Barnes & Noble & Microsoft

People are asking if I have any thoughts about the just-announced partnership between Barnes & Noble and Microsoft in the eReader market. My major immediate thought about it is: Oh, good, a robustly-funded competitor for Amazon in the eReader market. That makes for three major eReader portals/ecosystems (the other being Apple; there are four if you count Google, but I don’t think they’ve quite got their act together yet). This offers choice for consumers and a little breathing space for the publishing industry that’s still freaking out about the idea of an Amazon eBook monopsony.

On the monopsony score I would still very much like to see a better way for independent booksellers to be able to enter the eBook market, because whether we’re talking Amazon, B&N/MS, Google or Apple, we’re talking huge companies carving up an emerging market and effectively shutting out retailers that aren’t on the Dow Jones. But that’s really another matter entirely. For now: Yay, more competition. Let’s see how it works from here.

Toby Buckell has some more thoughts on the matter here.


21 Comments on “Barnes & Noble & Microsoft”

  1. I find it interesting that the deal includes the B&N College Division. Probably looking at the student market as a good target for ereaders. Also, fwiw, B&N College is also bought separately from the B&N superstores. Heck, it’s not even located in NYC, but in the exciting metropolis of Basking Ridge, NJ.

  2. To your last point: Is there presently *any means* by which non-corporate (i.e. independent) booksellers can be players in the ebook market?

  3. @Todd

    A publishing company which ditches DRM presumably can do business with any reseller.

    I’m not entirely sure how practical this is. Presumably, the independent seller adds value by serving as a filter and making recommendation for a particular customer. I’m not willing to predict whether this will be enough value to cause enough people to buy from such sellers to support very many of them. It does offer the possibility that you could buy from the website of your favorite local independent book dealer, but I’ve never really had one of those to buy from in the first place. It seems to me that a small number of genre specific websites might successfully establish themselves, but each of these might also be a massive enterprise.

  4. Todd:

    I don’t know what their arrangement is, but I buy most of my ebooks from Google through one of our local bookstores (Broadside Bookshop, Northampton, MA). As noted by Michael Walsh, it looks like that will go away next year, in which case I hope the ABA is correct that that it can replace that setup with something better.

    Perhaps we could do a mass kidnapping of all the publisher and retailer executives responsible for the current mess, surgically remove their heads from their butts, and have Charlie Stross et al patiently explain to them the sane way of handling ebooks. Then we could fit them all with ankle monitors and release them back into the wild.

  5. Does an e-reader exist which will accept an ebook download from all the various digital sources? Will such a thing ever exist? Or are the various e-readers proprietory captives of their vendors preventing purchases of ebooks from sources other than the source for the e-reader itself? Right now I can wallk into any bookstore and purchase a treebook to read at my pleasure. Am I right to think that the ebook world has not reached such a universal way of doing business? Is the eboook universe even attempting to replicate the universality of the treebook retailing business? If not, why not? Aren’t the biggest profits residing in the ability to sell one’s digital offerings to anyone with a digital way to read a book?

  6. Having indies sell ebooks isn’t a hard thing to do, it just requires people to pull their heads out.

    First, remove DRM.

    Second, create a licensing server that would allow the bookseller to track what t hey’ve sold and not manipulate it and that publishers all use (or that generates a common file format so that different licensing servers can interoperate).

    Depending on desired business model, the licensing server could br preloaded with licenses for X copies of a book or it could be realtime, getting a license at the moment of purchase for each copy of a book. If it’s preloaded, this is the same as bookstores buying copies upfront now. Refine this with “bookstore can return licenses not used after N days for credit” to mimic remaindering/returns. When a customer buys a book, the number of available licenses is decremented by one. Store staff could have reporting and realtime alerts saying that Redshirts is running low and they could then, in realtime, add more licenses for it (or they could automate this of course).

    All of this would be transparent to the customer who would simply see the ebook as another available edition that they can select. While there are details to work out, none of this is hard. It just takes the will to make it happen.

  7. I hope that Microsoft is able to develop a system similar to the iBooks Textbook. We’ve been looking at developing some textbooks for the iPad at my college. Unfortunately, the software to do the developing only exists on the Mac platform.

    The college bookstore here is run by B&N, and virtually all computer are Microsoft. This joint venture between MS and B&N may get us closer to getting e-textbooks in the hands of our students sooner. It doesn’t hurt that the Nook Tablet is cheaper than the iPad.

