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The E-Book Business is Back for Barnes & Noble: Now What?

Barnes &

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: July 22, 2009

Barnes & Noble is getting into the e-book reader business sometime next year. Amazon's Kindle has been a success, the Sony E-Reader has been a moderate success, and now B&N will get on board. Is B&N too late?

I'm not certain if there is a “too late” as far as e-books as files are concerned. We'll have e-books from now on, of course, but the devices are where the risks are. I don't know if e-book readers will stand the test of time. It's more likely we'll have one device, like a big-screen iPhone. Amazon already has a deal with Apple where Kindle files can be used on the device.

The B&N press release states that it will support “...the iPhone and iPod touch, BlackBerry smartphones, as well as most Windows® and Mac® laptops or full-sized desktop computers. In addition, Barnes & Noble announced that it will be the exclusive eBookstore provider on the forthcoming and much anticipated Plastic Logic eReader device.”

In December 2003, Barnes & Noble closed its ebook business. B&N was using Microsoft eBook Reader, and you might think that it was discontinued just like Microsoft Bob, but it is still an active project, though rarely seen.

The company announced that it it has made an aggressive re-opening of its e-books store and support of the multiple platforms. Right now this makes the Kindle store look proprietary, but Amazon will end up supporting numerous platforms, I'm sure.

There are many issues tied into the print business, of course. There's the whole “less printing” aspect to it, mainly. But there is a larger issue.

E-books are another sign that the consumer is in charge. The value is in the information, yet not all information is the same. E-books can be marvelous for reference materials, but make terrible coffee table books. Unless those digital photo frames are supposed to do that, or unless we start putting four legs onto LCD panels and mount them so they're horizontal. (There will be a whole new range of cleaners for spilled coffee on LCD coffee tables).

E-books create the opportunity to have automatic revisions. “Have you read War & Peace?” “Which one? Version 1.0 or 1.1?” This can be exceptionally valuable for professional references, such as drug directories or law books. It creates a whole new range of problems, however. “The version I used to take care of the late Mrs. Smith said prescribe two doses every one hour, not one dose every two hours, like the new version 1.15 does, your honor.”

E-books are truly on-demand. On-demand books from amazon.com take five days. That sounds mor like hurry up and wait. On-demand books produced in-store are better, but even then you may have to wait in line. Thousands of book readers can be satisfied in less than a minute when books are downloaded, and be served simultaneously.

I find e-books to be a rather curious category. I've read books on my old Handspring Visor Prism. I've read books and magazines online. I never found the experience to be wholly satisfactory, except when I need a certain piece of information at a particular moment in time. It is there that they excel, for me.

I do not have a Kindle yet, but will sometime when Amazon's larger version goes into a second iteration. I spend about 10 hours a day in front of a screen, and I think that's enough. WhatTheyThink's very own Cary Sherburne, however, thinks her Kindle is great. Publishing guru Bob “BoSacks” Sacks has been reading books on a Palm Pilot and now an iPhone for years. Both Cary and Bob travel extensively and they are voracious readers. Neither of them will give up “real” books, yet they obviously love the convenience that the format offers.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is a big difference between an e-book reader and an e-book document. There's going to be lots of confusion about which is which. Just remember this: no matter what it's read on, it's a screen and lots of computer technology, whether it's an iPhone, a netbook, a desktop PC, a tablet PC (they'll be back soon), a Kindle, a Sony E-Reader, an iPhone, a Blackberry, or something else. That variety needs to be supported by a well-crafted deployment process that print businesses can be involved in.

My best advice to printers: buy a Kindle. Use an iPhone. See what the fuss is about. Use them. We've entered a very important stage in the media markets. Technology waits for no one. So anyone who's hunkered down waiting for things to get back to business as usual has already planned to miss the post-recession opportunities.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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