Is the story of print books and bookstores in its last chapter? As CEO of Barnes & Noble, William Lynch is the country’s single most pivotal person at work on ensuring there is much more still to write—and to read.
On the plane from New York City to Silicon Valley, William Lynch Jr. sits in thought, scribbling notes on his ever-growing to-do list. To any other passenger, this tall, lanky businessman looks like just another commuter trying to pass the long flight by getting work done.
But for those scanning the New York Times, thumbing through People, or paging through The Help, William Lynch, BA ’92, is one of the most important people in the United States. He’s the CEO of Barnes & Noble, and he’s got the weight of the book-reading—and publishing—worlds on his shoulders.
Once thought of as the capitalistic enemy of smaller, independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble—with its 703 bookstores in all 50 states—now appears to be the print industry’s last hope as readers move more toward online purchasing and digital media. The New York Times calls the giant chain’s battle “the bookstore’s last stand”—and says Lynch holds the fate of American book publishing in his hands.
In only his second year at the helm of the 150-year-old Fortune 500 company, Lynch first is trying mightily to reconcile the traditional book-buying experience with the e-books being hawked by rival Amazon. Surveys indicate that only one-third of consumers walk into a bookstore with a certain title in mind. The thought of losing this in-store browsing effect scares the daylights out of publishers.
“It’d be a big game-changer if Barnes & Noble went under,” leading New York publishing consultant Jack Perry says. “People browse—the physical bookstore and storefront are truly marketing tools. If that experience was completely lost, it would be devastating to the publishing industry.”
Ratcheting up the pressure even further, selling print books in an e-reader age could be likened to being a pricey calligrapher in the age of Gutenberg. Lynch had no publishing or bookselling experience prior to joining the company, and now he’s suddenly a calligrapher trying to innovate. For his company, it’s do or die out; publish or perish.
The Grand Plan
So how does America’s last major bookstore chain hope to survive the plague that has already killed off Borders and nearly 500 independent bookstores since 2002? Simple, Lynch says. Enhance the reading experience.
“This company was built to be a terrific brick-and-mortar company, but we didn’t have the competency in digital media,” Lynch says. “For 30 years, it was about putting the next Barnes & Noble store in the next city in the next state. With the world changing, we had to find new ways to grow—and that meant a non-book product.”
Cue the NOOK, Barnes & Noble’s answer to the wildly successful Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle; it also happens to be Lynch’s baby. Nearly one-third of Americans now own an e-reader, and more than one-third of e-book buyers report decreased spending at national bookstore chains, according to the Book Industry Study Group.
So jumping into the e-reader market—an industry estimated at just shy of $2 billion—was the only logical choice for Lynch. The company’s NOOK products include both black-and-white and color e-readers, and the newly debuted NOOK Tablet loaded with features like Netflix and Hulu Plus, plus instant connections to more than 2.5 million books and magazines.
“I love launching new products, and the NOOK is a whole new product,” Lynch says. “It’s about defining an unmet need in the marketplace and building something that’s never been. It just doesn’t get cooler than that for me.”
But will Barnes & Noble’s foray into digital media, conducted under Lynch’s command, be enough to preserve the company’s formidable place in the U.S. economy?
“The future is unknown,” Perry says. “There will be winners and losers; just because you’ve had success in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be successful today.”
Equipped with sheer determination—and an undergraduate education from UT—Lynch is ready to rethink publishing and bookselling.
Makings of a CEO
The child of a French mother, whom he calls a “real renaissance lady,” and a Philadelphian father, Lynch grew up in a suburb of Dallas. There he discovered a love of education and the arts—two passions not quite in line with football-obsessed Texas culture.
“I was a flat-out geek if I’m being honest,” Lynch says. “I could recite poetry. I’d definitely say I was a little different.”
Despite his fit outside the Texas mainstream, the self-professed late-bloomer excelled at sports like wrestling and was a typical mischievous teenage boy. Once, when he was looking at colleges, Lynch visited his older sister at UT for Round-Up and borrowed her gold Audi 5000 for a date—which quickly ended when he wrapped the car around a tree.
“That resulted in a quick flight home to face my dad,” Lynch laughs.
Though that first experience with The University of Texas wasn’t all that pleasant, Lynch was hooked. He enrolled at UT—but the future CEO had no plans to run a Fortune 500 company one day.
“I didn’t have a sense of purpose,” Lynch says. “There are those people who are 16 and just know. Some other CEOs had lemonade stands. Me, I’ve always had jobs—but I just wanted to see the world.”
