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Authors sign up to raise Barnes & Noble’s sales

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NEW YORK » In an effort to increase holiday sales, which have fallen for the last two seasons, Barnes & Noble is hoping to lure customers into stores this Black Friday with something book lovers cannot download: signed copies.

The chain recruited 100 prominent authors – including Donna Tartt, David Mitchell, Dan Brown, E.L. James, Jeff Kinney, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – to each sign roughly 5,000 copies of their latest books. The company will distribute the 500,000 signed books among its more than 650 retail stores.

"Customers get inundated with discounts and offers from every other retailer," said Mary Amicucci, vice president for adult trade and children’s books at Barnes & Noble. "The goal was to find an exciting reason for people to come to Barnes & Noble early in the morning and get something that they can’t get on any other day of the year."

Drawing customers into its physical stores has become an urgent priority for Barnes & Noble. The chain has been battered in recent years by competition from Amazon and by a sluggish book market. It has closed more than 20 stores since summer 2013 and will spin off its money-losing Nook division into a separate company next year.

Holiday sales at its retail stores and website have declined for the last two seasons. In 2013, sales in the nine-week holiday period fell nearly 7 percent to $1.1 billion compared with the previous year, and in 2012, sales fell nearly 11 percent to $1.2 billion.

Amicucci said the initiative began seven months ago when Barnes & Noble compiled a wish list of 50 authors. When the first batch of authors responded enthusiastically, the company recruited another 50. Some authors went further, adding little illustrations to the books. Brandon Stanton, the author of "Humans of New York," drew dinosaurs, while Mo Willems, a children’s book author, sketched his popular pigeon character.

Some authors said they hoped the new campaign would help the struggling chain.

"The presence of a bookstore in a neighborhood matters," said Lisa Scottoline, who signed 5,000 copies of her novel "Betrayed." "If it’s not physically present, we will have fewer readers."

David Baldacci, who signed several thousand copies of his new book, "The Escape," said he hoped the effort would help the last big bookstore chain standing to better compete against Amazon. "You can go online and buy any book you want, but there’s not a lot of excitement with clicking the buy button," he said.

Independent bookstores are also counting on authors to draw customers for the holidays, a period when many of them make as much as 30 percent of their annual sales. As part of the American Booksellers Association’s "Indies First" holiday initiative, about 1,200 authors will sign books, greet customers and, in some cases, work behind the counter at more than 400 independent bookstores around the country this Saturday.

As part of the effort, fantasy and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and his wife, author, musician and performance artist Amanda Palmer, will be at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York, and two other New York bookstores; Geraldine Brooks will work alongside booksellers at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts; and Sherman Alexie will volunteer at three Seattle-area bookstores.

Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, said author appearances and signed copies were among the best weapons brick-and-mortar stores had against online retailers.

"Books are identical no matter where you buy them," he said. "You don’t get a different or better ending if you buy them from us."

Alexandra Alter, New York Times

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