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E-bleeder: is Nook on its deathbed?

E-bleeder: is Nook on its deathbed?


Barnes & Noble's once-promising digital business needs to turn a page to compete with Amazon and Apple

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Barnes & Noble Nook HD hero (1024px)
Barnes & Noble Nook HD hero (1024px)

The ending has yet to be written for Barnes & Noble's Nook story, which began with the surprise debut of the original Nook e-reader back in late 2009. But recent plot twists don't appear to bode well for the subsidiary known as "Nook Media," which contains the company's e-reader, tablet, and digital content businesses, and which two other companies — Microsoft and publisher Pearson — have bought into.

Over the past few weeks, Barnes & Noble has announced fire sale after fire sale for Nook products: Buy a Nook HD+ tablet and get a Nook Simple Touch free! Download the Nook app for Windows 8 and get free bestselling digital book and magazine titles! The latest deal, which was just announced last week, targets teachers as part of Barnes & Noble's annual "Educator Appreciation Days," offering a variety of discounts — including $20 off the Nook HD and HD+ — between April 13 and 21.

Fire sale after fire sale

The discounts on Nook Media hardware and content, coming as they do the month after Barnes & Noble reported an 8.8 percent revenue drop and 2.2 percent decline in sales of Nook products from last year, doesn't seem to be a show of faith in Nook's future prospects. Meanwhile, parent company Barnes & Noble, which still owns the majority stake in the subsidiary (78.2 percent), also saw its retail sales drop even more precipitously and is also moving to close more stores, the latter which it says is simply business as usual. That hasn't stopped a flurry of reports speculating that a major shakeup is looming for Barnes & Noble and Nook in the near future, perhaps that the parent company could go out of business or sell itself to another chain such as Walmart.

"you have two businesses that have different goals that are now separated."

Barnes & Noble's founder and chairman Leonard Riggio quietly indicated in a regulatory filing in February that he wanted to buy only the company's brick and mortar business, not Nook Media, effectively splitting the two for good. A split is something that other shareholders and analysts have suggested would be a wise move, too. A questioner on Barnes & Noble's latest earnings call pointed out in February "you have two businesses that have different goals that are now separated... they appeal to different investor sets. You're clearly getting penalized for the fact that they live together," and went on to ask about "how to ultimately separate these businesses." In response, Barnes & Noble's chief financial officer Michael Huseby said "we've consistently disclosed that we're looking at strategic alternatives and will continue to do that, but we don't have anything further to announce at this time." Asked again more recently, Barnes & Noble did not respond to The Verge in time for this article's publication.

Others have suggested that Microsoft, which invested $300 million to acquire what ended up being a 16.8 percent stake in Nook Media, should go ahead and buy that whole subsidiary from Barnes & Noble. Microsoft declined to comment when asked by The Verge about its investment in Nook, but sources close to both companies who wished to remain anonymous said that Microsoft has the option to ramp up or decrease its stake in Nook at any time. Microsoft, it should also be noted, has almost nothing to lose from its Nook investment as it stands now. The company has almost $70 billion in cash on hand.

The question is whether Microsoft would make a move to save Nook

The question is whether Microsoft would make a move to save Nook if Barnes & Noble collapsed or tried to offload it. There's a good argument to made that Microsoft should do just that: Barnes & Noble still claims it has one of the largest digital content libraries in the world, and sales in that area were actually up 6.8 percent last quarter. Even just to get that content — which includes many ebooks and magazines Microsoft doesn't have — could be worth nearly any possible fair price for Nook. Plus, when Microsoft first announced it would be investing in the subsidiary that would become Nook Media almost a year ago (the deal closed in October), it pointed out that content was one of the reasons.

Even if Microsoft doesn't buy Nook, look for it to take a more active role in providing more overlapping experiences between products. Sources close to Microsoft who declined to speak on the record said to envision a scenario in which Microsoft would allow users of Office to self-publish manuscripts straight from Word to the Barnes & Noble digital publishing store, giving the two companies more of a fighting chance against Amazon and Apple. The sources said that for Microsoft, Nook was a long term play. Despite it now being six months since the companies closed the deal, it would take longer — perhaps years — for Microsoft's ebook plans to fully materialize in the hands of consumers.

Nook has become a book in the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' series

How many consumers actually stick around for that long is an open question, of course. In fact, whether Nook sticks around in its current form is something of a question, too: for Barnes & Noble and its partners, the platform itself has become a book in the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Not all decisions lead to success.