Where Are Barnes & Noble’s Nooks for Nook Readers?

I am a fan of e-readers, and e-ink. I’ve had a Kindle for just over a year, and I’ve read about 75 books on it (including several public domain titles). That said, I’m not entirely averse to the idea of Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color–at least, not yet. After all, an e-reader with a color screen, cheaper and less distracting functional than the iPad has uses, not the least of which are well-rendered textbooks and kids’ books. Yet Barnes & Noble’s latest gadget is still under threat from said iPad and Amazon’s Kindle–a threat that would be largely diminished if it would spend less time spinning, and more time reading.

Successfully marketing e-readers is different to successfully marketing a book. In book marketing, readers are presented with information about an author, a plot, and the type of readers who’ll enjoy said book, tying into reading preferences. And it works: chances are, if you’re a fan of the Percy Jackson series, you’ll be a fan of the Gods in Manhattan one; if you like the Stephanie Plum books, you might like Women’s Murder Club , a fact both Amazon and Barnes & Noble make use of in their e-newsletters (though, surprisingly, not at the end of an e-book). Marketing an e-reader, though, is about marketing the way we read, about marketing an experience. And that’s where Barnes & Noble could win.

Technology aside, Barnes & Noble has one big advantage over Amazon, Sony, Apple, and pretty much every other e-reader out there: brick and mortar bookstores. Sure, the Kindle is available at Staples, Target, and even airports, but these lack the ambience, the bookishness, of a Barnes & Noble. Even with the gift sections and the toys, most Barnes & Nobles offer a cozy place–a cozy nook, in fact–to curl up and read, to sift through bestsellers before deciding on one (or in my case, all).

Although it’s been established that people will buy a product unseen–the Kindle 1 was sold out within five and an half hours of hitting virtual shelves–the tangibility of a demo model, particularly for items in the $200 range, is a definite plus. Unlike Amazon, Barnes & Noble has the opportunity to give readers a taste of what it’s like to read on a Nook in a home setting, complete with comfy chair and the smell of fresh coffee. More importantly, though, is the chance to prove that the Nook color is usable long term.

A color Kindle is still a long way off–according to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos–most likely because color e-ink isn’t yet feasible. As such, the color screen on the new Nook is an LCD, with a different eye-feel to the more grey on grey e-paper and e-ink Kindle and Nook readers are used to. Over long periods, it’s possible the LCD would become difficult to read on, though perhaps most folks are now such screentime junkies the LCD screen won’t be an issue. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and it’s hard to imagine dedicated readers committing to the $249 price tag without some indication of how useful the Nook is for snuggling up with a book for more than an hour at a time.

Interestingly, though, eBookNewser, citing a new study by JP Morgan, notes “that 40% of iPad owners also own a Kindle…[and] that 23% of iPad owners plan on buying a Kindle in the next 12 months.” And over at Tech Crunch, Erick Schonfeld points out that, “The Kindle appeals to heavy readers. Bookworms are a niche audience, but a lucrative one. About half of the people surveyed read between zero and ten books a year. But 16 percent read more than 25 books a year.” In other words, heavy readers are unsure of long term readability on the Nook Color’s LCD screen–and Barnes & Noble isn’t doing anything about it.

Why isn’t Barnes & Noble leveraging its brick and mortar stores? Perhaps it’s the value of the product, of letting strange hands play with an expensive device, though if the possible damage to a high priced demo model wasn’t worth the increase in sales, I doubt Apple would be so free with the iPads in their stores. More likely, it’s because Barnes & Nobel thinks the market gain is too small–I’ve never seen more than two or three people at the Nook demo display in a Barnes & Noble, and I frequent bookstores the way caffeine addicts frequent Starbucks. But that’s the thing with e-readers: they are, to borrow from Apple’s hype, game changers. From the get-go, they’ve challenged the way we think about books, and they’re clearly changing the way we read, for better or for worse.

Of course, as in every race worth watching, there’s a dark horse in the e-reader market: Borders. Selling almost half a dozen other brands of e-readers, including devices from Kobo and Sony, Borders could present real competition for Barnes & Noble and Amazon if it manages to get past its current financial crises. But that’s a whole other post…