The Incredible Shrinking Computer Book Section

By Deane Barker on April 20, 2008

Let me ask you for your opinion here: do you think that the computer book sections at your local book store are shrinking?

Five years ago, the local Barnes and Noble in Sioux Falls had a majestic computer book section. I don’t know the official names for these things, but it was at least two rows, filled on either side — four or five shelves long.

Then things started shrinking. A whole row-side disappeared one day, replaced by science books. Then a year or so later, another row side vanished, replaced by philosophy books. Today, the computer book section at my Barnes and Noble is half the size it was five years ago — one row-side, perhaps four vertical units long, and maybe three on the other side.

This weekend, I’ve been in Kansas City for a soccer tournament. The KC metro area is almost two million people, comprised of about 50 cities. Compare this to the Sioux Falls metro of just over 200,000 people.

I’ve been in two Barnes and Nobles here. Both were at least double the size of the Sioux Falls store. One was an urban-style store in The Plaza comprised of four stories — more vertical than horizontal. Both impressive.

Total computer book shelves in either of them: four. Seriously — one side of a small row in each case.

Why is this?



  1. Maybe it’s because many people looking for computer books buy them online. It would be a waste of valuable retail space to stock books that don’t get purchased.

  2. I think Vince is right, but let me add a bit of history…

    I remember being at a medium-sized, though independent, bookstore in (roughly) 1986. I complemented them on the size of their Science Fiction section, and the guy there said, “Yeah, we make the most money… no wait, we make the most money from the Computer Science section, but we sell the most books from the Science Fiction section”.

    So CS books still seem exorbitant ($40 is the minimum, $60 or more is not unusual) but there may have been changes in the pricing setup so that they’re not the most profitable any more.

  3. yeah, a couple reasons – 1) if computer-people want computer books, they’ll buy them online 2) you can get most of the information that used to be in books online for free anyway

    Spolsky mentioned this last week in his announcement of a free online on-stop programming reference

  4. I can tell you that when I worked at B&N, the computer book section had it’s hey-day up to the tech bubble burst in 2001. After that, demand dropped very quickly and, slowly, it started to collapse in size.

    With the advent of MUCH cheaper prices online (Amazon, even, it’s just not that profitable to devote such a large portion of the store to them.

    Plus, I don’t know if you know this, but publishers allow bookstores to return books to them after a certain point, if they remain unsold. So… the publishers probably aren’t publishing as many, for fear of the costs involved (publishing, shipping to and from, etc.)

  5. For the first time in years, I recently bought a computer book at a local B&N. $50. Got home and found that it retails on Amazon for $22. That’s when I remembered why I never do that anymore. B&N got a return and Amazon got another sale.

    My theory:

    a) The people who buy computer books are probably the most internet-savvy book shoppers. They know 20%-50% discounts are standard.

    b) Computer books are hella expensive, so the price difference is meaningful. Much less so for mass market paperbacks. It’s easier to shrug off paying an extra buck fifty on an impulse purchase.

    c) When the need arises, odds are we’re already at a computer. Putting in a quick order seems logical. Stop everything to go down to a store…why?

    d) Computer books are bulky. Two shelves of computer books that may sit for months, vs three shelves of 2-3 times as many best selling paperbacks.

    From their POV, it’s a pragmatic decision.

  6. The reason I think that the brick and mortar stores aren’t carrying as many computer books is because people don’t want to buy books that are stale from sitting on the shelf for two months and yet still as expensive as when they were fresh. Also, if the only remaining books are “For Dummies”, then only dummies shop there, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of lousy book selection.

  7. i work at barnes. the only people that come in to my store to buy a computer book are the ones who don’t have any clue if they have microsoft office 97 or 2007. about half of our shelf space (and the only computer space that sells) is dedicated to windows and office products. the reason? if you don’t know anything about computers, you go to the book store to find information on using them. if you do know something about computers, you are probably already sitting at your computer and can make a few clicks and it’s yours. carina is right. of those reading this blog, if deane says that you MUST but x book, are you going to run to b&n right now, or are you gonna order it online? the only way we buy at the store is if we need it immediately. the only reason barnes stocks any programming books at all is we need to stock certain sections to be considered respectable. this is the only example of shelf space being “wasted” on unproductive inventory. think about it. what purveyor on knowledge doesn’t have a philosophy, poetry, or programming section? we have them, just not much.

  8. if deane says that you MUST but x book, are you going to run to b&n right now, or are you gonna order it online? the only way we buy at the store is if we need it immediately.

    You see, I still like the store, for two reasons: (1) I like to page through a book before I buy it, and (2) I want to take it home right away.

    Ordering off the Internet falls short in those areas.

  9. I will be even more bold… your typical book person knows next to nothing about computer science so it is a ‘hard’ area to manage. I was trying to help my local B&N get some computer people in the store — I offered to do book review events or other computer related ‘meetings’ there — the answer was no. The answer was no because the moronic events manager thought I was trying to ‘sell’ something… she gave me the example of an accountant talking about ‘taxes’ and giving his card out. Yes, book stores have financial books… yes a financial consultant seeking to do a ‘seminar’ and handing out his card is not a ‘community’ event. In my case I did not want to hand out cards… nor make any money… I just wanted to have computer book related events at the store. Book snobbery at its finest. I wonder what they do to ’embrace’ other parts of their ‘community’.

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