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Physical books, from a physical store: Barnes & Noble has a plan

Instead of competing head on with Amazon this Black Friday, Barnes & Noble is looking to offer something that the online retailer can’t. The bookstore announced this week that come this weekend, it will sell 500,000 signed copies of the latest works from 100 prominent authors. On the non-fiction side, authors include George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Poehler. In fiction, Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult and Donna Tartt are among those taking part.

Barnes & Noble says the effort has been in the works for more than half a year, with each author signing thousands of copies of their books for readers. “Some went beyond their signature to personalize the books,” the chain notes in its release. Mo Willems, a children’s book author and illustrator, sketched the head of one of his characters in signed editions. Mary Amicucci, Barnes & Noble’s vice president of adult trade and children’s books, told MarketWatch that authors weren’t paid for their efforts but were “hugely enthusiastic” about the plan.

The key to this particular Black Friday deal is that it’s available in stores only. In that way, it’s a pretty obvious ploy to get book lovers off of Amazon and into Barnes & Noble’s physical locations, but it also seems like a savvy one. After all, if you come in to snag an autographed copy of “The Goldfinch” or “The Polar Express” – the kind of thing you can’t just download onto your Kindle – you might also decide to pick up that copy of “Pride and Prejudice” you’d been meaning to get instead of ordering it online.

Barnes & Noble is under significant pressure to perform well this holiday season; its same-store sales have sunk for seven straight quarters, though its stock is up 60 percent year-to-date. Signed copies alone might not be enough to reverse that decline. But if nothing else, the amount of foot traffic and sales they generate should be a good test of whether big-name authors still have enough fan power to make a physical book worth its often hefty price.

Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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