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.