Barnes and Noble Has Probably Destroyed Itself

There are reports on the web that Barnes and Noble’s founder, Leonard Reggio, is trying to buy the retail end of the business back. Doing so is basically an admission that the store’s electronic products line has been a failure and possibly dooms both Barnes and Noble Nook LLC and the retail store in one fell swoop. Meghan McArdle in particular argues that the classical model for the retail bookstore is dead. Is Barnes and Noble irrelevant? Not yet, but it will be soon. While the chain can still be saved, it probably won’t.

Already, megastores are disappearing from shopping malls — the "Fox Books" run by Tom Hanks’s character in You’ve Got Mail probably went out of business in the early 2000s. New hardcopy books are too expensive to "buy on a dime" as it were, and if people have a specific book that they have been planning to buy, most will probably go online and buy it from Amazon so that they don’t have to leave the house to look for a book that the retail store might not have. The only real place where a Barnes and Noble could prosper for some years to come is on a university campus.

This is because there are times when buying a book online will not bring it fast enough. Sometimes, students need the book for an assignment which is due tomorrow, and it is cheaper just to run down to the university bookstore and pick it up. Also, even a decade and a half into the 21st century, there are millions of books which are not available for electronic devices. Besides, the experience of reading a book on a Kindle is not nearly as pleasurable anyway.

But this will all change eventually. One reason is 3D printing. This may seem counterintuitive: why do you need 3D printing for a book when you already have standard printing? But today, it is possible to bind library quality books using machines like this for $0.01 per standard page. Once universities learn how to integrate this technology, there will be no more need for long lines of students at bookstore counters or the countless number of retailers handling the back orders. Print-on-demand will mean that no university ever has to return a textbook or put up with the complaints of a student who came to the bookstore too late.

This will be good for universities and students, but it will be bad for bookstores like Barnes and Noble for whom universities will likely be the last holdout. Barnes and Noble realized this, which was why they started Barnes and Noble Nook LLC. The diagnosis was correct; the prescription was not. As an electronics user, I can say that I looked into the possibility of buying an iPad or Kindle Fire, but I never gave buying a Nook a second thought. It isn’t because I thought it was a bad product; it was because it came from a company that appeared to have little interest in electronics and probably had no plans to follow up with more electronic equipment. Inventing the Nook seemed more like a preemptive attack against an industry that was encroaching on its territory.

Instead, Barnes and Noble should have concentrated on ways to make their services relevant for people who still wanted hardcopy but typically used Amazon for it instead. Remember those 3D book printing machines? Why couldn’t Barnes and Noble, which owns thousands of copyrights to classic text editions and thousands of cover art designs, have set up a book stand that would have consisted of a 3D printer machine, a computer and a nerd? In fact, why have a nerd at all? Why not just set up the machinery in a public area and allow people to print their books by inserting a credit card into it like an ATM machine? From there, the buyer could maybe access an enormous database of Barnes and Noble-owned books available for print ... right?

That’s a question for Barnes and Nobles’ leadership to answer. Competing against Apple and Amazon on their territory was the wrong move. Soon, Barnes and Noble may not even be able to compete against them on its own.