Is there anyone out there who still uses Barnes & Noble’s Nook store as their primary source of ebooks? Has the knowledge that Barnes & Noble’s end is probably approaching made any difference in how you deal with ebook purchases? Have you considered switching stores, and if so, to which one?
I used to buy a bunch of ebooks from Barnes & Noble, in part because they had absorbed my Fictionwise/eReader libraries after buying and shutting down those entities and I figured I might as well keep my libraries together. I still have nearly 200 books in my Nook library—though I haven’t bought any ebooks from B&N in quite a while, and I’ve used various methods to back those books up elsewhere. The way things are going lately, that might just be a good idea for anyone with titles in their Nook library.
Ever since Barnes & Noble fired its last CEO for no very clear reason, I’ve been watching the news about the store. Two different analysts on investing-advice site Seeking Alpha have characterized it as “a death foretold” and “a value trap.” B&N is still offering extraordinarily high dividends on its stocks to attract investors, they say, but the stock’s value has dropped so fast that much of those dividends have been eaten up by the drop in value—but it’s taking too long to die to be worth shorting outright. They recommend prudent investors just stay away at this point.
Publishing-industry maven Mike Shatzkin notes that Barnes & Noble is simply too important to the publishing industry to be allowed to fail. It’s the last big-box bookstore, and the last bastion of a unified way to push their books to huge crowds of people in person. One publishing industry expert Shatzkin had spoken with recently had “expressed mild surprise that ‘the publishers haven’t just bought B&N and fixed it’.” Though that may be putting a little too much faith in the publishers’ abilities.
Publishers might be good at producing and publishing books, but past evidence shows that they’re simply terrible at reading the retail market, and any time they’ve tried to dabble in that market themselves (as, for example, conspiring with Apple to lock in price controls on ebooks) it’s led to disaster. Indeed, they largely have themselves to blame for creating the ebook market conditions that gave Amazon the ability to corner the market in the first place. And somehow they’re supposed to “fix” Barnes & Noble?
Returning to Barnes & Noble, it’s pretty clear that its heart hasn’t been in the ebook, ereader, and tablet business for quite some time. It effectively shut down its Nook app store in early 2016, and in 2017 announced that it would no longer be making Nook devices itself, but slapping the brand on devices others made for it. When I reviewed the $50 Nook Tablet 7 (which I was able to purchase because of a half-off coupon B&N was issuing due to killing support for the first generation of Nooks), I found that it was an underpowered, anemic, cramped tablet device, made by someone else, with a two-versions-old Android slapped on it and sold to try to compete with Amazon’s Fire.
By comparison, Amazon is treating the Fire as one of its flagship products, with a dedicated app store, hardware updates, and constant OS patches to keep it current. It’s lavishing a lot of love and attention on the Fire. But Barnes & Noble has cut way back, and seems to be just trying to hold onto the Nook brand name by doing the bare minimum it can to keep it alive but not throwing too much good money after bad.
The Fire might be hot, but the Nook is neither hot nor cold; it’s lukewarm, and B&N should just go ahead and spit it out. Terminate the Nook line, sell its assets to Kobo, maybe work a deal with Kobo to give Kobo a presence in B&N stores and see if it could draw in some in-store business from people who have Kobo ereaders instead. Let Kobo assume the risk of an ebook line associated with the store chain; Kobo actually seems to be able to do okay in that regard. If B&N’s job is to make money from paper books, let it put all its effort into selling the paper books.
By the same token, if B&N wants to survive it should focus on trying to become as good a bookstore as it can, and stop trying to be a low-rent Sharper Image and Toys-R-Us as well. It should make its stores work better with its web site, including price-matching its own web store prices (if not competitors’ prices the way a lot of big-box stores such as Fry Electronics do now), and give people a reason to pry themselves away from the computer and come down to the physical store.
But what are the odds of that even happening? Barnes & Noble has been thrashing around for years now, hiring new CEOs and then discharging them after they’ve failed to produce miracles. It’s hit on various ideas such as selling alcohol or offering “game nights” (which it’s still doing, in fact), but none of them seem to have much to do with the idea of marketing paper books to paper-book-buying customers. More recently, it’s fired much of its most experienced staff in the name of saving money. Does its board even know how a bookstore is supposed to work anymore?
I strongly suspect that the final collapse of the Nook ecosystem is just a matter of time—whether Barnes & Noble can be convinced to divest, or whether it dives all the way down the hole into bankruptcy first. If B&N divests, that could be good for anyone who still has ebook titles on file there, as the most likely method of divestiture would be to sell to Kobo. (Selling to Kobo seems to be the thing to do when you get out of the ebook business, as Sony, Flipkart, Blinxbooks, Waterstone’s, Sainsbury’s, and Shelfie have demonstrated.) That would result in at least some of the contents of people’s Nook libraries migrating over to Kobo, which is why I suggest it might be a good idea for Nook users to go ahead and invest in Kobo’s ereaders such as its new Clara.
Regardless of what happens to the Nook brand, the Barnes & Noble bookstore is an institution. It’s a certain kind of store that you can be pretty sure is reasonably the same wherever you find it, and it carries a good selection of the most popular books, if not necessarily very many obscure ones. It’s the sort of place that publishers desperately need to survive. But can it? And is there anything that the publishers can actually do to help?
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