This piece was prompted by a post on Eoin Purcell’s blog, entitled “Some Thoughts on B&N’s Nook Problem,” and breaking down the fairly abysmal news from Barnes & Noble’s Nook segment, which saw a 60.5 percent fall year-on-year at $125 million “for the nine-week holiday period,” digital content sales falling 27.3 percent and devices and accessories 66.7 percent.

Smashwords“The big question for B&N is whether there is a profitable ebook and digital content business to be pulled from the mess of Nook,” Purcell concludes. “For too long, the digital content side of the business has been a slave to the device side.” He also cites the falling unit prices of ebooks, which leads to B&N’s huge challenge in rebuilding unit sales.

Purcell sees one of B&N’s key challenges as to “increase its stock of exclusive content (which sounds like an impossible task given Amazon’s attractiveness in this area).” I don’t think he’s understating. Personally, I believe that self-publishing in general, and Kindle Direct Publishing in particular, is having a transformative effect on the publishing industry and book trade far beyond its audience share, which is already substantial enough. And Purcell is essentially saying that it’s not enough to be an online bookseller or ebookstore if you want to be serious competition to Amazon: You need to have your own direct publishing operation as well. Otherwise you’re just not going to have a compelling offering as an alternative.

Well, who does have that? Smashwords. In fact, it’s almost the only entity I can think of offhand that does, at least on so significant a scale. There’s Kobo, of course, but I don’t think anyone expects Kobo to buy the Nook assets. However, if Smashwords wanted to pick up a large chunk of book market real estate that would flesh out the operation and put it on closer to an equal footing with Amazon Kindle, then they could consider them.

Mark Coker might well answer that he has no need for a declining hardware operation, no matter how good its tablets and ereaders, and that his own business is humming along very nicely, thank you. Maybe. But it’s an intriguing proposition nonetheless. And after all, it’s one of the few ways that you can still see any kind of future for the B&N Nook division. And it would be an admission of just how much self-publishing matters now.