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One of the most powerful people in comics has lost his job. James Killen, the graphic novel buyer at Barnes & Noble for more than 20 years, was among those laid off at the embattled retailer this week. The layoffs were reported in the Wall Street Journal and I wasn’t able to crack their firewall, but the part I can read states:

Barnes & Noble Inc. said it has laid off a number of employees at its New York head office, a move the bookseller said was an effort to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company declined to provide specifics about the number of employees laid off. Those affected include senior staffers and buyers for specific categories of books. The bookstore chain, which operates more than 600 stores in the U.S., furloughed much of its staff earlier this year after the pandemic hit.

James Killen was among those furloughed, and he’ll be at his post until August 1st. His tenure at B&N (which lasted 40 years) saw the graphic novel section expand from increased shelving to even more elaborate sections. Eventually kids’ GNs split to their own section, although Killen did not oversee that area.

I never worked directly with him, but there is not a single publisher or sales person in comics who didn’t.  Killen’s decisions affected everything about how graphic novels were sold in bookstores, and as a true lover of the medium, he often had to balance retail realities with publisher aspirations. It was a tough, tough job but he did it well. His FB page is private, but I’m going to post a few comments from folks in the industry (anonymized) to give you some idea of Killen’s importance ⁠— it’s a journalistic no-no, but I think this once I can do it. And please, industry colleagues, fill the comments up with more tributes:

– Thanks to your support for innumerable books and authors. You are the most generous and effective champion this industry has known.

– You have done more for the industry than anyone I know. This should not happen.

– You are truly a giant in this industry and particularly for our category of books. Thank you for all you have done over the years for books, authors, publishers and the fans and readers.

Despite his importance in the industry, James Killen kept a very low profile. He never made any of those “power lists,” despite being top 20 in the industry, easy.

I haven’t been closely following B&N’s pandemic travails but obviously they’ve been hit, as has so much of retail. Here in NYC they recently closed their Upper East Side store, an area that would have seemed like one of the few areas that could support a large bookstore. But no:

“The store has served us well over the years but is now too large, and too expensive, for our needs,” a Barnes & Noble spokesperson said in a statement. “It is always sad to close a store but we expect to return to the Upper East Side with a new bookstore before too long, and we are in active pursuit of a new site.”

The space will become a Target. Anyone know who their book buyer is?

B&N was having a rough go of it even before COVID-19, with new owners and a new top executive installed last year, James Daunt, formerly of Waterstones.  I’m told that the chain is looking to carry fewer SKUs, which would mean less need for specialty buyers.

This could have a huge impact on graphic novel sales moving forward — and make comic shops and indie bookstores that have robust graphic novel programs even more important.

UPDATE: here’s a link to a Shelf Awareness article you CAN read with more info on how buyers roles will change:

Last year, Waterstones managing director James Daunt, who is now also CEO of B&N, told the Bookseller that Waterstones would centralize buying “into two roles.” As we reported at the time, “Under the proposed buying changes, ‘an initial sub would be agreed earlier in the publication process by a Waterstones’ buyer, but a new category manager would then manage the roll-out of the books within the estate,’ the Bookseller wrote. ‘The category manager would be able to increase the level of stock made available to individual bookstores, but also make sure the merchandising matched the order levels.’ Currently, publishers meet with many different buyers at Waterstones, depending on the sectors they publish into, and buying decisions are delayed until all of the buyers meet for a monthly review of these titles.

One of my favorite things about Comic-Con is getting to take pictures of people you just introduced who you never thought would meet. Here’s Barnes & Noble’s graphic novel buyer Jim Killen and comics legend Maggie Thompson! Jim told me about how B&N is expanding its GN sections and Maggie and I talked about detoxing from caffeine.

 

13 COMMENTS

  1. Appears to be a big loss for the entire industry. Sad, but inevitable, hopefully he lands on his feet quickly. It appears many publishers should be lining up to reach out to him considering his vast experience and connections in and out of the industry!

    I also think it is interesting to note big bookstores troubles as it seems DC is bound and determined to move into that market and away from the direct market. Which would appear to be quite risky since all physical retail is walking a minefield right now, but especially the big players who typically have a less dedicated customer base. I hope I am wrong, but if Barnes and Noble is truly looking to downsize and carry less product, that has to be bad for all publishers, but especially those like DC that appear to be putting more eggs in the basket.

  2. I have a children’s book entitled “If not you, then who”? The Inventor in the Pink Pajamas. It for children 5 to 10 and up. It has just been published and is selling at Amazon. Who do I need to be in touch with to have it place in Barnes & Nobel? This is a fantastic book and I know would be very well accepted in all Barnes & Nobel Stores. My email is fbg26@comcast.net. I would appreciate a reply

  3. I am sorry Mr. Killen to read about you being laid off. I know it is not much, but thank you for your hard work of putting B&N on the map.

    I miss the old B&N of overstuffed chairs and spending Sunday afternoons searching the shelves for my reads for the week. I will still make the trip, but it is a short trip because they have become more focused on toys, coffee shop/deli, putting books on shelves you need to be over 6′ tall to reach and decreased floor staff. Sometimes change is not for the better.

  4. As a merchandiser for BN, we have been flooded with terrible, mundane comics for a long time. Our exclusives, which James oversees, are still sitting on the shelf. The industry changed years ago and James ideas are outdated plus he has lost touch with the booksellers. BN was days away from going out of business, because of out-of-touch ideas like James has been wasting our time and shelf space with. Luckily Daunt stepped in and I imagine more people are going to separate ways amicably like James.
    I deal with BN corporate office everyday, and the changes they are making (for the most part) are allowing the stores to pander to the community. Since we have been given control of our store, we have increased sales by about 15% and reduced the cost of running the store dramatically. Not answering to NYC is the best thing that happened to BN.

  5. This is terribly sad news as the B&N graphic novel section had easily become the best part of the store. This is shortsighted on their thinking, and I know someone of his talent will land somewhere that is more appreciative of his talents.
    Wow.

  6. Jim is a wonderful, talented, and caring buyer. He doesn’t just buy Sci Fi & Graphica he lives it. To the comment by one here that he had lost though, well I would offer you to have lived a day in the corporate world Jim had to navigate. Jim quietly championed a medium & sakes channel that others ignored. He will land & continue to champion the genres he loves but it is so very sad that he had to be let go during a pandemic & without ceremony. He is a cornerstone of an industry & needs to be honored as such. There should be an award at both SD & NY ComicCon in his name.

  7. Was he furloughed or laid off? You use both terms in the article.

    Furloughed would indicate he maintains benefits and B&N is keeping the option & hope of him returning open.

  8. TBH, B&N for years, maybe decades, has had what can be called fraught finances. And I sure the change in management loaded the company with gobs of debt on top of everything else. So firing a very longtime employee, well, shouldn’t be surprising. More like expected. It’s capitalism and modern business, Jake.

  9. James Killen was and is my friend. I have known him since I was doing inventories for Pocket books in the early 80s. Then I had the opportunity to work for B&N and we worked closely together. Both of us were SF and comic fans and he is the nicest human alive. B&N is not smart in losing him. Quiet and smart and knowledgeable. You cannot do better. I worked in that buying office and it is a shame that he and the other three were dropped. Did the buying office need to be rethought? Probably. Change is good, but there are some people and knowledge base that should NOT get lost or tossed aside. James was one that should have been highly valued. I am saddened by his departure as well as the other three employees I called friends.

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