Waterstone's needs to find its Nook

With news finally breaking about Barnes & Noble's new colour Nook, can FutureBook be the first to state publicly what many seem to be saying privately: Waterstone's needs a Nook.

Many people wrote off the Nook when it first launched in the US. The name was a bit, well, odd. It had a funny colour strip that didn't serve much use, except to show book jackets. The e-books available weren't cheap enough, when compared to Amazon's overly aggressive pricing. And it had initial shipping problems, a sure-fire technology killer. It was seen as the last gasp of a dying mammal washed ashore by a particularly arch digital wave.

We neglected to look at the two key advantages it had over the Kindle. There was the innovative sharing function, which Amazon has now copied, that gave users a sense of having purchased something tangible—not just a license to read. And of course the ability to read any book for free in one of the chain's 700 shops, making a physical connection to the shops via digital. The latter gave it something Amazon could never have.

Now the Nook appears to be going from strength to strength, with more than a million sold, and NOOKcolor launched in time for Christmas, priced at $249. It is positioning itself as a reader's tablet, just as Barnes & Noble has long marked itself as the readers' bookstore.

But crucially for us, Barnes & Noble is now pushing the device into other booksellers' stores, first the massive Walmart stores, then in Books-A-Million’s 229 stores as the company’s exclusive e-reading device. According to reports the push into Books-a-Million also includes developing the chain's e-book store.

The moves increase B&N's exposure on the physical high street, and also allow it to become the engine to a wider non-B&N digital reading market, rather like how Amazon once ran the online bookstores of Borders, and Waterstone's, ultimately piggy-backing off the brands they were supposed to be servicing.

According to reports I've heard the Nook is becoming increasingly prominent on publishers' sales returns, now capturing perhaps as much as 20% of the market—still well behind Amazon, but not by as much as it was a year ago. People I've spoken to suggest that it is the Nook, not the iPad that is providing the real challenge to the Kindle.

Time will tell more. What is clear though is that Waterstone's needs to develop, or buy in something similar. As one senior executive said to me last week, "why don't they just do deal with Barnes & Noble and get the Nook over here?" It's a good question. And I bet B&N would be willing: afterall they've been trying to get into the UK market for decades.



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