Barnes & Noble fights back

A New York Times article puts Barnes & Noble – and its next e-reader – in the headlines.

Jim Sulley/HOEP/Barnes and Noble/AP
Barnes and Noble's current tablet device, the Nook Tablet, could be getting an update, or a new e-reader from the company could be on its way.

Ever since a provocative New York Times article ran this Sunday proclaiming Barnes & Noble to be publishers’ last hope against Amazon, rumors have been circulating that the bricks-and-mortar retailer is set to release a new Nook this spring. 

Buried amidst apocalyptic talk of the end of bookstores and Barnes & Noble’s valiant effort to take on books behemoth Amazon in a David v. Goliath fight, was this little gem: “At its labs in Silicon Valley last week, engineers were putting final touches on their fifth e-reading device, a product that executives said would be released sometime this spring.”

That was it. No further details were mentioned, and a Barnes & Noble spokeswoman declined to comment further, according to the article. It was barely a mention, but the tech world – and the publishing industry – took notice, firing off reports speculating on the newest device.

“Another tablet, perhaps a larger model (think iPad size but with a $300-$350 price tag)?” asked CNET. “An even more affordable e-ink e-reader that might allow the company to break the sub-$50 barrier? Or perhaps something more exotic….” 

Whether the new device is an e-reader, a tablet, or something else entirely isn’t yet clear. What is clear, “Barnes & Noble is trying to strike at Amazon with another device,” as the NYT states.  

Just two years into the e-reader industry, Barnes & Noble already controls 27 percent of the e-book market, compared to at least 60 percent for Amazon. Not a bad market share, considering Barnes & Noble’s late start. And this latest device is a signal the retailer is not backing down.

Indeed, that was the gist of the bold NYT piece, entitled “The Bookstore’s Last Stand.” In it, Julie Bosman chronicles Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch’s effort to reinvent the retail chain in the digital age, placing its bets, of course, on the Nook. She also paints a picture of Barnes & Noble as a sort of savior and last hope for the publishing world. Whereas traditional book publishers once saw large chain stores as the enemy, they now look on Barnes & Noble as a crucial place where readers can discover books. As Slate put it, “…all of publishing looks on them as their only hope, lest they get crushed beneath the heel of the Amazon e-book goliath.”

Running through the entire piece, however, is an undercurrent of gloom for the books industry, positing the end of a world with bookstores.

“These are trying times for almost everyone in the book business,” Bosman writes. “Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly 500 independent bookstores – nearly one out of five. About 650 bookstores vanished when Borders went out of business last year. No wonder that some New York publishers have gone so far as to sketch out what the industry might look like without Barnes & Noble. It’s not a happy thought for them….”

Not everyone is taking it on the chin.

“[T]he biggest problem with the article, starting with its title, is the thesis that the bricks-and-mortar bookstore is dying,” writes industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, calling the prediction “dated.” It goes on to point out that the indie bookstore closings represent only “roughly 50 a year, and doesn’t take into account either the ‘natural’ closing of stores or the opening of new stores or the addition by existing stores of new locations.” Indies, writes Shelf Awareness, “have an influence far beyond their number.”

That may be, but after the Borders closings, Barnes & Nobles, for many Americans,  is the only place, save for public libraries, where readers can browse aisles at will and stumble on new literary gems. (Which, of course, publishers count on to sell books.)

“Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt if Barnes & Noble does not prosper,” Macmillan CEO John Sargent told the NYT.

Make that readers, too.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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