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Can Barnes & Noble Save the Book?

It’s looking grim.
April 2, 2013

I can be something of a Luddite, for a technology blogger. I recently jilted my iPhone. It took me ages to buy a Kindle, and I was a holdout on the iPad until I received a hand-me-down copy. And while I’ve come to love my iPad for short-form reading and TV streaming, and even for the occasional mid-length magazine piece, I simply can’t stand reading books digitally. I find my Kindle (and Kindle app) useful for downloading free books, or books I merely want to scan for research. But when I want to be drawn into the world of a story, when I want the full aesthetic experience a book can give me, I still want paper in my hands. 

Call me crazy. Increasingly, I feel like a character in “The Twilight Zone”; even people I would have been sure would have been holdouts like me tell me they’re ready to kiss the book goodbye. Stephen King says he loves his Kindle. My mother, who instilled in me a love of books, adores hers. Even my 90-year-old grandmother is getting a knack for the thing.

For those few of us who love physical books, and a culture of books embodied in physical space, the news from Barnes & Noble over the past few weeks has been discouraging. The Verge does a good job rounding it all up. B&N has been offering “fire sale after fire sale” on Nook products: for instance, a free Nook Simple Touch along with a Nook HD+ purchase. Free books, free magazines, free apps. It smacks of desperation.

As a bibliophile and dead-tree holdout, I’m principally interested in the fate of Nook insofar as it’s a bellwether for the fate of Barnes & Noble as a whole. I want browsing, physical browsing of physical books, to persist in its brick-mortar-stores. I want authors to have places to read on their book tours, which are themselves also endangered species. I want staff picks and shelves and the physical sense of moving from one province of learning to another, not by clicking, but my moving your feet, arms, and hands. I think something real and deep is lost, when all this is lost.

I want, too, fairly priced books that can ensure that authors who pursue ambitious work can make a living. Not get rich–but simply survive on their writing. Physical books, their pirate-proofness and their traditional pricing, are a bulwark against the downward trend in book pricing that has driven writer friends of mine away from the medium we grew up loving, for fear of relative penury.

But I feel as though I’m screaming into the wind, and that the forces of technology and the marketplace will lead us, gradually, to a place where a great books, great authors, and great readers are rarer, and our culture is less rich.

I had written in the past that the key to propping up B&N as a brick-and-mortar concern was, ironically, to become a technology company, by pushing the Nook (see “What the Nook Means”). Some analysts (amateur and professional) begin to question that notion. The Nook division has been floundering; some wonder whether Microsoft (which already has a stake) might be able to swoop in and buy the whole thing, taking it off B&N’s hands.

Meanwhile Leonard Riggio, B&N’s founder, has said he wants to buy only the brick-and-mortar segment of the business, leaving the Nook for others to pick over. If Nook is not generating sufficient revenue for B&N, and if consumers are not taking to the model of a bookstore/technology store hybrid, then Riggio’s plan may be a smart one. The Barnes & Noble brand may want to sell off its Nook business, hand over the bookstore to Riggio, who can double down on a plan to ensure that physical booksellers have a standard bearer moving into the future. If the idea of the physical book loses the literal real estate Barnes & Noble provides, it’s hard to see a future for the physical book that extends much beyond a boutiquey, luxury product found in the occasionally struggling neighborhood store (“Oh, you bought a book…how extravagant…”), coupled with the musty aisles of libraries–which increasingly loan their books digitally anyway.

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