Lynch opted to study economics for its combination of science and the humanities, and he quickly fell in love with life on the Forty Acres. “I had never seen an environment like that in Texas before,” he says. “There was an appreciation for music and the arts. It suited my personality to a T.”
The Silver Spur passed his free time juggling a full course load and spending sunny afternoons at Dry Creek Saloon drinking beer with housemate Jon Hamm, ’89 (yes, the Mad Men star, who later transferred to Mizzou).
“Jon had a good sense of humor and was a great athlete—we killed it in our intramural football league,” Lynch says of his friend. “Just a humble, great guy.”
Even during his time at UT, Lynch was willing to take on any challenge—including dreaded calculus and engineering classes—but he wasn’t keen on taking too many risks. He admits, “Getting out of bed as an 18-year-old was the biggest risk in itself.”
So how did this play-it-safe youngster become the man who holds the future of hard-copy publishing in his hands? Easy—by jetting off to the epicenter of almost every industry in the nation: New York City.
Road to B&N
“My dad encouraged me to come to Manhattan right out of school because it causes you to up your game,” Lynch says. “Marketing, fashion, advertising—the top of the top are here.”
During his early career, Lynch decided to pursue his MBA at the Columbia School of Business—quite a feat considering he was working full-time concurrently.
And then, starting with stints in brand management at Seagram Universal and Guinness, Lynch ventured into the online world, co-founding Gifts.com and eventually landing the position of executive vice president of marketing and general manager of HSN.com.
In 2009, Lynch joined Barnes & Noble as president of its website and was responsible for all of the company’s e-commerce operations. Then, in March of 2010—just a year after joining the company—he rocketed up to chief executive officer, a position that put him at the forefront of the book-publishing industry.
“I had been in technology for 10 years at that point; it was what the company needed at the time,” Lynch says. “As technology moved forward, they needed leadership to take them there.”
And take them there he did. A youthful 42, Lynch has managed to introduce four competitive e-readers to guide Barnes & Noble into the digital age. The company even estimates they now have a 27 to 30 percent share of the e-book market, which executives hope will grow thanks to a reduction in the price of the NOOK Tablet to $199.
“William was a natural fit at Barnes & Noble,” says Clifford Wolff, Lynch’s private counsel and a friend of 14 years. “The company needed to reinvent itself at that very moment. William gave Barnes & Noble a vision and direction they simply didn’t have before—and the proof is in the pudding.”
The Risks Ahead
Still, the odds stack up against Lynch’s efforts as his company continues to report revenue losses. In February, Barnes & Noble suffered a 14 percent fiscal third-quarter net income loss, according to the Associated Press.
One bright spot: holiday sales. “One thing we learned from this holiday season is long live the book,” Lynch says. “Physical book business actually grew this holiday. People still love books.” Traditional book sales for Barnes & Noble rose 4 percent during last year’s holiday months, which some attributed partly to the fact that 2011 was the first year rival Borders hadn’t been around to compete.
Lynch owns a NOOK himself but admits that even he is still holding on to that feeling of turning actual pages. On his current reading list: The Help, Fly Fishing magazine, the latest Economist, and Americans in Paris.
“I’m sort of reading eight or nine things at once, and I don’t read them all on the NOOK,” he says. “Almost all my book reading is on the NOOK and 50 percent of magazines, but I have to have a physical New York Times.”
Now residing in Greenwich, Conn., with wife Nicole, 7-year-old Lily, 5-year-old Jack, and baby Charlotte, Lynch—a massive Longhorn football fan—tries to get back to his alma mater two or three times each year to take in a game and visit old friends. “A lot of my best friends are the friends I made at Texas,” he says.
How someone in his position can feel comfortable leaving a radically changing company under so much pressure for even a day is mind-blowing, but Lynch insists he’s not alone in his quest to save the books of hard-copy past. “If you have too much pressure, you need to hire better people,” he says. “If it’s on any one person, you aren’t going to succeed.”
That’s not to say Lynch doesn’t have doubts. After all, he’s pioneering an approach to reading unlike any other, promoting an industry where both hard-copy and digital-copy books can coexist.
“I still worry that we’re not moving fast enough,” he says. “Change is really hard, and more fail than succeed. We’re fortunate to see a lot of success; we just have to keep continuing to innovate.”
Will it work, or are bookstores destined to become relics of a pre-digital time? Whether books continue to publish, or perish like the eight-track tapes and records of yesteryear, this is a story we’ll have to read on to find out.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez. Photo by Gabrielle Revere.