By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From May 3, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Note from Jane: For the first time ever, you will notice a sponsor this month for Writing on the Ether by Porter Anderson. Our initial sponsor is L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water, as well as the managing editor behind Tweetspeak Poetry. I am grateful to Laura for offering her support of this weekly feature, which takes considerable time and effort to deliver. Thank you!
Named a Best Book of 2011: Englewood Review of Books and Hearts & Minds Books
“I read it in three sittings. Then I read it again. It’s a beautiful book, easily my favorite book on writing since Bird by Bird.”
—author Kimberlee Conway Ireton
Microsoft Monday had them all betting on Barnes & Noble’s chances.
Barnes & Noble doesn’t realize it yet, but Microsoft just stole their college textbook business and wiped out the Nook tablets.
Vertical that it is, everything was looking up at Digital Book World, Jeremy Greenfield manning the pompoms in Possibilities Abound in Microsoft, Barnes & Noble Deal:
Imagine a Windows-powered Nook tablet that breaks the iOS and Android stranglehold on the mobile device market.
Thad McIlroy, came up with an “inspiring haiku-styled poem,” based on part of the Microsoft-B&N press release:
With rapid growth
To solidify our position
A leader in an exploding market
Our exciting collaboration
Our world-class technologies
It is the beginning of a journey
For our complementary assets
We’re at the cusp of a revolution
But McIlroy’s piece was headlined Barnes & Noble Marries Microsoft, and described the “strategic partnership” this way:
Two losers stumbling to the altar without bridesmaids or witnesses…Worse still it’s a marriage of the Hatfields and the McCoys. They were feuding something nasty, and if they hadn’t exchanged vows they were about to exchange bullets.
Mary Jo Foley at CNET was in and out of her Could Microsoft-B&N deal foretell Windows 8-powered Nook? as answers to questions turned up. (Part of reporting in the digital age is that you have to publish before either shoe drops. I’m impressed with how clearly Foley updates her material in the body of the story.)
Was today’s creation of NewCo predicated on B&N settling with Microsoft? Does B&N still have to pay Microsoft royalties on every Nook sold as part of the settlement? (Update: The answer to that one is yes, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.) No word on any of these questions so far…
Clear, concise. Way to keep up.
At Publishers Lunch, Sarah Weinman ably made the initial announcement, of course, in BN Puts Nook and College Business Into New Subsidiary, With Microsoft Investing $300 Million, quoting Microsoft’s president, Andy Lees, saying:
We’re going to have a larger role to play than just being the platform provider; that’s what this partnership allows us to do.
Weinman’s colleague Michael Cader then went to work in the followup, Is the Barnes & Noble Spinoff Really A Leave Behind?
Many in the publishing world greeted yesterday’s news with excitement that the Nook business is assured of substantial funding in order to both compete and grow, and is aligned with the interests of a cash rich technology company. Rather than a spin-off of Nook and associated businesses, however, people may come to the reasoned conclusion that Barnes & Noble is really preparing to leave behind the retail stores, quarantined in a unit of their own.
Laura Hazard Owen dutifully quoted B&N’s CEO happy-talking in her timely Microsoft invests $300m in Barnes & Noble’s Nook; more e-books for Windows. The quotes here are William Lynch’s:
Part of that expansion is a Nook app for Windows 8, “which will extend the reach of Barnes & Noble’s digital bookstore by providing one of the world’s largest digital catalogues of e-books, magazines and newspapers to hundreds of millions of Windows customers in the U.S. and internationally.”
Look hard at the CNNMoney interview JP Mangalindan did with Lynch — Barnes & Noble CEO: NFC coming to the Nook — and you’ll find Lynch apparently including self-publishing authors in his “hundreds of thousands of publishers.”
Really the most valuable part is a vast digital content repository that we’ve built with our relationships with now hundreds of thousands of publishers…
While Laura Dawson in B&N and Microsoft joined the shove-off chorus –“I do believe the @Nook arm will be spun off separately from the B&N mothership” — she had good company in Jay Yarow at BusinessInsider in Microsoft Is Investing $300 Million In Barnes & Noble! who concurred, and added: “Amusingly, Barnes & Noble’s entire market cap was $792 million at the time of the investment.”
Jones, in Microsoft looking to be third time lucky in its bid for ebooks, wrote:
Twelve years ago I attended the first ever Frankfurt E-book Awards, a lavish evening held at the Frankfurt Opera House…At the time Microsoft was touting its Microsoft(R) Reader with ClearType(TM) display technology that allowed digital books to be read on home computers (this was pre-smart phones and pre-tablets).
