
Revenue from Nook, the company’s e-book device, has fallen more than 85 percent since 2012. Online sales of physical books have also plummeted. At the stores, where business was once holding up, it’s down about 10 percent over the past two years. Several stores – like my local one, in the Washington suburbs – have closed, and many have reduced staff.
The company’s leaders claim that they have a turnaround plan, based on smaller, more appealing stores focused on books, and I hope the plan works. It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear – as already happened with Borders in 2011. But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.
At first glance, this seems like a classic story of business disruption. Barnes & Noble and Borders were once so imposing that they served as the model for the evil corporation trying to crush independent bookstores in the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Then the world changed. The old leaders couldn’t keep up. Such is capitalism.
Except, that’s not anywhere near the full story.
The full story revolves around government policy – in particular, Washington’s leniency, under both parties, toward technology giants that have come to resemble monopolies. These giants are popular because they provide good products and service. But they have also become mighty enough to vanquish their competitors and create problems for society.
For most of American history, the government viewed giant corporations of any kind as inherently problematic. Their size gave them too much power – to eliminate competition, raise prices, hold down wages and influence politics. So the government passed laws to restrain businesses and occasionally broke up the largest, like Standard Oil and AT&T.
In the 1970s, however, a new idea took hold: Size was not a problem so long as prices remained low. Bigness could even be good because it promoted efficiency and thus lower prices. Legal scholar Robert Bork was the most influential advocate for this view, and it soon guided the Supreme Court, the Reagan administration and pretty much every administration since.
But the theory has two huge flaws, as a new generation of scholars, like Lina Khan, is emphasizing. One, prices are not a broad enough measure of well-being. Wages, innovation and political power matter as well. If prices stay low but wages don’t grow – which is, roughly, what’s happened in recent decades – consumers aren’t better off. Two, regulators have focused on short-term prices, sometimes ignoring what can happen after a company drives out its rivals.
The book business is looking like a case study. Amazon is taking over yet has never run into antitrust scrutiny. It has reduced prices, after all. It sells many e-books for $9.99 and hardcover best-sellers at a big discount. So what’s the problem?
Plenty. Amazon has been happy to lose money on books to build a loyal customer base, to which it can then sell everything else. “Amazon isn’t primarily concerned about books these days,” Oren Teicher, who runs an association of independent bookstores, told me. “They are far more focused on getting consumers into their ecosystem so they can sell them every other product under the sun.”
But the artificially low prices have created a raft of problems. Fewer books are commercially viable. Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has declined. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book sales that looks permanent.
All the while, many writers and publishers are afraid to criticize Amazon. They’re not being completely paranoid, either. When publishers have fought Amazon, it has sometimes punished them by disrupting sales. Internally, Amazon executives have described small publishers as a “gazelle” – and itself as a cheetah.
Oh, and now prices may be rising. Last month, Amazon increased the annual cost of its membership program, Prime, by 20 percent, to $119.
Like many people, I am a frequent and usually satisfied Amazon customer. But I am also starting to wake up to the deep problems created by corporate behemoths. They have the power to hold down wages, avoid taxes, squash competition and produce a less vigorous economy.
Once the country emerges from the Trump presidency, I hope we will have a government that takes monopolies seriously. Until then, I’ll be rooting for Barnes & Noble. So, it turns out, are some people who once viewed it as the enemy. “It’s in the interest of the book business,” Teicher says, “for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service