How bad is that bad news?

People who work in health care sometimes experience the following scenario:

A family has a beloved elderly relative, who we'll call Nana. Nana is not "young elderly"--she is 97 years old. Also, she is a diabetic. Also, she has suffered several strokes. Also, she suffers from congestive heart failure. Also, she has a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Needless to say, Nana is a heavy user of the health-care system. Staff at the local ER and ICU can recognize her on sight and try to keep a bed open for her at all times. People who work in the funeral industry automatically hand their cards to her family. Wherever she goes, flocks of expectant-looking vultures follow.

One day, Nana passes away.

The family is TOTALLY SHOCKED by this completely unexpected turn of events. How could Nana die!?! they shriek. They assume the cause must be malpractice and threaten to sue every health-care worker in sight.

If one of these health-care workers can get the family to calm down long enough to ask them why they are so surprised when Nana was obviously so very sick, the answer usually comes out along the lines of, Nana never died before. Those six months in an ICU? She made it through. Those 47 ER visits? She survived every single one.

The problem is that if enough bad news comes out about someone or something for a long enough time, people start to ignore the fact that the news is, in fact, very bad. If Nana holds on for long enough, it doesn't matter that she has one foot in the grave and the other on a greased banana peel: Nana is a survivor. She can't die.

I was reminded of this reading some responses to Barnes & Noble's dismal holiday sales. There has been so much bad news about Barnes & Noble for so long that some people seem to be thinking, well, this can't be that bad--they've survived crises before.

And they have, sure. They may survive this one in one form or another.

But I think writers really have to accept that, no matter how much they like the stores or long for a strong competitor to Amazon, Barnes & Noble may not make it through.

Why not? Well, you have to think like an investor. Basically there are two kinds of investors: Those who invest for income, and those who invest for growth. People who invest for income are looking for regular payments of money, like dividends, and don't care much if a company is growing or not. Those who invest for growth, in contrast, are looking to put a small amount of money into a business that is growing, and to eventually cash out a large amount of money. 

Two years ago, Barnes & Noble suspended its dividend, thereby ensuring that income investors would not be interested in the company. So it became a growth play.

The problem? Barnes & Noble's brick-and-mortar book business was shrinking, not growing.

Enter the Nook business--e-reading devices and e-books, a new growth business! That attracted $300 million from Microsoft and $89.5 million from Pearson, as well as other investment from other companies. These companies paid for shares in the Nook portion of Barnes & Noble as though that business on its own was worth more than Barnes & Noble in its entirety.

The problem is that, as we just discovered, the Nook business is doing horribly. It is not growing, it is shrinking. It is doing worse this year than last, it is doing worse than its competition, and it is doing worse in e-books than the traditional publishers who supply them.

It is difficult to attract growth investors when you are not growing, especially when others in your industry are. Not shockingly, people are wondering if those outside investors didn't make a mistake by putting so much money into the apparently not-so-valuable Nook business.

Now, a lot of things could happen here. A company could decide, "Gee willikers, no one's ever really given the Nook business a chance!" and plow a ton of money and effort into it. Despite the fierce competition in the sector, they could prevail, transforming Barnes and Noble into a wonderful online retailer that is so incredibly effective at selling self-published books that every last indie author makes a fortune!

Or, you know, they could just not put any more money into Barnes & Noble. The device business is bad--you have to compete with Amazon, which is willing to sell its devices at a loss--and the Web site's going to require some major fixing. "Don't throw good money after bad" is not some alien concept in corporate circles, and $300 million is simply not so much money to a company the size of Microsoft that they can't possibly write it off.

But what if, for some strange reason, Microsoft REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY wants the Nook? A year ago I said, "at this point any potential buyer will probably wait until B&N actually goes into bankruptcy and then snap up those assets on the cheap." That didn't happen in 2012, but just because Nana made it through her first 47 ER visits doesn't mean she's going to survive visit number 48.

Again, I don't know the future (although clearly I am not optimistic). I do not know for sure that Barnes & Noble is going to go under.

But I do think that it's wise for writers to be prepared for that possibility.

My advice? I'm so glad you asked!

1. Keep your ear to the ground. I'm not yanking my books from Barnes & Noble--they might pull through, after all. But the minute authors start complaining that Barnes & Noble isn't paying them what they are owed, I'm outta there. They are a client, and I do not work for clients who stiff other people, because I know they will soon stiff me.

2. Diversify. A surprising number of authors, especially new authors, put their book up only at Barnes & Noble--it's the name they associate with bookselling. I would say that diversifying away from Barnes & Noble is a really, really good idea these days--if you haven't done that before, do it now. If you sell well at Barnes & Noble (lucky you!) but not so well at other places, start marketing campaigns to build bases at the other retailers. Another thing to keep in mind: If you've got your book up only at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, recognize that, if you don't branch out, there's a solid chance that you'll soon have all your eggs in the Amazon basket. 

Likewise, if you do marketing or sell paper books at your local Barnes & Noble bookstore, start putting out feelers to other bookstores in your area--it can't hurt you no matter what happens to Barnes & Noble. And think outside the bookstore box, if possible. Even traditional publishers market to other types of stores, and I've seen books by local indie authors at stores that carry goods by other types of local artists.

3. Consider the industry impact. Barnes & Noble has a long history of working hand-in-glove with traditional publishers, and publishers have been predicting that the sky will fall if the chain doesn't stay in business.

Are they full of it? Quite possibly, but if the chain does collapse, less-profitable or more-unwary publishers could go down with it. The uncertainty surrounding Barnes & Noble also surrounds traditional publishing, so extra caution is needed before signing any contracts.