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Barnes & Noble E-Book Store Yields Prosaic Results

Today's column evaluates Barnes and Noble's new
e-book store. This may not surprise anybody, given my history with these things, but I find it somewhat wanting.


Its software -- you can see the Windows version at right, the iPhone release below -- fails to recreate the paper-reading experience as well as Amazon's Kindle 2 and Kindle DX tablets. (The New York retailer won't have an answer to the Kindle until Silicon Valley startup Plastic Logic ships its planned wireless "eReader" next year.) Its selection, as my colleague Steve Levingston notes in our Short Stack blog, is not as impressive as B&N's announced numbers suggest. And as many of you wrote in your comments on Monday's blog post, B&N's e-book prices often compares poorly to those of Amazon's Kindle e-books or even its own paperbacks.

To B&N's credit, its "digital rights management" controls on most purchased downloads are not as confining as Amazon's. But because they exist at all, they limit this store's utility -- as long as DRM stops you from reading an e-book on software and hardware that a store doesn't support upfront, you run the risk of having your own purchases made unreadable if you buy the "wrong" computer.

That last factor, more than anything else, explains why I haven't been tempted to buy a Kindle for myself. It's a neat little device, but when I purchase a music, movie or book download, I want to know that I own it and can use it as I would its physical-world equivalent.


So if Amazon and Barnes & Noble's efforts don't cut it, what am I looking for in an e-book store? Here are my four major requirements -- based in part on what I like in my two favorite, DRM-free music-download sites, Apple's iTunes Store and Amazon's MP3 store:

* Reasonable discounts. The advertised $9.99 prices at the Kindle Store and B&N's e-book store can offer healthy savings off new hardcovers, but they often represent a minimal discount -- or none at all -- over paperback copies of the same books. It's not enough to roughly match what you paid for a physical book, not when the electronic kind has near-zero distribution costs and demands no shelf-space management.

* A deeper selection. It's well and good for these e-book publishers to brag about how they offer all of today's bestsellers. But those aren't the titles that anybody has trouble finding in real-world stores! Matching the selection of airport bookstores is not much of an achievement; what you want is to be able to find the more obscure titles that mass-market bookstores won't think to stock, and which already make up a huge chunk of Amazon's print sales.

* No DRM. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have to explain this point by now, but movie studios and, now, book publishers keep proving me wrong. Any sort of software restriction that limits my access and use of a downloaded file makes me feel like I don't own it, and therefore makes me much more reluctant to spend the money in the first place. Take away that uncertainty, and it's a lot easier for me to drop $1, $5 or maybe even $10 on a new download.

* Graphical refinement. Books, especially hardcovers, have never just been piles of words. They use cover art, typefaces, page layouts and the occasional photo or illustration to set themselves apart. But Kindle and B&N e-books only offer, at best, the cover art. Even if we can't yet reproduce the lavish designs of coffee-table books, can't we at least let e-book publishers pick their own fonts? (Yes, I'm one of those typographical nerds who reads the "About the type" notes at the end of books. And yes, I wish this was appearing on most of your screens in something more exciting than Times New Roman.)

What do you want to see in an e-book store? Post your own requirements in the comments. Then stop by my Web chat, starting at 12 p.m. today, and we'll discuss this further.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 24, 2009; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Actually Rob, what I'm seeing is a sans-serif font, probably Tahoma. As I type this comment it is in a serif font, TNR?


Posted by: DLDx | July 24, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Three thoughts:
1. I have both a Kindle and an iPhone and I much prefer to read on my iPhone. Despite the "paper" quality of the Kindle, the iPhone has much better contrast and brightness control over the fonts/background which makes it easier to read for me. And the size of the iPhone isn't as cumbersome to hold for longer periods of time.
2. Since most of my reading is done "on the go" the iPhone wins again - one device to carry for all things. Also, the choice of multiple readers, including Kindle, to cover most all of the book formats out there. The Pre and Blackberry could also shine in this category as well, however, the iPhones larger screen keeps it upfront.
3. The most irritating problem with the B&N eReader/ebooks is that even though B&N now owns and the B&N eReader is virtually the same reader as's you can not use books purchased at either site on the other's reader. This is not just bad DRM, it is insane. The two sites should be merged or they should, at least, share a common online bookshelf. At this point the left hand and the right at are in competition with each other and the only loser will be the user.

Posted by: john_in_dallas | July 24, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Rob, distribution costs may be near zero *after the content has been digitized*, but don't confuse that with ALL costs being near zero. Licensing, conversion and QC of new books, site and server maintenance and upkeep (negligible for "digital wholesalers", but significant for single-outlet sources), just to name a few. This is why Anderson and Gladwell both missed the mark in their recent public debate over the old "information wants to be free" chestnut.

Posted by: MaxH | July 24, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Separate content from platform. Let the hardware arm sell Kindle's, PR 505's, I-books, etc. and let the content arm sell to all of them.

Right now, it's like cell phones. To have a certain piece of hardware that meets my needs, I'm stuck with that vendor's e-books.

Posted by: harriskern | July 27, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Is this different in some way to, which bought out a while back? I can't say enough good stuff about fictionwise, which seems to have a pretty healthy discount system and prices that occasionally beat used when you add shipping for books that weren't grossly over produced. $9.95 for NYT bestsellers, as you note about hardbacks here, ain't bad either.

So is bn doing a double-pronged ebook store?

And seriously, especially with the press the Kindle unauthorized 1984 issue has gotten (where Amazon ironically erased the book from Kindles without asking. We've always been at war with Eurasia, you know?), it's a lot better to have a DRM'd format that many can crack and you can back up as easily as a text file than to have to use a closed device to read the files.

I always feel reasonably comfortable as long as I own the ability to *copy* the 0s and 1s.

Posted by: WorstSeat | July 29, 2009 1:41 AM | Report abuse

Agree that ebooks could augment their value by taking advantage of computer hardware.

Never mind different fonts, what about colored graphics, embedded videos, interactive maps, music, links to references (an option on some readers now)?

That all publishers can do is spit back the black and white text of paper books shows the complete lack of imagination that has driven the publishing business to the point it is at today.

(choice ebook reader: Palm TX)

Posted by: skshrews | July 30, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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