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It Ain’ Necessarily So: Predicting the end of print, and e-ink, and B&N, has become the new national pastime.

By Michael Weinstein

[1]The returns are in on sales for Amazon and Barnes & Noble from the holiday sales period. Remember that “surge” I mentioned [2] 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 [3].”

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 [4].”

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 [5] is pretty blunt: “Amazon is Gutting Barnes & Noble [6].” 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 [7] 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 [8], 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 [9] in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the end of ink on paper may be exaggerated [10]. I love it when someone agrees with me [11]. It happens so rarely! He cites the Pew Research Center study [12] 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 [13] originally appeared on the website of Book Business [14] magazine, one of our sister publications.

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[15]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.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "It Ain’ Necessarily So: Predicting the end of print, and e-ink, and B&N, has become the new national pastime."

#1 Comment By Michael W. Perry On January 21, 2013 @ 11:36 am

B&N doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. They’ve yet to realize that digital books are like cars, they’re part of an ecosystem. Cheaper of not, a particular model car would be a bad investment if you couldn’t get parts or repairs for it.

In the same way, a digital book is less valuable if it’s distributed as a use-and-discard item. Readers need to know that they don’t need to keep a copy on their latest computer/tablet/smartphone/reader to always be able to reread it years later. They should be able to know that the retailer is keeping it on a digital shelf, always available and always capable of running on whatever device they have. O’Reilly does that well as does Smashwords. Amazon does that too, although its proprietary format is worrisome. Apple does it, but only for its own mobile devices. And all of those are doing well enough, it’s difficult to see them leaving the field.

B&N is to be commended for adopting the ePub standard, but, given their seeming lackluster enthusiasm for ebooks, it’s easy to imagine them abandoning the field like Microsoft abandoned the Zune. Their profit, I suspect, isn’t in ebooks but in the stuff other than books that people buy when they come to a physical store.

That’s why that Nook owner quoted has that stuck-with-a-betamax feeling. There are few things more discouraging than being stuck with the technological format that failed and sold by a company that’s abandoned a market.

And yes, readers might be able to store ebooks themselves and to move that Nook ebook they bought to some other device. But the typical reader no more wants to klutz with that than the typical car owner wants to do his own brake work.

#2 Comment By Alexander Inglis On January 21, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

I find myself continuing to read on Kobo e-ink devices (specifically, the Touch is an excellent device and I have now graduated to the Glo — partly due to a Cat Incident) and apps. While I read library books, it was always a bit fiddly to get them onto the Touch; it’s so much easier to read directly on a 7″ tablet (Nexus 7 for me). But that means using the Kobo app for Kobo books and the Overdrive app for library books. And THAT opens the door for the Kindle app (my last Kindle device was the Kindle 3 keyboard wifi).

The biggest surprise for me has been how completely I have adapted to a $200 7″ Android e-reader/tablet. FORM FACTOR is really important: it’s quite light to hold, the page size feels ideal, and all books are available on it regardless of source. But the drawbacks are less flexibility in fonts, etc … and battery life. Note that when these devices were $500 they were a non-starter.

What this means for B&N and Kobo is they must continue to offer a great e-ink experience for the foreseeable future. This is where die-hard, heavy book buyers will stay and its a good entry point for new e-book consumers (esp at the ~$100 price point). Portability, long battery life, dedicated function will hold appeal longer term. And SECOND, both companies must offer great apps and an on-device store experience and library management facility that keeps buyers in their camp (hint: Send to Kindle is a really nice perk).

#3 Comment By Rob Preece On January 22, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

As a Nook (color) owner and user, as well as someone who does all my last minute holiday shopping at my local B&N, I’m ever-hopeful that B&N will grow stronger. Certainly Amazon needs the competition (and certainly author, publishers and readers need Amazon to have the competition). I think that the Nook devices are excellent and that B&N has a great catalog. I’ve seen them being active in offering nice discounts (buy a Nook, get a gift card).

Although I may be unduly optimistic, I think B&N still has a chance to succeed in this business. Certainly the big publishers have a lot invested in B&N’s success.

By the way, if B&N fails, (knock on wood), what does this do to the print forever forecasts? Without B&N, print really is dead.