By Michael Weinstein

The returns are in on sales for Amazon and Barnes & Noble from the holiday sales period. Remember that “surge” I mentioned in my last blog post? Like the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

On the one hand, Amazon had its biggest holiday season ever, with the Kindle Fire being it’s number one product—specifically the “#1 best-selling, most gifted and most wished for product.”

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble sales were down almost across the board—in stores, on-line and sales of Nook. Revenues were down 12.6 percent from the previous year. The good news is that sales of digital content were up 13.1 percent, “indicating that at least those who own Nooks are using them to buy content.” While B&N would not specifically break out Nook sales, they did say that after Black Friday, sales “fell short of expectations for the balance of [the] holiday.”

There are two issues (at least) that, to me, jump out for discussion here.

One is what this says about the ongoing viability of B&N. The headline on BGR.com is pretty blunt: “Amazon is Gutting Barnes & Noble.” While stating that Nook revenues declined by more than 12 percent, the writer (a Nook owner) also has my favorite line about the Nook—”As a Nook owner, I’m now starting to get that queasy Betamax feeling.” But the point is really that B&N’s Nook is now a well thought of product, selling at a lower price than Kindle but unable to make advances in the marketplace. Pearson recently announced an investment of $89.5 million in the Nook that will somewhat help combat Amazon’s incredibly deep pockets. But I’m not sure this is enough.

Let’s face it, the world is divided into Amazon and the anti-Amazon. The second category includes not only independent bookstores, but also B&N. Whatever else you may think of B&N, they have physical stores in places where none would exist. And many of these would not be replaced by an independent if they went away. I find myself rooting for B&N, but I have my concerns.

The second issue is whether this year’s sales speak to a leveling off in the sales of devices meant only for reading (as opposed to tablets). A recent Wall Street Journal article cites not one, but two, market research studies suggesting this to be the case. One researcher states that shipments of e-readers was down 28 percent in 2012. Another comes up with different statistics, but supports the same trend.

A couple of points from the WSJ article that I think are key.

  1. E-readers bought a couple of years ago still work just fine for people who only want an e-reader.
  2. Technology marches on. When e-readers first came out they were the new technology, and they were the pinnacle of what was offered. Technology does not stand still. Now, for a little more money, people can get an e-reader and whole lot more.

Bottom line? E-reading will continue to grow, but perhaps not at the explosive rate that it did at first.

At the same time, William Carr in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the end of ink on paper may be exaggerated. I love it when someone agrees with me. It happens so rarely! He cites the Pew Research Center study that showed the percentage of people who have read an e-book over the past year from 16 percent to 23 percent. But that 89 percent of book readers had read at least one printed book.

I think that a jump of more than 40 percent in those who have read e-books is not to be sneezed at. What they read it on is going to continue to evolve. Five years from now, the tablet may be passé.

But the printed book will still be here.

And I kind of hope that B&N will be, as well.

Note: This article originally appeared on the website of Book Business magazine, one of our sister publications.

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About the Author

Michael Weinstein is a member of the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame and has 35 years experience in production, manufacturing, content management and change management. He is currently Production Director for Teachers College Press. Previously, he was Vice President, Global Content and Media Production for Cengage Learning. Prior to that he was Vice President of Production and Manufacturing for Oxford University Press, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Worth Publishers and HarperCollins.