digital sales

Some Thoughts On B&N’s Nook problem

The news from B&N’s Nook division is bad:

The NOOK segment (including digital content, devices and accessories), had revenues of $125 million for the nine-week holiday period, decreasing 60.5% as compared to a year ago.  Device and accessories sales were $88.7 million for the holiday period, a decrease of 66.7% from a year ago, due to lower unit selling volume and lower average selling prices.  Digital content sales were $36.5 million for the holiday period, a decline of 27.3% compared to a year ago due to lower device unit sales and lower average selling prices.

via Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

I’ve got more sympathy for B&N than some, indeed I think we should be thanking it for spending so much of its investors money to discover some important things for us.

For a time it seemed to me that Nook was a success. Perhaps that was naive of me, but it seemed like a good match, dedicated book people selling digital content to dedicated book readers. The lurch towards tablets was probably not a good one, prompted as it was by the iPad and the Kindle Fire, it might have seemed like a fabulous strategy, but in truth (but sadly in retrospect) it was too expensive and too long a game for B&N to ever win against its much better funded and positions rivals.

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. The shocking drop in digital content sells in the holiday period is blamed on two things, lower device sales and lower average selling prices.

Taking those one by one the device sales driving content sales suggests two things which would be clear to anyone looking in on Nook. For too long, the digital content side of the business has been a slave to the device side. Too little effort has been made to open content sales to those without devices, too little effort on gaining ground on smartphones and tablets other than Nooks.

If the digital content side is to thrive then B&N will have to encourage readers to buy Nook content everywhere and anywhere they can connect to the web regardless of device and to do so more easily than they currently can (which probably means rethinking the company’s current DRM strategy). In some ways the failure of the tablets (and note, I laud even what might be termed a failure here. B&N has still sold a LOT of devices) probably makes this a likely development anyway. Hopefully it will be a rapid one too.

The second issue is a bigger one in many ways. Average selling price is falling across the ebook space (or, at least, it would appear to be). Only increased unit sales will make up for that. However, if B&N is suffering more from this problem than others, not even unit sales will suffice to push it along.

What’s more, if unit sales don’t increase in line with the market, B&N will begin losing market share (if it hasn’t already). It’ll have to either increase its stock of exclusive content (which sounds like an impossible task given Amazon’s attractiveness in this area) or get market share back through converting customers of one platform to Nook readers, or grow quicker than the market as a whole, or by slowing down the flood of exclusive titles that Amazon is building somehow enabling them to capture some of that value.

I’ve written several times about the value of the KDP platform for Amazon and how valuable such a platform could be to the other ebook retailers yet how each of them in their own way has relatively closed policies with regard to them. Since I first wrote about this back in 2011, only Kobo has opened up in a real way. We are seeing the power of Amazon’s foresight in this space now. The giant added 200,000 exclusive ebooks through KDP in 2013, a perfectly avoidable situation.

B&N succeeded in selling nearly $4,000,000 worth of digital content a week in the holiday season, which is nothing to sniff at. I just hope it can push harder and increase they sales in 2014 opening up to wider audiences and starting to challenge Amazon’s exclusivity advantage with self published authors, that would be good for the wider industry as well as for itself.