The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Books nowhere / books somewhere

Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader* has a lot of nice things going for it. But I’m really intrigued by a particular design/software/sales choice that’s gotten less attention than native PDF support or the color touchscreen or even the ability to “lend” e-books to friends.

Barnes & Noble has figured out a way to tie the experience of using the e-reader to the experience of shopping in one of their brick-and-mortar stores. In principle, this could allow B&N to use an electronic marketplace not to substitute for retail shopping, but to augment it (and vice versa). And I think this shows us an alternate way to think about electronic reading than the delivery model that most of us have taken for granted.

Here’s how this is supposed to work:

In any of the chain’s 1,300 stores, consumers can download books on the Wi-Fi network. Outside the stores, consumers will access AT&T’s 3G network to download books…

In an interview, William Lynch, president of Barnes&, said the company would aggressively market the Nook within its bricks and mortar stores. The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.

The promise of the Kindle is that you can buy and read books anywhere at all – that is, nowhere in particular. The Amazon store has no location. You read the books on your screen, and they are technically stored on your device, but effectively, the books are likewise nowhere.

Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is still committed to the idea that books have PLACES, that they are most properly browsed and bought and read in specific locations. They say: yes, you can use your Nook anywhere – but the very best place to use it is in one of our stores. What’s more: as long as you’re in the store, you can read as much of as many books as you want. Just like if you were flipping the pages. That’s huge!

This choice may have been inevitable: B&N had to find some way to leverage its retail chain, the only real advantage it has over players like Amazon or even Sony. They also have customers who are accustomed to coming to their stores, flashing their discount cards, drinking coffee and eating scones in their cafés. For Barnes and Noble, THIS is the natural constituency for their e-readers — not the wandering digital nomads who might buy a Kindle, might buy an iPhone, might buy a PS3, or might blow it all at Newegg, depending on how long they stay online. And B&N can also partner with other businesses — offering its library to readers at Starbucks (or some other coffee chain) or the CTA. Wherever books are read!

If this works — by which I mean, not only that the Nook sells well, but that customers actually take their Nooks into stores to take advantage of these added features, and the wi-fi actually works, and the coupons and ads aren’t out-and-out bothersome, then we’ll have a new way of thinking about the use of electronic readers in all sorts of contexts: libraries, museums, elementary schools, civic centers, college campuses. The content and its delivery become not just user-aware, but location-aware.

Above and beyond Nook’s competition with the Kindle as such, the fact that it actually offers a competing model for use opens things up quite a bit. Let’s see where this goes.

* I don’t like the term e-reader. The phrase I always WANT to use, which is justified nowhere, is reading machine. Is anyone with me?

October 26, 2009 / Uncategorized


So wait, I’ll use my reading machine to read things on my reading machine? Am *I* a reading machine? 😉 (Actually, I’m with you – eBook is a bad name now that I think about it.)

I like this. This reminds me of that Alan Liu thing I blockquoted recently about the new metaphors for reading being about spaces and communities rather than the physical borders that delimit the start and end of texts.

It’s cool the way this also becomes a kind of – dunno’ quite how to say this – but ‘a projected, abstracted community’. When we speak about coffee shops as hubs of community, there’s a metaphor there, a kind of imagined thing radiating out of a centre that draws people in. This sorta’ does something cool with that – i.e. *something* is radiating out and drawing people in, beckoning them to gather around and share stories and ideas. It’s wi-fi, so it’s ethereal and indecipherable until you slip into the space and become a part of it physically – much like the abstract nature of communities as functions of the imagination. If it works, it’s another one of those funny inversions of people’s technophobia – the ‘disappearance’ of the book will bring people together into community.

