Len Riggio: American trade on cusp of "transformational growth"

Len Riggio: American trade on cusp of "transformational growth"

Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio has said the American book trade is on the cusp of "transformational growth" led by digital sales, in a bullish keynote address to the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), in which he stated that that the book chain remained "committed now as ever to the future of [its] stores".

Riggio did not talk about B&N's falling share price or whether he might buy the company back; he did not mention Borders. But he evinced optimism about the future and made at least some of those in the audience, queried later, feel that optimism was contagious.

He reminded attendees that he had spoken to the AAP 11 years earlier; having at one juncture been regarded as a bogeyman, Riggio began 2011 as PW's "Person of the Year." As he put it: "In all the years I've worked with publishers, I have never been so confident that our interests are so obviously aligned. It's nice to see that distance between the parallel lines diminished." But some things never change: Riggio still eats lunch at his desk and views bookselling as "a mission more than a business".

He spoke of getting into the business when the paperback revolution was full tilt: "I was an aspirant then and my goal was to serve aspirants, not just the already arrived. The elite-ish derided B Dalton and Walden for the homogenisation of bookstores and reading," but in the old days bookstores didn't carry paperbacks, didn't provide a restroom, weren't open Sundays – didn't make readers welcome. "The prevailing wisdom was that Americans west of the Hudson were disinclined to read."

Riggio paid tribute to Ian Ballantine, to Bantam's Oscar Dystel, and to Penguin for their belief in books as "the building blocks of civilised society". The genius of those mass market pioneers "is being validated today. . .  Who could have imagined an entire bookstore in everyone's pocket?" People have "a bookstore and a publishing company in their pockets – the power of this cannot be minimized".

He also reminded the audience of his early belief in the Rocket e-Book. It "died on the vine, being too far ahead of the curve. Think of all that could have been if we had led the digital age instead of following it!"

Now, he said, too many people see bookselling as a "zero-sum game". But Riggio argued against those who see digital as only cannibalising print. Rather than be locked into "the Darwinian embrace of market share," he asserted that market size was "readily expandable".

His list of biggest questions included: What will happen to bookstores and publishers? Can publishers exist without bookstores? Will publishers be disintermediated by content aggregators? Will less shelf space cut off the spigot that nourishes the system? To what extent will content continue to be broken into tiny fragments and cause a significant drop in book reading? Is it possible to be literate without reading books?

Riggio's answer, echoed by other speakers, was that "we must become the agents of change to make the future. No industry – including technology – is more important to the advancement of our culture. We provide the means of navigation to ever-dizzying possibilities one reader at a time. Take it as a given that B&N is committed now as ever to the future of our stores. A world without bookstores is not a place in which we would like to live. That is not going to happen. Our super bookstores are piazzas of contemporary American culture that make a statement about who we are and represent an ideal for all those who aspire."

He also did not see B&N as being alone. "The independents will adapt as always." But an issue for publishers, in his view, is the mass merchants. "It is easy to see them reducing shelf space."

On the other hand, he asserted that B&N's emergence as a major digital player ultimately will make its stores stronger. The superstores are now "entrances to major malls in America, with dominant positions. Landlords see profitable connections. You can call them bricks and mortar, but not clay tablets!" he joked. "Our stores exceeded the sales of other specialty retailers in the US and digital led the way. . . The sales increases of printed book products were the highest in years and these things are connected. Our customer-members who own Nooks are buying 60% more units compared to members who don't; their spending averages 120% more and is growing. . .

"We are on the cusp of transformational growth, not incremental. Publishers should emulate Google rather than fear them," he urged. "Properly curated, narrated, packaged, you can add thousands of e-books with little or no plant costs: many of these books are in the libraries of your offices.

"Who's to say that all books are read cover to cover? What about publishing shorter versions, chapters, short stories, brief biographies? Can we get a piece of the market for newsletters? What about compiling, packaging and selling data picked up free from the internet?"

Riggio pointed out that B&N SparkNotes gives away online versions for free, yet sells $20m worth of print books a year. For the last 50 years, there has been talk of "teaching machines". Now the realisation of that dream "may be in your hands." Think of books for which updates can be sold, and "work with us to make the offer of updates available to all".

Riggio is a man who does not look like somebody who just turned 70 on the last day of February, but he confessed that "now is the first time I've ever felt like I want to be 40 again. We're sitting on top of an iceberg of content, and yet locating content is like finding a small needle in a haystack. These two virtually guarantee the existence of booksellers and publishers, but there's a lot to do to capture this moment in history. So let's get it on."