December 8, 2021

Barnes & Noble: New Focus, New Rewards

By Amanda Ravelli, NYU SPS MS in Publishing student

“Book buying is a darn good job. We get to read a lot, and what’s more fun than reading and getting paid for it?” asked Edward Ash-Milby, Category Manager for Non-Fiction and Lifestyle at Barnes & Noble. Ash-Milby’s question illustrated the enthusiasm of the B&N team, which graciously welcomed a group of NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students on a recent virtual visit. Joining Ash-Milby were Shannon DeVito, Director of Category Management at B&N, and Laura Ross, a 2010 alum of the MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, who is now Senior Manager of Commercial Strategies at B&N.

Edward Ash-Milby, Category Manager, Non-Fiction and Lifestyle, Barnes & Noble

The Barnes & Noble team expressed an appreciation for their jobs, bolstered by their shared love of books. They also discussed how the company has dramatically shifted its internal structure since being purchased by Waterstones, a United Kingdom company, in 2019. They now rely on a business structure they call the “solar system.” DeVito explained the collaborative effort in producing books. Book buyers became category managers, and everyone gets to “touch the books,” on many levels, including marketing, art, and design. In addition, individual stores have been given far more autonomy in terms of the books they sell and can cater to what best appeals to their local audiences.

Shannon DeVito, Director, Category Management, Barnes & Noble

Shannon DeVito joined Barnes & Noble in 2013 as a part-time bookseller in Cleveland. Now, in addition to her administrative responsibilities as Director of Category Management, DeVito also selects fiction, sci-fi, and manga for the stores. During the virtual visit, Shannon applauded the new approach of category management. “This was a huge change of mindset in how B&N was selling books. The goal is to make quick decisions and buy titles faster,” she said.

Edward Ash-Milby is not only a veteran of the industry, but has been a part of the B&N team for almost 30 years. He proudly noted that he has met with NYU Center for Publishing students on more than 10 occasions over the years. In addition to being a Category Manager for non-fiction lifestyle, he is also the original Commercial Support Manager for the West. While in college, he started working in retail at a local Barnes & Noble. He eventually assumed the Assistant to the Vice President of Merchandising position, which led him to become a buyer.

Ash-Milby talked about how the pandemic changed communications at B&N. He explained that today the way of doing business is more digital, and virtual meetings allow him to stay in constant communication with his colleagues around the world. This has led to a closer relationship with the stores and what they think customers want in different regions. He also highlighted some non-fiction trends that he noticed during the pandemic: “Baking, plants, spirituality, and self-help are very popular,” said Ash-Milby.

DeVito added to this, saying: “If you look at the last year vs the year prior, we shifted from very serious non-fiction books and current affairs because of the election, into escapist fiction. Manga, for example, has been explosive.” TikTok trends significantly impacted book sales during the pandemic. TikTok creators used the hashtag booktok for content related to books, especially reading recommendations and reviews. Titles that became popular on the platform, such as Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy novels Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, and Adam Silvera’s speculative young adult novel They Both Die at the End, became in-store best-sellers.

Laura Ross then explained that she started her career at B&N in 2014, just four years after graduating from NYU’s Master’s program. As Senior Manager of Commercial Strategies, she oversees email marketing and is focused on getting great books into the hands of readers. In addition, she leads the social media team. “Everyone is empowered to bring their expertise to the table in special ways. People are taking more risks to try new strategies," she said. When she thought back to her time in the publishing program, Laura emphasized how the Book Sales and Merchandising course taught her fundamentals she still uses in her work today.

Laura Ross, Senior Manager, Commercial Strategies, Barnes & Noble; NYU SPS MS in Publishing Class of 2010

The pandemic has been challenging and uncertain, and books have become even more present in people's lives. According to NPD BookScan and Publishers Weekly, book sales increased significantly in 2020 and 2021. Barnes & Noble has used this moment to develop an innovative and positive business strategy that connects even more readers to books. As Ross said, "The goal is to delight the customers with books and try new things.”

By Amanda Ravelli, NYU SPS MS in Publishing '23

Amanda is a first-year MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media student. She graduated with a degree in journalism, and her passion for reading and writing inspired her to pursue a career in book publishing. She wants to work as an editor and literary scout and someday become a professor. Amanda is originally from Brazil.

Visit our homepage for more information on the NYU SPS MS in Publishing: Digital & Print Media program.

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