Sure, Stephen Riggio, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble, is happy to discuss his company's sales. But unlike executives who speak only of margins and mergers, Mr. Riggio is equally eager to talk about the joys of books and the pleasures of a comfortable store.
Mr. Riggio recently discussed the book industry. Following are excerpts:
Q: Is this a good time to be selling books?
A: Reports of the book industry's demise have been greatly exaggerated over the last 20 years. And they've been unsupported by any sound research. The fact is the industry has never had a single year of sales decline. It's a stable business and it's resilient in the face of competition for people's time from TV, Internet and video games.
It's a good time to be in the book business. The heaviest book buyers are over 40 years old and that's the fastest-growing segment of the population. Education is booming in America. More Americans are earning college degrees. And there's a post-9/11 baby boomlet that is good for sales of children's books.
A bookstore is a place where we can really have relationships with people for their entire lives.
Q: Is there a future for e-books or podcasts of books?
A: It's a very, very tiny market. As the writer Paul Auster told me recently, the book is a perfect technology. If it were invented today, it would be revolutionary. It's user-friendly; it's portable. Books are relatively inexpensive. They have value as physical objects; they last a lifetime.
Not all books can be converted into digital forms — just think about illustrated books and children's books.
Q: Are books fairly priced?
A: Book prices increased much faster than other consumer goods in the late 90's. But prices have leveled off and there has been relatively little or no price inflation in the past few years. Books are relatively inexpensive — a good value when compared to other forms of entertainment. And they have value and people collect them.
Q: How dependent are you on blockbuster books?
A: Over the last two years, there has hardly been, in the adult hardcover category, a major blockbuster title. Yet we have had two good years. And that's because our strategy emphasizes a vast selection of backlist titles. Best sellers represent less than 5 percent of our sales.
We greatly benefit when books like "Harry Potter" and "The Da Vinci Code" and "The South Beach Diet" come out. Our business is very stable in the absence of these kinds of books, but when they come in, they bring lots of extra customers into the stores.
Q: Ninety percent of your sales are made in the stores. How important are sales via the Internet?
A: We see our Web site not just as an advertising vehicle, but as an online catalog. There was a recent study that found 47 percent of people who researched the product online then bought the product offline. And more people use merchant Web sites than search engines when looking for products. So we see the Web site and the stores as totally linked and customers see us as one company.
You could buy a product from Barnes & Noble online and return it to the store with peace of mind.
Q: How are your stores designed to attract shoppers?
A: We've created something unique in American retail: a store where you can enjoy spending leisure time. When was the last time you hung out at an office supply store? In hundreds of communities across America we have become the community cultural center.
Q: What coming books look like strong sellers?
A: I can't predict that for sure. But if we look out over the next two or three years, we will see another book from Dan Brown. We will see the last book in the "Harry Potter" series. And we will see many books revolving around the 2008 presidential election.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: "Timbuktu" by Paul Auster.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens.
From New York Times