Barnes & Noble Weighs Its E-Reader Investment; The company’s underperforming Nook Media division might signal that its substantial investment in its digital future has essentially run its course

February 24, 2013

Barnes & Noble Weighs Its E-Reader Investment

By LESLIE KAUFMAN

Even for a company with a lot of bad news lately, the bulletin from Barnes & Noble this month had an ominous feel.

Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest book chain, warned that when it reports fiscal 2013 third-quarter results on Thursday, losses in its Nook Media division — which includes sales of e-books and devices — will be greater than the year before and that the unit’s revenue for all of fiscal 2013 would be far below projections it gave of $3 billion.

The problem was not so much the extent of the losses, but what the losses might signal: that the digital approach that Barnes & Nobles has been heavily investing in as its future for the last several years has essentially run its course.

A person familiar with Barnes & Nobles’s strategy acknowledged that this quarter, which includes holiday sales, has caused executives to realize the company must move away from its program to engineer and build its own devices and focus more on licensing its content to other device makers.

“They are not completely getting out of the hardware business, but they are going to lean a lot more on the comprehensive digital catalog of content,” said this person, who asked not to be identified discussing corporate strategy.

On Thursday, the person said, the company will emphasize its commitment to intensify partnerships with other tablet producers like Microsoft and Samsung to make deals for content that it controls.

If Barnes & Noble does indeed pull back from building tablets, it would be a 180-degree shift for a company that as late as last year was promoting the Nook as its future. “Had we not launched devices and spent the money we invested in the Nook, investors and analysts would have said, ’Barnes & Noble is crazy, and they’re going to go away,’ ” William Lynch, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview last January.

Since 2009, when Barnes & Noble first decided to invest in building the device, its financial commitment to the division has been substantial. (The company does not disclose exact figures.) At the beginning of 2012, that bet seemed to be paying off and the digital future seemed hopeful.

In May, Microsoft decided to give a cash infusion to the product by pledging more than $600 million to Nook Media. In December, the British textbook publisher Pearson bought a 5 percent stake in the unit for nearly $90 million.

Going into the 2012 Christmas season, the Nook HD, Barnes & Noble’s entrant into the 7-inch and 9-inch tablet market, was winning rave reviews from technology critics who praised its high-quality screen. Editors at CNET called it “a fantastic tablet value” and David Pogue in The New York Times told readers choosing between the Nook HD and Kindle Fire that the Nook “is the one to get.”

But while tablet sales exploded over the Christmas season, Barnes & Noble was not a beneficiary. Buyers preferred Apple devices by a long mile but then went on to buy Samsung, Amazon and Google products before those of Barnes & Noble, according to market analysis by Forrester Research.

“In many ways it is a great product,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester, said of the Nook tablet. “It was a failure of brand, not product.

“The Barnes & Noble brand is just very small,” she added. “It has done a great job at engaging its existing customers but failed to expand their footprint beyond that.”

Others pointed out that even if the Nook itself was a nice device, its offerings were not as rich as that of its rivals. Shaw Wu, a senior analyst at Sterne Agee, a midsize investment bank in San Francisco, said, “It is a very tough space. It is highly competitive, and extras like the depth of apps are very important. But it requires funding and a lot of attention, and Barnes & Noble is competing against companies like Apple and Google, which literally have unlimited resources.”

Horace Dediu, an independent analyst based in Finland who focuses on the mobile industry, said that the difference in quality among the products was so small as to be increasingly irrelevant.

“We’ve moved beyond a game of specs,” he said. “Now it is about your business model, about distribution and economics of scale.”

He said that while the cellphone business used to have numerous competitors, it now has only two companies that are really profitable: Apple and Samsung. He said he expected a similar consolidation in the tablet market, with companies like Barnes & Noble “maybe falling off the map.”

There is no immediate danger to the book retailer, which has some 677 stores nationwide. The company has said it plans to close about 15 unprofitable stores a year and replace them at a much slower rate. It also still holds roughly one quarter of the digital sales of books and more of magazines.

Still, the threat is large enough that Barnes & Noble executives are working hard to determine a strategy that focuses on core strengths like content distribution. Its content is its “crown jewel,” said the person familiar with the company’s strategy, “and where the profitable income stream lies.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: