I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Barnes & Noble has become that relative we all talk about as if they’re already dead, even when they’re right in the room with us, and they don’t even mind because at least we’re talking about them.
I say this knowing all too well that people have been eulogizing this former titan of retail for years and yet the company is still around. That doesn’t mean the eulogies have been incorrect; it’s just taking longer than expected. Like Radio Shack, which you probably think has been out of business for five or six years now but only filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and probably still have some stores out there somewhere.
Here are the latest tell-tale signs of the inevitable doom of B&N, and specifically (for my particular corner of the world) the NOOK: last week, in rapid succession, the company sent out notices that they would no longer be selling books in the recently opened NOOK UK store; and they would no longer be supporting third party apps on the NOOK reader. Both of these changes (and if you didn’t know there was a NOOK UK store, well, that’s part of their problem, isn’t it?) would be official as of March 15, 2016, which was only twelve days from the date on the notices. This was in the shadow of their announcement of losses in the fourth quarter of 2015, which came earlier the same week (reported optimistically as losses that might be ‘leveling off’ by the estimable New York Times, who have been hopefully predicting the resurgence of B&N for so long now it’s becoming embarrassing.)
If you owned a business and an employee gave you less than two week’s notice right after they mentioned financial troubles, you’d probably think something had gone terribly wrong in that employee’s life. I appreciate that with B&N they’re trying to consolidate in order to reduce cost, but this already comes after they tried to sell NOOK outright to Microsoft, and Microsoft took a good look and backed out. And on the list of companies I expect to make fiscally sane decisions, Microsoft isn’t really near the top.
I have to deal directly with B&N’s NOOK Press publishing team because that’s what you do when you self-publish. Well, some of us. Some are exclusive to Amazon, and some are ‘wide’ (non-exclusive) but using aggregator services like Smashwords or D2D. In the latter, the service you use deals with NOOK Press directly instead of you. If you’re with the former—exclusive to Amazon—you may actually be celebrating the NOOK’s eventual demise, when it happens, which I swear is going to be any minute now.
Brief aside, in which I explain a little bit about self-publishing distribution
There are, in the U.S., five main ebook distribution outlets for a self-published author: Amazon, NOOK, Apple, Kobo and Google Play. Each of these five have distinctive quirks that make them uniquely frustrating in their own special way, which I won’t go into now.
If publishing ‘direct’ with all of these companies, one has to acquaint oneself with five completely distinctive publishing dashboards to upload five unique-to-that-outlet files (because of format requirements and backmatter links, and oh god, I’m sorry I mentioned backmatter, that’s not worth explaining right this moment, forget I said that). Alternatively, one could go to a service like Smashwords or D2D—both companies also sell direct, but aren’t very good at it—and have them submit files to everyone else.
This sounds like a better deal, but of course the aggregator services take a cut of each sale, and there are a few other very good reasons to go direct instead that I won’t go into here other than to say some merchants don’t exactly fall over themselves to push books that aren’t direct.
I have a couple of complaints about NOOK Press’s service and interface—they offer a smaller royalty cut than anyone else; they’re the only one that doesn’t allow pre-ordering—but it is neither the best (that would be Amazon) nor the worst (Google Play).
Anyway, back to the article.
I quite inadvertently learned a lot about how things were going at B&N NOOK when I ran a book promotion in December. This was a BookBub promotion (follow the link if you don’t know them; they’re great) where I marked down an anthology to $0.99 for two days.
With NOOK, I had to mark down the book myself, and I had to do it about four days ahead of time to make sure it was at the discount price when it was supposed to be, because—according to the email I received from support a mere 24 hours after asking—a price change could take that long to show up on the site. I don’t know this for sure, but I think the reason is, the one guy there who does the changes might be away for the weekend. I’m not being entirely sarcastic. I think if you put in a change at Nook, a human being has to input the change. Really.
(Note: Amazon’s is also an author-initiated manual markdown, but only because you have to be exclusive with them for the privilege of scheduling a sale. Amazon can suck in that sense. However, their updates are automated, and reliably quick. The other three allow advanced scheduling of sales, and are awesome about it.)
So that was the first thing. The second was what happened the day of the sale.
As you might imagine, total-books-sold on a given day impacts a book’s public rank. For instance, The Immortal Chronicles anthology, on the day of the BookBub promo, climbed up to the top 50 overall on Amazon thanks to over 1400 sales in less than 24 hours. Meanwhile, over on the Nook, the anthology sold a little over 200 copies in the same period, which was enough to get it into the top 10.
Even taking into account that the two sites may calculate best-seller rank differently, go ahead and read those totals again and then ask yourself how many ebooks Barnes & Noble could actually be selling every day.
I don’t want the NOOK to die, and not because I harbor any particular fear or resentment about Amazon, which after all is the place where I sell most of my books. (I know many of you have different feelings about Amazon, and I’m sure one or two will let me know in the comments.)
I want it to live because, as annoying as it is to go to five different publishing platforms to get my books out there, it’s to my benefit to have as many venues as possible to reach readers. That means electronic and print and (eventually) audio, and whatever else is out there.
I want it to live because even if a book isn’t doing well on one site it might do very well on another, because every distributor has its own approach to promotion and recommendation, and the one that sells my books the best might not necessarily always be Amazon. (In January, for instance, it was Apple.)
Finally, I want it to live because I think a marketplace of choice is a healthier marketplace. You might say if NOOK goes down there are still Apple and Google Play (both easily strong enough to challenge Amazon’s ebook hegemony) and Kobo (bigger internationally than Amazon already), but that’s not 100% the case because none of them sell print copies. Right now, if someone looks up one of my novels and decides they would rather own the print edition than the ebook edition, that’s one click away on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble… and nowhere else.
Other people can dissect why the NOOK is dying—going back to my opening analogy, I think you’ll find Barnes & Noble has been less like the elderly relative holding on for longer than expected and more like the young cousin who should have been wearing a seatbelt—but for now I think it’s enough to say that it’s happening, it looks like it’ll be soon, and that’s too bad.
I mean, probably. Unless I’m wrong. They’ve looked nearly dead for a long time now.
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