  8. “Does an e-reader exist which will accept an ebook download from all the various digital sources?”

    If I’m not mistaken, an iPad is able to read iBooks, Kindle books, Barnes & Noble books and Kobo books. It doesn’t look like there is an iPad reader for Sony eBooks though. The problem is that you have to open the Kindle app to read Kindle books and the B&N app to read B&N books etc. This assumes that you don’t remove the DRM.

    Also, I think I’ve seen a story about people rooting their Nook tablets and then reading Kindle books using the Kindle Android reading app.

  9. @Mike,

    correct on the iPad and the Nook rooting. You could also install readers for a regular Android tablet to read Kindle, Nook etc. Ultimately this is all a messy transition to a non-DRM world where there are one or a few formats and reader software reads the common ones without bothering the user about it.

  10. @Mike,

    There is an iOS app called “txtr” which is able to display Sony eBooks (at least the newer ones using ePub with Adobe CS4 DRM). The process of getting the eBooks into txtr is a bit convoluted, but manageable (and does not involve breaking DRM).

  11. @rickg17

    Absent DRM we already are at a state where there are few formats. I think pretty much everyone but Kindle uses ePub. It’s not hard to convert between the two using a computer and Calibre software. It’s the DRM that stands in the way, that and the deliberately obscure file names.

  12. I was just recently directed towards, which is operated by Daniel Keyes Moran, author of the mighty entertaining “Tales of the Continuing Time” series. Trent The Uncatchable is his iconic character. (I’m not quite sure what the longer term tale was; he had something of a writing hiatus between 1993 (The Last Dancer) and the next volume which was released in 2011. There seem to be some other works during that 18 year period, but none of the TCT series…)

    At any rate, is offering up non-DRMed copies of works by a number of authors, including Moran, Steve Perry, and Margaret Weis. I don’t know how much they’re making, but I’d personally be massively keener to buy something from them than from an Apple “garden inside a steel trap.”

  13. You know, this could be good, but I’ve found that once I get set on a certain e-book seller I stick with them and I know many people are the same way. When e-books were just starting to hit mainstream I purchased from both B&N and Amazon, but just gravitated towards Amazon because I liked having all of my books associated with one e-reader and there was rarely any pricing competition among them, so no savings (not to mention I was already ordering a lot of other items through Amazon after becoming a Prime member). I suspect many consumers are the same way. That said, much like my opinion about doing away with the agency model, competition is good, whether it be in pricing or tablet value.

  14. As a Nook Color owner, this is good — although the Nook Color and Tablet are Android (easily hackable right from the miniSD) and I’m not keen on them moving to a Windows-based system. Because, I mean, sigh, Windows. Not good on mobile, historically.

    Nook does .epub, so I’ve downloaded any number of Gutenberg, Google, and indie press things for free and for money.

    It’s just as easy for individual authors to put their stuff up on B&N as it is on Amazon, plus B&N never asks for exclusive rights, and isn’t a walled garden like Apple. And they still have dead-tree stores, which I still love.

  15. Tor is showing the way forward imo. DRM favors only the proprietary platforms. Ive pretty much restricted my ebook buying to the Baen site because of DRM, but Ill expand my purchases to Tor now.

  16. I think Pottermore is showing he way forward: DRM-free, independent from the big players, but still tightly integrated: a Kindle-owner can send the books to his Kindle, a Nook-Owner can do that, a Google-user can, etc.

  17. I’m more disappointed that Microsoft’s patents will be escaping scrutiny. On the other hand, I suppose it says something about their merits that the plaintiff paid $300M to the defendant, and 17.6% ain’t that big a share.

    There are at least two fairly large publishers and several smaller (Baen,O’Reilly, SJGames, et al), and at least one retailer (DriveThruRPG) that have already been running several years without any sort of technical DRM (as opposed to the social DRM of watermarking). I should think if piracy were an actual problem, as opposed to being a problem simply by occurring at rates greater than 0, those ventures would have ended their epublishing ventures many years ago.

    I think we should expect to see more literary agencies becoming small press publishers in their own rights, by virtue of the fact that epublishing scales downward, they already have all the legal know how in place, and the vast majority of them have been poaching personnel from the big publishers, so either already have the editorial know how in place, or can fairly quickly acquire it.

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