My recent exploration of the failing of Barnes & Noble attracted many comments, some of which surprised me. To me, it was a simple issue of, ‘If you won’t sell to people, how can they buy?’ But I had some food for thought from some of our readers, and I think the problem merits some further exploration. Here are my top off-the-beaten-track Barnes & Noble Failure Conspiracy Theories.

Do some (or all) of them account for Barnes & Noble’s dismal sales?

1. Barnes & Noble is targeting takeover partners, not customers.

This one came to me via my Beloved, who reads … but makes his comments orally. His theory is this: In America, the dominant players are Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with a few in-roads by Kobo, Sony, etc., but nothing significant. What if Barnes & Noble was hoping to change that? What if they’ve decided to focus on their bricks-and-mortar stores? After all, while books may be a shrinking market, toys and educational products are not, and B&N (like Indigo here in Canada) are devoting increasing shelf space to it. Maybe they actually want to dump the online stuff, so they’ve decided not to sink any more money into it. They’re still selling, and perhaps making moderate gains in the UK.

In other words, their goal is not to dominate per se, but rather to keep it just attractive enough to be a desirable entity for takeover. They’re using EPUB already. Kobo could buy them out and instantly move to number two in the U.S. Or Sony, whose hardware dominance has slipped ever since the Kindle launched, could easily merge its own EPUB store with B&N, and have a new hardware line (with an exclusivity contract to Barnes & Noble to sell it), and suddenly be back in the game.

It’s a bit outside the box, this theory, but I kind of like it.

2. It’s the fault of territorial restrictions/government interference/DRM.

I agree with this, to an extent. These issues can be problematic for any vendor. But the thing is, others have worked around them. If Kobo can come from nowhere and establish a market share, and if Amazon can be third to the game and still be one of the top two players in Canada, why can’t Barnes & Noble? What are these other companies doing that B&N is not?

I do think the, ‘It’s somebody else’s fault’ argument does have some weight, but not all the weight. That is, there is something to it … but not everything.

As reader and commenter Felix Torres so eloquently pointed out: “Going international would bring in money that might make up for the losses at home but until they do something about the reason for those losses, they will continue to have the same problems.”

3. Barnes & Noble lacks an affiliate program on par with Amazon.

Reader and commenter Bryan Paul Sullo makes the point that in the numerous blogs that review books, the ‘buy now’ link always leads back to Amazon, because they have an excellent affiliate program where bloggers can earn money for referring people to the Kindle store. That’s an excellent point, and one I hadn’t thought of. How many bloggers do you know who have ‘buy now’ links to other stores?

Kobo is doing just fine without an affiliate program because in most countries they service, they are just about the only game in town. America-centric Barnes & Noble, however, isn’t so lucky. They have the behemoth to contend with. I couldn’t say how many sales Amazon is sucking away from its competitors via affiliate links, but it’s definitely an interesting stat to ponder.

4. B&N isn’t offering a unique enough catalog.

This was an interesting one to me. Several commenters pointed out that the vast majority of purchased books are bestsellers, and you can get those everywhere. People may lament the closure of a bricks and mortar B&N store, but you can get Fifty Shades of Grey with your groceries, and that will be enough for many customers.

So, the value of a big store like B&N is what they can offer those who don’t want the best-sellers, and with the floor space their stores are offering these days to non-book merchandise, that value is shrinking.

Now, it could be that the online offerings are more robust. But that is the peril of linking yourself so strongly with a retail chain–if you’ve already lost relevance in the eyes of your potential customer because they come into your store and see a desert wasteland, how likely are they to go and look for you online? Instead, they just type the book into Google Search and get directed straight to a blog with an Amazon affiliate link…

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So, the plot thickens. There’s a lot to think about here. What seems obvious to me is that some of B&N’s problems may not be fixable. But others may be. If they can focus on those, and maybe gain back some market share, there is hope for them yet … if they want there to be!