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What the Nook Means

A new Nook’s on its way. Can it save books?
January 31, 2012

A Goliath has now become a David. Gigantism, it turns out, is relative.

It wasn’t so long ago that Barnes & Noble was considered a Goliath, some sort of massive, heartless chain that was squashing the quaint neighborhood independent bookstores–legions of squirming Davids fumbling hopelessly for their slingshots–under its massive foot.

My, how times have changed. Barnes & Noble’s CEO, William J. Lynch Jr., is the subject of a recent profile in the Times, and you might be surprised to hear the language used to describe him: “he is playing David to Mr. Bezos’s Goliath,” writes Julie Bosman. B&N’s stock is about $12, its value in the hundreds of millions. The stock price of Jeff Bezos’s company, Amazon, is around $195. Its value? $88 billion.

Among the revelations in the Times piece is that a fifth e-reading device, presumably some iteration of the Nook, is to be released this spring: “At its labs in Silicon Valley last week, engineers were putting final touches,” on the device, according to the report.

Lovers of traditional books and publishing, among whose ranks I count myself, are forced to a startling conclusion: that to a certain extent, the fate of these books rests on the success of an e-reader, the Nook, since it may well be the Nook that keeps B&N afloat. Much as lovers of independent bookstores may have scoffed at the likes of B. Dalton and Borders, those companies helped keep publishing houses in the black, by stocking vast numbers of their paper volumes. Neither of those companies exist today–meaning Barnes & Noble’s fate represents, indeed, as the Times rather starkly frames it, “The Bookstore’s Last Stand.”

And if B&N failed? “It would be like ‘The Road,’” a publishing exec told the Times. “The post-apocalyptic world of publishing, with publishers pushing shopping carts down Broadway.” The executive was referring, of course, to the 2009 Vigo Mortensen/Charlize Theron film, which you can probably download onto your Kindle Fire. (That was a dark, dark joke. You should read the novel.)

The Times piece is filled with a litany of such quotations from publishing executives. “For all publishers, it’s really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive,” said Penguin’s David Shanks. “Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt…if Barnes & Noble does not prosper,” echoed John Sargent of Macmillan.

Reading these executives speak, I realized that my calculus of book buying had been upended. I live in a neighborhood with both a Barnes & Noble and a wonderful independent bookstore called The Community Bookstore, just blocks from each other.

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Before today, if I were buying a physical book, the choice was always easy; I supported The Community Bookstore. On a gut level, I’m still inclined to do that, but now that it has been made stark for me how much of the fate of the physical book may rest on Barnes & Noble’s shoulders, I do wonder if I won’t poke my head into the B&N now and again, to make certain purchases and begin to accustom myself more to the B&N brand.

Because the truth of the matter is that over the last decade or so, when buying books online, I have often–almost always–opted for Amazon over B&N. I can’t remember when I first made this choice. I think it had something to do with Amazon’s web design, which seemed sleeker; with one or two price comparisons that shook out in Amazon’s favor (a B&N account number might have gained me a discount, but I was too lazy to dig it up for each purchase); and with my general dislike for massive bookstore chains, a category that I mentally excluded Amazon from. Once Amazon had me in its fold, and I made the decision–itself a difficult one, for me–to get an e-reader, I got myself a Kindle. When I buy my next e-reader, paradoxically, my decision may be wholly determined by my concern for the physical book and the state of publishing physical books.

The bottom line here is that if you care about the fate of the physical book, Barnes & Noble is suddenly your good, good friend. Don’t shun the neighborhood bookstore; love it and care for it as you always have. But you may want to step into a Barnes & Noble now and then, too. And you may want to consider getting the new Nook, the latest iteration of which was very well reviewed.

Do you love books? If so, how do plan to change–or not–your buying habits?

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