I have a conflicted relationship with Barnes and Noble b/c it is the perceived enemy of independent book stores like Cody’s (RIP), Vroman’s, Tattered Cover, Mrs. Dalloway’s (newly expanded! So awesome!), Diesel, Rakestraw, etc.. On the other hand, Amazon is their true enemy, and B&N provides things like author readings and bibliophilic staff that Amazon will never provide. They also *brought* bookstores and reading suburbs to the benighted suburbs I was exiled to in my youth, using that sense of place and the luxurious inspiration of big shelves filled with books to ignite a reading culture where I know it had been dormant if not dead. This seems like a way to leverage those advantages. You can imagine signings where you immediately have that book launched on your Nook, in preview mode, and as the author chooses different pages to read from, your Nook immediately goes to that page so you can read along; if you choose to (instantly, no line to buy) purchase the book on your Nook, you can get a poster signed instead. Authors frequently mention other books as they discuss their work–all of those books would be brought up to preview on your nook as well. You can imagine books that only exist in particular stores—there are all kinds of gaming possibilities there.

The killer advantage to me is the ability to lend books, which also makes it a much more social thing.

So yeah, I’m leaning towards being positive about this.

Given that Nook runs Android, can we assume it will be hacked fairly quickly even though B&N has no SDK plan for now? Does that mean sooner or later we’re going to see a “go to the B&N store and download any book you want permanently for free” app? Does the fact that you’re now breaking your Terms of Use contract AND you’re standing in their store add some kind of in-person danger/thrill factor to what would otherwise be standard online piracy? Musings…

Tim Carmody says…

Ooh, yes: shoplifting, right under their nose!

Tim Carmody says…

(the part of me that was, in a past life, a stealer of physical books, thrills at this)

I’m with you though Tim; the in-store features jumped out at me as a nice feature of this reader (as well as Android and the dual display), even though as you say, they were probably inevitable. More musings… I suppose this will lead to the cafe expanding and the physical shelves getting displaced to some extent. I would be really happy to see some kind of electronic version of the “staff picks” where the people who work in the store can post recommendations to the splash screen you get when you log on in-store.

We could be talking about a whole new way to arrange bookstores. Instead of designing stores with the bestsellers upfront, maybe these splash screens Peter mentions could be placed at the entrance, and from there, users could log in and create a personalized Barnes and Noble that would 1) give them digital access to texts anywhere and 2) provide a complimentary mapping for those still interested finding physical texts. I’m envisioning all the stacks pushed to the perimeter of the store–sort of like Blockbuster’s new release walls–only the books would have some intricate categorization system that could be easily navigated from the splash screen or device itself.

Peter, I also like your ideas of the cafe expanding; sounds like the whole establishment could transform from “come buy books at our store” to “come chill at our knowledge center.”

Oh, shit, yeah. Also: instant ability to check whether a physical copy of the book is in stock (plus of course where you can find it in the store!) It’s like you can be your own B&N employee.

Also, this isn’t part of the current Nook functionality, but let’s imagine: the Nook 2.0 can either take a picture of or shoot out a little red scanning bar to read a bar code label. This way, you can be browsing the stacks, and if you find a book you like, you can insta-load it on your Nook — no typing required.

Ami Marie says…

Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there something wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah….the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future…..nevermind!!!

Oh, man, Ami Marie…

Hey, look: here at Snarkmarket, we love printed books so much, we made one ourselves. We love them so much, we write love letters to 16th-century Venetian printers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.

At the same time, reading machines are inevitable — and what’s more, if they’re done well, they will actually save reading, not destroy or diminish it.

And again, remember: not everyone can get to the bookstore to get books, not everyone can hold onto books anymore, not everyone can afford to get their book printed and distributed… And above all, not everything we read is a book! Or a newspaper! Or even a sheet of paper!

We need to make the case for this more often. I’ll try to do that in a post today.

A.Beth says…

Not to mention, not everyone can read a normal-sized-print book anymore. A good electronic book-displaying device (EBDD? Like Ibid, only all-caps?) can adjust the font size to suit one’s eyes. And if one is living in a smaller area, that cannot reasonably contain the metric yardage of shelves one would like to have for one’s books… Electronic books can fit much more easily. (Just have backups, is all.)

Having moved from California to New York to California in 13 months to follow jobs, I am ready to say good bye to my hundreds of pounds and hunderds-of-dollars-in-shipping-fees worth of physical books. I don’t think reading is a particularly favored method for weight control anyway. Unless you’re reading on the treadmill. And who has ever read anything better than Entertainment Weekly on the treadmill?

Sounds like a windfall for AT&T. I wonder how it will compete with Kindle in the long run?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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