Tuesday, July 30, 2013

eBooks and Barnes and Noble CEO Resigns (part 2)

A few weeks ago the Barnes & Noble CEO resigned due to disappointing results at its Nook eBook division. At that time the pundits believed that this was another nail in the B&N coffin. Recently James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker that the situation may not be that dire for B&N, because eBooks are maybe not as important as everyone seems to believe. In his article E-Book vs. P-Book he makes some useful observations, which bring some reality to the perceptions of "declining" book business:

"To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. ..........B. & N., which still has more than six hundred retail stores (and six hundred and eighty-six college bookstores), also retains considerable leverage with publishers. As a recent report from the Codex Group showed, browsing in stores is still a far more common way of finding new books than either online search or social media. So publishers have a stake in B. & N.’s survival.....

This suggests that, instead of succumbing to the temptation to reinvent itself, B. & N. should focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore...........

Of course, a lot of people consider this a hopeless strategy: in their view, physical books are “technologically obsolete,” and the book industry is heading down the path that the music industry took, where digital downloads decimated CD sales and put record stores out of business. It’s true that, between 2009 and 2011, e-book sales rose at triple-digit annual rates. But last year, according to industry trade groups, e-book sales rose just forty-four per cent. (They currently account for about a fifth of the total market.) This kind of deceleration in the growth rate isn’t what you’d expect if e-books were going to replace printed books anytime soon.................

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either."

So maybe the problems with Nook are in a sense hiding the things that do go well with Barnes & Noble, the bookstore. And maybe all the hype about eBooks, is hiding the fact that many readers still prefer to read physical books for certain subjects and in certain circumstances, and eBooks for other purposes, like when traveling or commuting. What a relief: there is still hope for the book industry!

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