Thursday, August 15, 2013

Barnes & Noble, in Worse Trouble Than I Realized

I imagine a world without Barnes & Noble only with great difficulty.

For a decade it was one of the most loyal customers of my printed books. It continues to sell them to its web site customers, even if the monthly quantities have fallen into the single digits.

Printed books are in decline as the most avid readers switch to ebooks. That poses an obvious challenge for the United States’ largest retailer of printed books. Yet it is in ebooks that Barnes & Noble is falling apart. I found this out the hard way, trying to add my new ebook to the Nook platform. I have a valid ebook file — the ebook people say so, and Apple and Amazon required only minor adjustments to display it correctly. Apple struggles with font embedding, and Amazon, with Unicode characters, but both problems had easily discoverable workarounds.

Unfortunately, there are no workarounds for the Nook platform. Nook won’t display my ebook at all, and there is nothing to tell me what part of the document file it had choked on. To attempt a workaround, I extracted the HTML from the ebook and submitted that. The HTML file was, again, a validly formed document, but after Nook Press processed it, it was garbled beyond recognition. It looked as if Nook had used Microsoft Word to convert the HTML to RTF (a 1990s word processing document format) before converting the RTF back to HTML. If true, that’s a fairly desperate workflow, something an online business would only attempt if it couldn’t afford to hire a qualified web programmer. Checking the online forums, I found that this kind of publishing failure was the norm at Nook. Most publishers gave up more easily than I had, and even on the official Nook forums, it was clear that publishers that ran into technical problems weren’t getting any help.

But wait. Nook Press has live online chat help. I put my question in there, carefully phrasing it in about 25 words. To no avail — the live chat representative closed my chat without typing even a word in response. I was starting to picture an abandoned office, most of the workers laid off, the last remaining live chat representative gamely trying to keep up with the questions coming in on the web site, with no choice but to click past any question that pointed to any kind of problem. This couldn’t be happening at Barnes & Noble, could it?

I confess I hadn’t kept up with the news from Barnes & Noble, and this is when I went to read the financial stories from May, June, and July. They were stories with an air of gloom. If Nook goes bust, will your e-books survive? Barnes & Noble moves closer to breakup as CEO Lynch resigns. Barnes & Noble restates financial statements. In short, Barnes & Noble is in the same kind of crisis as Dell and Best Buy. I expect sales of printed books to decline by 15 percent between now and December 2014. If Barnes & Noble takes that kind of revenue hit while simultaneously winding down its ebook business, there is nothing to indicate it will know how to adapt. On the contrary, the company is directionless after its recent CEO resignation.

So what would change if in 2015, Barnes & Noble went down the same path as the now-defunct Borders? For the sake of book publishers, the price of books would have to go up, but that is a messy proposition that could lead to trouble across the book business. It is hard for me to imagine the sequence that would follow, but the key to understanding it is that public libraries would suddenly become more important places than they have been in more than a quarter of a century.