Earlier today, Fortune reported that Barnes & Noble has tapped Sears Canada CEO Ron Boire to take over as B&N’s CEO. Boire has been the CEO of the struggling Sears Canada for just 10 months, but before that he was the head of the USA Sears & Kmart chains for three years. Before that, Boire had worked at Sony, Best Buy, and Toys’R’Us—not exactly a list of winners in the recent economy. And now they expect him to turn Barnes & Noble around?
[Update: As Nate pointed out in the comments, the Fortune article is really badly constructed. It turns out that Boire is not taking over as Nook’s CEO, but as B&N’s. Publishers Weekly has a much clearer piece. I find it a bit weird that suddenly B&N now explicitly does include the retail trade stores plus what’s left of the Nook, given that I thought B&N had been trying to salvage the B&N retail trade division by paring the sinking Nook away from the rest of the retail store, which is actually doing substantially better. But hey, if Boire’s job is to try to salvage both the Nook and the stores, so much the better; it means I can leave the rest of what I wrote without changing it much.]
Yeah, best of luck with that. The retail store division actually seems to be doing more or less okay these days—largely because it’s been doing things like changing from a books-only store to more of a toy-and-electronics-boutique-that-also-sells-a-few-books place. But as for the Nook, I’m starting to think it’s a little too late for the struggling e-reader format. Bring someone in new to rearrange the deck chairs however you like, the Titanic is still on the way down. After all, what is there left to do by this point?
Ever since we discussed the Nook’s new site on the podcast earlier, I’ve been poking around the new version of BN.com and trying to make sense of it. It’s interesting, but in a sense it’s also a bit of a lost cause. I have nearly 200 e-books in Barnes & Noble’s catalog—largely the remnants of my purchases from eReader and Fictionwise’s catalogs when Barnes & Noble finished shutting them down—and they are almost completely inaccessible now from Barnes & Noble’s web site.
Not that this is exactly a surprise. Back in September 2014, Barnes & Noble removed the ability to download Nook e-books outside the Nook ecosystem. But until recently, you could still at least read your purchases from Barnes & Noble’s web site. Now, that doesn’t seem to work anymore either. As Nate reports on Ink, Bits, & Pixels, attempting to view one of your e-books instead takes you to the store page for it, inviting you to buy it again—except you can’t because you already own it.
That being said, it’s still possible to access all your content via the Nook applications. I tried the Windows 8/8.1/10 app from the Windows Store, and it seems to work just fine (though for some reason it waited a half hour to install), as does the Nook Study app that Nate linked when Barnes & Noble changed the Nook’s DRM key in March. Likewise, the Nook Android app works fine on my phone. All of them are able to access my complete library, and download e-books from it to read.
I’d rummage further and see if they were storing those downloaded e-books somewhere to my hard drive, except I don’t need to—I haven’t bought any B&N e-books since 2011, and I had long since backed those (and my old Fictionwise titles) up into my Calibre. I simply haven’t had any reason or desire to buy any more e-books from Barnes & Noble. I even used my e-book lawsuit settlement credit not on more e-books but on part of a Blu-ray they had cheaply that nowhere else did and I wanted. I’ve bought my last-ever Barnes & Noble e-book; I’m done.
It wasn’t so much a conscious decision, like the one Juli made last year, as it was a simple recognition that B&N simply didn’t have any e-books Amazon didn’t have, too, and it was just easier to deal with them after I bought them from Amazon. None of the crazy stuff Barnes & Noble has done over the last year or so had anything to do with that, given that I stopped in 2011—but then, none of that crazy stuff exactly made me regret it, either.
I feel really sad for B&N. Where did they go wrong? Let’s leave aside any shred of the idea that they had the expertise of a paper book chain trying to do business in an e-book world. In March 2009, they bought Fictionwise/eReader, one of the earliest e-book companies in the business—the people I bought A Fire upon the Deep from back when state of the art was a Palm IIIe. That was over a decade of expertise in the e-book industry, at a time when the e-book industry birthed by Kindle barely even a thing yet. It was at least as much e-book-industry experience as Amazon (who had bought similarly-early company Mobipocket) had.
People get caught up in the idea of Amazon as the super wheeler-dealer, moving e-books by pricing them at $9.99 even if they had to lose a few bucks on some of them here and there. But all that was just window dressing. Amazon’s real coup was simply in making its e-readers so darned easy to use that even grandparents were happy to play with them.
(Sure, the $10 e-books did help them justify the added expense of buying one of these $300+ devices—buy a dozen or so books and it would pay for itself in money you saved, the idea went—but it didn’t take very long at all for at least some Kindles to fall to below $100, which is where they’ve been for at least the last couple of years.)
Has Amazon even done anything new vis-à-vis the Kindle in the last few years? Oh, sure, they’ve spiffed it up with new features, decreased the price, and even added the new subscription programs—but are those really more than icing on the cake? At heart, the Kindle is still the same simple device it’s always been: an always-available window to the Amazon web store, ready to buy you a new e-book whenever you want it. It still works pretty much the same way it always has.
But what has Barnes & Noble done? You would think that it shouldn’t be such a hard act to follow, simply to build a web store that could sell you e-books and plug a reader into it, especially since they just bought a company known for doing exactly that. It shouldn’t exactly be rocket science. Shouldn’t a simple e-book store that’s always right there in your pocket or purse just work no matter what company makes it? Yet neither Barnes & Noble nor Kobo seem to have been very successful.
I’d like Amazon to have strong competitors. Strong competition would mean Amazon would have to compete, including possibly dropping prices or making other features available. I’d like to be able to comparison-shop and buy my e-book from wherever has the best price or other terms at the moment. But at the moment, the only company that makes it simple for me to download the book I just bought and incorporate it into my own backup solutions is Amazon. And it doesn’t look like that’s changing right now—Ron Boire or not.