What if B&N stores added mini Microsoft Stores in each of their locations? The foot traffic is already there and what a great place to showcase and sell that new Windows 8-based nook they’ll undoubtedly create…Xbox is one of the brightest stars in the Microsoft product portfolio…Given the ongoing decline of print book sales it might make a lot of sense for B&N to reduce their superstore title count inventory and make even more room for that Microsoft section I described above.
It’s interesting that Wikert was one of the few who mentioned Amazon at any length in the context of the Microsoft-B&N news. And even as he was talking about terrestrial stores — and the fact, of course, that Amazon doesn’t have any nor want any — CNBC was running a quick-vote viewer poll, asking, “If Barnes and Noble goes extinct, what would you do with all that real estate?”
Purcell’s not talking author platforming here, by the way, but digital platforms. I like the quick-view line-up of platform assets he puts together here to open his piece:
When you look at this ebook game from a distance it seems to make a little sense:
1) Microsoft & NewCo. [for the moment, the name of the entity formed with B&N] = Content, Device, Apps + possible future Mobile play via Nokia & Windows 8
2) Apple = Content+ Device, Apps + Mobile play
3) Amazon = Content, Device, Apps + Whispersync making Mobile already a significant play in my book but an actual partnership not yet to hand
4) Google = Content (-ish), Apps + Mobile (with Motorola) and a Device neutral stance
Purcell then goes on to note that while each of the major players has “some fashion of a flaw,” the entire exercise of adding up cannon vs. battering rams is largely pointless.
Just as Google is failing to maintain its grip on attention and Facebook is growing stronger every day, someone will rise to take Facebook’s place and then another will rise to take theirs. This impermanence of predominance is, for me, a defining characteristic of the web, and it is driven by the incredibly low to non-existent barriers to entry online because the WEB IS THE PLATFORM, which fosters competition, innovation and experimentation.
Now, take a breath. Frequently one of the comments I get from Ethernauts is that they feel their heads are spinning after reading the weekly gas. Light-headed? Are you ready to believe my announcement that Apple and Amana are teaming up to introduce Iced iPads, and just in time for summer?
Good. Then you’re ready to listen to Fran Toolan. And so am I.
In his sharply grounding piece, The Book Industry is Dead, Long Live the Book Customer, Toolan of Firebrand Technologies starts with the gemutlichkeit out there on Ninth Avenue:
Microsoft’s partnership with Barnes & Noble is probably welcome news in many publishers’ boardrooms. After all, this represents the hope that someone can loosen Amazon’s grip on reading public and hence loosen the grip on those that supply that content. But does anyone really think that Microsoft is getting into the book game because they care about books?
“Relentless” comes to mind, as Toolan just scrubs the silly grin right off the moment.
If anything, Microsoft going into business with Barnes & Noble signals something more ominous in my opinion. It signals Barnes & Nobles’ departure from the book industry and formal entrance into the technology industry.
There’s some courage here, as Toolan talks about years when “everyone was happy to live in a bubble called the book industry.”
We were free to create our own rules, set our own standards, and be proud that our work was not only for profit, but was sort of a public service. There was always contention between the publishers and the retail community, but it was genteel, as each side realized that they ultimately needed the other to survive.
In recounting what has happened, Toolan observes the rise of the Internet, the multi-channeling of digital distribution, the Borders collapse.
The result, aside from Barnes & Noble, (is that) the four or five largest customers of every publisher have completely turned over into different entities. Even the major wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who were used and abused by Amazon, are in deep peril as the number of retail partners they have continue to diminish. The new behemoths are all technology companies, Amazon, Apple, Google, and to a far lesser extent, Sony.
Which sets the stage for Toolan’s coup de grace:
With Barnes & Nobles’ departure to the technology industry, I think it’s fair to say that book industry that we all know and love is on its deathbed.
There is, however, in Toolan’s purview, what might be called difficult hope.
The good news is that customers for books and book-like products are still out there, consuming as much as ever…What we need to recognize is that the rules have all changed, our standards and trade organizations are losing their relevance every day, and that really the new retail giants do have some objectives in alignment with those of publishers.
I’d like to recommend this to our good colleague Mike Shatzkin, who’s asking in a column this week what’s needed in the DBW Conference next year. This is an honest conference scene-setter, if ever there was one. I’d like to see DBW consider making it the lead blurb for the conference. Here you go:
To survive and thrive, publishers need to accept their demoted status in the balance of power and move on… Publishers need to work with the new retail giants in order to best understand how to build, market, and promote their products in a way that achieves the maximum return for all involved.
I’m going to get us back to our big theme here — the industry! the industry! — in a bit. And we’ll be hearing more from Shatzkin. If you’d like to move right on to those parts of the Ether, just use the table of contents above to drop down to the sections with “Publishing” in their titles.
If you’re feeling linear, come along as we head off in a few other interesting directions before returning to Our Common Crisis.