Lights Flicker on the Nook

Sadly for Barnes & Noble, the people of the book are not necessarily the people of the Nook.

Barnes & Noble hoped to have an e-reader that would compete effectively in a crowded field, but the Nook doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The New York Times today sounded a funeral bell, declaring that “the digital approach that Barnes & Noble has been heavily investing in as its future for the last several years has essentially run its course.” According to the paper, the company will now focus its energies elsewhere.

On the face of it, this is perplexing. Editors at CNET gave the Nook raves, and David Pogue of the Times recommended the Nook over Amazon’s Kindle Fire. But buyers have preferred offerings not only from Amazon but also from Apple, Samsung and Google. “In many ways it is a great product,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester, said of the Nook. “It was a failure of brand, not product.”

Perhaps it was also a failure of marketing. Peter Drucker liked to point out that an ostensibly superior product doesn’t necessarily win the game; marketing does. “The best technical work on the electric light bulb was done not by Thomas Edison but by his British competitor, Sir Joseph Swan,” Drucker wrote in The Age of Discontinuity. “And yet it was Edison’s bulb that won out in the marketplace for the simple reason that, unlike Swan, Edison looked at the market.”

Image credit: David King
Image credit: David King

“Technically,” Drucker added, “Swan’s solution may have been much more elegant, but it just did not fit the expectation, the behavior, the values of the two markets [power companies and homeowners] that had to accept the new product if it was to be economically possible, let alone successful.”

In the case of the Nook, its content seems generally less desirable than what some of Barnes & Noble’s rivals have made available, and the company’s distribution system isn’t as robust as theirs, either.

All of these factors matter. Marketing “is the whole business seen from the point of view of the final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view,” Drucker explained in Management: Tasks, ResponsibilitiesPractices. “Concern and responsibility for marketing must permeate all areas of the enterprise.”

What do you think has gone wrong with the Nook?