There was a time when Barnes and Noble was the big bad wolf of bookselling. Higher volume, lower margins, deep corporate pockets, and wholesale leverage gave it pricing advantage over smaller chains and independents. Middlebrow anxiety was so high that we got a Nora Ephron movie out of it.
Now, Barnes and Noble is fighting the good fight against Amazon as the last real competition to its retail dominance. The Amazon versus indie bookstore war gets most of the press and makes for more compelling drama, but it is BN’s resistance to Amazon’s hegemony that will shape the near- and medium- term future of bookselling.
For readers, Amazon doesn’t need to lose the ebook war, but it cannot win. At present, Amazon has about 2/3rds of the ebook market and Barnes and Noble has about 25%, with iTunes, Google, and Kobo left with the scraps. Barnes and Noble’s Nook has gained some ground against Amazon, but at significant cost; it is still unclear if the Nook can offer the Kindle the kind of competition that will benefit readers–competition on DRM, pricing, title selection, and accessibility.
For those of us who buy ebooks, the biggest impact we can have here is to buy our ebooks from Barnes and Noble. This isn’t a moral choice, but a practical one. If we want to avoid having our digital reading lives shaped by Amazon and Amazon alone, we have to support someone who can serve as a check on it. And at this moment, that’s Barnes and Noble.
Even those of us who do our damnedest to support local bookstores should consider buying, at least ebooks, from Barnes and Noble. As they say, the enemy of our enemy is our friend.