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Barnes & Noble Mulls Splitting Nook Business And Selling “Dead Tree” Publishing Company

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Two bits of news crossed the wire this morning, neither of them good for traditional publishing. First, Barnes&Noble has reportedly put their publishing arm, Sterling Publishing, up for sale, a company it bought in 2009 for $115 million. Sterling produces puzzle, game, and crafts books for kids and adults. Not as big a deal as it sounds, but it still points to a reduced interest in paper-based sudoku.

Second, B&N is mulling the spin-off of the Nook business, a move that will shelter the burgeoning epub business and, more important, pull it out of the listing ship that is B&N proper. The company reported a loss of $6.6 million this quarter, down about half from last year, but the Nook business has thus far been quite lucrative, leading the company to “pursue strategic exploratory work to separate the NOOK business.”

The Nook generated most of B&N’s online sales for a total of $327 million in revenue, an increase of 43%. Quote a B&N press release, “This increase was driven by continued growth of the NOOK business, offset by a decline in online physical product sales.” All nook sales brought the company $448 million, with an increased potion of that coming through third-party retailers – a point that doesn’t look good for the actual book stores.

In all, they sold 70% more Nook devices over last year.

As much as I want the halcyon days of Raymond Carver sending off his ream of short stories to Gordon Lish in New York to return – the old bear-man sighing contentedly as he finishes his last bottle of gin, burping gently as his eyes caress the waning sunlight falling over the hood of his new hard-won Cadillac as the publishing industry churns in that vast belly of the East Coast Moloch – but let’s be serious. The real money makers – cookbooks and crossword puzzles – are clearly not even making B&N much cash, which suggests that the other publishers who depend on fast-turnaround, low-cost content to support the grand publishing pyramid where The Corrections is supported by sales of Kim Kardashian’s tips to a better marriage, are pretty much sunk.

The long tail is curling up on itself. Books that never would have seen the light of day, full of vampires, florid prose, and covers that look like they were done by a medicated third-grader, are selling like Dickens for 99 cents a pop. Back catalogs are being decimated by digital reprints and even the dream of print on demand is reaching it’s obvious conclusion. There is no such thing as vanity publishing anymore, just writing that is good and writing that is bad. The market then decides.

Pour out a little strong coffee for B&N’s book stores, folks. The captain is disembarking ship.