Microsoft

The Extent Of B&N’s Weakness In The Tablet Space

Pretty much everyone knows that Barnes & Noble had a bad holiday season in terms of selling tablets, even the company acknowledged it.

I was inclined to let it lie, I did wonder why B&N had under-performed, after all the  company seemed to have perfectly fine tablet devices on offer, but perhaps it was just one of those quirks that sometimes happens. But then I saw the IDC figures for tablet shipments in quarter four, 2012 and, even if we take those figures as close to accurate, the news  is really quite bad news for B&N:

Worldwide tablet shipments outpaced predictions reaching a record total of 52.5 million units worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2012 (4Q12), according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. The tablet market grew 75.3% year over year in 4Q12 (up from 29.9 million units in 4Q11) and increased 74.3% from the previous quarter’s total of 30.1 million units. Lower average selling prices (ASPs), a wide range of new product offerings, and increased holiday spending all acted as catalysts to push the already climbing tablet market to record levels.

via Tablet Shipments Soar to Record Levels During Strong Holiday Quarter, According to IDC – prUS23926713.

B&N went from shipping 1.4 million tablets in 2011, to shipping only 1 million in 2012 (an almost 28% drop in units shipped). That would be bad enough in a stable or falling market, but the market GREW by some 75% over the same period.

B&N was crushed by its closest competitor, ASUS who went from shipping 0.6 million units to shipping 3.1 million units! Or from less less than half of what B&N sold to shipping three times more.

Amazon moved decisively away from B&N, shipping six times as many units. Samsung, who only sold 600,000 more tablets than B&N in 2011, shipped 6.9 million more tablets than B&N in 2012.

Even Microsoft, whose tablets were new entries to the market (and who have partnered with B&N in the Nook/Newco venture) is said to have shipped 900,000 units.

The only sensible analysis of these figures is that B&N is losing ground and facing vibrant, effective and tough competitors. Unless the deal with Microsoft yields fruit soon and enables the Nook/Newco venture to grow shipments and sales aggressively, we have seen the peak of the Nook tablet business.

 

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Story title edited from Failure to Weakness. I felt using failure was unfairly harsh on the company, given the success they had in selling 1 million units, no mean feat for a bookseller!

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Go Read This | Pearson buys stake in Nook Media | The Bookseller

On the face of it this seems an odd move for a company so keen to unload its trade business into a joint venture with Random House in the driving seat. However, the college stores and the fact that students and their instructors are rapidly moving online are clearly the driving factor on this deal, reminding us just how much Pearson sees education as its future:

Will Ethridge, chief executive officer of Pearson North America, said: “With this investment we have entered into a commercial agreement with NOOK Media that will allow our two companies to work closely together in order to create a more seamless and effective experience for students. It is another example of our strategy of making our content and services broadly available to students and faculty through a wide range of distribution partners.”

Worth noting too is the increased value now being placed on B&N’s Nook business. Seems that their device play has worked even better than might have been expected, even this time last year.

via Pearson buys stake in Nook Media | The Bookseller.

Amazon Steals Everyone’s Thunder Again (But Quietly)

Fascinatingly clever (if predictable in many ways) move from Amazon to extend the reach of its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) to the UK, Germany and France. By doing so it demonstrates very clearly that it is Amazon who is really driving the pace of development in ebook adoption and ebook retail. What’s more, it is making clear that its rivals are struggling to match its services to authors and readers within their own ecosystems. As the focus of ebook growth moves rapidly beyond the USA (has moved already in truth), Amazon is making the case for giving it exclusivity even more compelling.

Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library is coming to the UK, Germany and France later this month, bringing Kindle owners with a Prime membership over 200,000 books to borrow for free as frequently as a book a month, with no due dates. Independent authors and publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing KDP who enroll their books in KDP Select can be included in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library in the UK, Germany and France, as well as the US. With the new lending libraries launching this month, the KDP Select fund has been increased by $100,000 to $700,000 in October, with a larger increase anticipated in November. Authors will earn money every time their book is borrowed from any of the lending libraries – in September, authors earned $2.29 per borrow, which is more than many KDP books earn per sale.

via Amazon Media Room: Press Releases.

What amazes me the most about this move is just how dangerous it is for the ebook retailing rivals who have yet to open their doors to self-published content. In reality only Kobo has a fully functional platform for self publishing authors beyond the USA (Apple does too, but only to the extent that those who have a nice Mac can access their iBookstore, but not everyone has a Mac).

Nook’s platform is US only, though the talk is that this will change soon, the longer B&N & Microsoft exclude non-US citizens from the service, the longer Amazon has to lock in exclusive content for three months at a time. It’s not that the content individually is necessarily compelling, but given the wide field of talent in question, some is sure to be winning material, even if much of it isn’t great. The trick is, of course, that Amazon is armed with the tools to sort, grade and sift through this mass of titles and to promote, suggest and even work with the best (or just the most saleable, let’s not forget that the goal is money-making not literature spreading).

