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Why is Len Riggio Publishers Weekly's man of the year?

December 10, 2010 |  9:49 am

Lenriggio_08 In this week's issue, trade magazine Publishers Weekly named Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio its man of the year. PW writes:

By any standard, the past 15 months have been eventful for Barnes & Noble. In September 2009, the company completed its purchase of Barnes & Noble College Booksellers and two months later introduced the Nook, its entry into the e-reader wars. This spring, B&N appointed William Lynch as CEO and announced a $140 million investment to upgrade its digital capabilities. In late summer, the retailer emerged victorious in a proxy battle (while announcing that it was exploring the possible sale of the company), and in the fall surprised the industry with the launch of Nookcolor. The man behind all these events, who is leading the nation's largest bookseller through an unprecedented transformation, is Len Riggio, PW's Person of the Year.

I have to admit, I find the choice a bit baffling. Maybe it's because I'm on the West Coast; maybe it's because I don't have the first inkling of how to run a massive corporation like Barnes & Noble. But Riggio seems to me to be holding on, rather that blazing a way forward.

Riggio is certainly a survivor. After Amazon's entry into book selling challenged brick-and-mortar book retailers, Barnes & Noble has remained the most viable chain retail bookstore. Its onetime rival Borders has been in steady decline -- the Wall Street Journal described its earnings report this week as "dismal." Nevertheless, one of Borders' investors recently raised the possibility of purchasing Barnes & Noble.

Could Riggio survive a buyout move? Sure. He did that already this year when he defeated investor Ron Burkle and his Yucaipa Cos., major stockholders, who made moves to take control of the company. Clearly, Riggio is an able boardroom maneuverer and dedicated to holding onto the company he's been with for decades. But if he's focused on maintaining control over Barnes & Noble, how can be be looking toward the future of publishing as a whole? Is surviving a skirmish the same thing as leading the charge over the hill?

Yes, Barnes & Noble now has an e-reader, and its Nook has been getting strong reviews. But Barnes & Noble's e-reader came two years after Amazon's Kindle, and although it was intended to be out in time for Christmas last year, was plagued by delays and postponements that meant some customers didn't see it until January. Before that month was out, Apple announced its long-awaited tablet -- the iPad, complete with e-reader -- which swiftly pulled away much attention the Nook might have received.

By the time people could buy e-books from Barnes & Noble's website, Amazon had a two-year head start, and had captured enormous mindshare.

"Len is the only person looking to integrate print and digital," Simon & Schuster Chief Executive Carolyn Reidy told Publishers Weekly, a sentiment echoed by many other major publishers in the piece. But -- is he really? Isn't this what everyone in publishing is talking about, and has been talking about for the last couple of years?

Honestly, I don't quite get it. Maybe the "man of the year" designation isn't meant to be about moving publishing forward, but keeping publishing afloat. If you have a better handle on this -- and I'm sure you do -- please help me undersand in the comments.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Len Riggio in 2008. Credit: Alex Brandon / Associated Press

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