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The returns are in on sales for Amazon and Barnes & Noble from the holiday sales period. Remember that “surge” that I mentioned in my last blog? Like the song says “it ain’t necessarily so.”
On the one hand, Amazon had its biggest holiday season ever, with the Kindle Fire being its number one product—specifically the “#1 best-selling, most gifted and most wished for product."
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble sales were down almost across the board—in stores, on-line and sales of Nook. Revenues were down 12.6% from the previous year. The good news is that sales of digital content were up 13.1%, “indicating that at least those who own Nooks are using them to buy content.” While B&N would not specifically break out Nook sales they did say that after Black Friday sales “fell short of expectations for the balance of holiday.”
There are two issues (at least) that, to me, jump out for discussion here.
One is what this says about the ongoing viability of B&N. The headline on BGR.com is pretty blunt “Amazon is Gutting Barnes & Noble.” While stating that Nook revenues declined by more than 12%, the writer (a Nook owner) also has my favorite line about the Nook—“As a Nook owner, I’m now starting to get that queasy Betamax feeling.” But the point is really that B&N’s Nook is now a well thought of product, selling at a lower price than Kindle but unable to make advances in the marketplace. Pearson recently announced an investment of $89.5 million in the Nook that will somewhat help combat Amazon’s incredibly deep pockets. But I’m not sure this is enough.
Let’s face it, the world is divided into Amazon and the anti-Amazon. The second category includes not only independent bookstores, but also B&N. Whatever else you may think of B&N, they have physical stores in places where none would exist. And many of these would not be replaced by an independent if they went away. I find myself rooting for B&N, but I have my concerns.
The second issue is whether this year’s sales speak to a leveling off in the sales of devices meant only for reading (as opposed to tablets). A recent Wall Street Journal article cites not one, but two, market research studies suggesting this to be the case. One researcher states that shipment of e-readers was down 28% in 2012. Another comes up with different statistics, but supports the same trend.
A couple of points from the WSJ article that I think are key.
Bottom line? E-reading will continue to grow, but perhaps not at the explosive rate that it did at first.
At the same time, William Carr in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the end of ink on paper may be exaggerated. I love it when someone agrees with me. It happens so rarely! He cites the Pew Research Center study that showed the percentage of people who have read an e-book over the past year from 16% to 23%. But that 89% of book readers had read at least one printed book.
I think that a jump of more than 40% in those who have read ebooks is not to be sneezed at. What they read it on is going to continue to evolve. Five years from now, the tablet may be passé.
But the printed book will still be here.
And I kind of hope that B&N will be, as well.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, asked questions sometimes have answers you don't want to hear. B&N has told the Wall Street Journal of a plan to close 1/3 of their retail stores over the next ten years.