I’ve talked before about how important authors are to the success of an epublishing platform and ecosystem. Sometimes I think the retailers agree with me on this, other times I think they only pay lip service to the idea. Perhaps that’s a lingering snobbery regarding self publishing authors (which is foolish, idiotic and wrong-headed in an age when some of the biggest writers are rapidly moving towards self publishing, are already self publishing or have emerged from the self publishing space). Perhaps it is a desire to avoid dealing with so many small accounts and the headaches of customer service and platform development that entails. Who knows, but the longer these ecosystems remain closed shops to direct author engagement the larger a lead they allow Amazon to build up on them.

Every author Amazon signs up for KOLL is three months of exclusive sales for Amazon, three months lost revenue for their rivals. More importantly it is three months of sales data and analysis for Amazon that no-one else will have. That’s especially important when a title is loaded into KDP & KOLL for the first time, before getting a look in elsewhere. What will happen when one of those sign ups turns out to be the next EL James? What will happen is that Amazon will sign that author up directly, before the KOLL period ends and the game, for that author, is up for the other platforms.

It is not just dangerous to rival retailers though. If Amazon succeeds in convincing enough authors that KDP & KOLL are the way forward and along with them, exclusivity, companies like Smashwords and other aggregators of self published content will be put in the position of having to justify their offering. As long as a vibrant market for content persists of course (and despite this move, we do have a vibrant market for content) everyone has room to move and grow.

So yes, this move is illuminating, it suggests that Amazon is still the pace setter and is capable of moving faster and more aggressively than anyone else (still, after five years). Kobo has started something of a price war for self published authors though, by offering a higher royalty to authors who use their self publishing platform. If this keeps self publishing writers committed to an non-exclusive policy then it will have been a wise move. I’m sure it is a smart response from a smart company, even if it is one that admits to a certain weakness in terms of the capability of their platform, but then competition doesn’t (and indeed shouldn’t) always mean matching your rivals move, but finding clever and novel ways to best them where your strengths lie.

What that in mind, Kobo and other Amazon rivals would do well to pay attention to Baldur Bjarnason‘s piece on FutureBook about how Ebook publishing platforms are a joke, pay attention that is and offer some of the services he mentions to self publishers asap.

On THE Platform And What That Means

When you look at this ebook game from a distance it seems to make a little sense:

1) Microsoft & NewCo. = Content, Device, Apps + possible future Mobile play via Nokia & Windows 8

2) Apple = Content+ Device, Apps + Mobile play

3) Amazon = Content, Device, Apps + Whispersync making Mobile already a significant play in my book but an actual partnership not yet to hand

4) Google = Content (-ish), Apps + Mobile (with Motorola) and a Device neutral stance

Leaving Sony and Kobo somewhat on the sidelines missing some element of the game. Of course those two, like the previous four also have a crucial component in the forthcoming game, lots of cash. And, seeing as folks seem to be tooling up for a platform war, I reckon they are gonna need that.

Of course we know already that all the players in the top league have some fashion of a flaw.

For Amazon the very success of the company’s ebook strategy has created a huge problem in that they are now the team to beat. Apple has a locked down and locked in strategy as closed as the rest of its walled gardens and there’s little chance of it opening voluntarily. B&N and Nook well they as yet have little international footprint (what does this move mean for Waterstones digital strategy?) Google, well where to start with Google? Its execution in the ebook space has been poor and right now does not inspire confidence, though it does have what I think is the better long-term concept.

The biggest problem for everyone though is that a platform war is pretty pointless in anything longer than a medium term horizon (by which I mean 5-10 years). Just as Google is failing to maintain its grip on attention and Facebook is growing stronger every day, someone will rise to take Facebook’s place and then another will rise to take theirs. This impermanence of pre-dominance is, for me, a defining characteristic of the web, and it is driven by the incredibly low to non-existent barriers to entry online because the WEB IS THE PLATFORM, which fosters competition, innovation and experimentation.

That is not to say that those who succeed will inevitably meet a doom, Google is doing quite handsomely thank you, and no doubt Facebook will do well for some time too. Which means that in the medium term a successful ebook platform will milk the system just as Amazon appears to be doing right now. I just believe that their platform has no long-term, sustainable foundation. Moving against Amazon is mostly pointless, rather the focus should be on finding a way around Amazon using the web as a platform and not relying on another closed platform.

Where does that put publishers? In a familiar spot I would argue. I wrote a piece two years ago about ebooks and how it was important that publishers focus on:

developing an expertise in how to sell content in many different forms and at many different prices to different audiences. Publishers should be platform agnostic, selling wherever readers are willing to buy and not focusing on if it is an e-book, an app, online access, segments, chapters, quotes, mash-ups, readings, conferences, or anything else (a point made Friday on Publishing Perspectives by Clive Rich).

Strangely I don’t think I would change a word of that paragraph today. Nor would I shy away from the other recommendation I made:

publishers need to focus on two long-term objectives: audience development and content curation. Neither of these are specific to digital activities, meaning that they will only serve to bolster the print side of the business as well, whether it declines rapidly or gradually.

I just wish I could recall them when I make my day-to-day decisions!
Eoin

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PS: Worth reading all these pieces:

1) The Window Is Closing

2) Why Ebooks Will Soon be Obsolete

3) Microsoft Looking To be Third Time Luck In Its Bid For Ebooks