3 Higher Ed Lessons from B&N's Nook Retreat

The importance of knowing the business you are in.

July 11, 2013

The Nook color tablet is dead.  Willam Lynch, the CEO who claimed that Barnes & Noble's is "...a technology company, believe it or not,” is gone.

BN will continue to produce the e-paper version of the Nook, and a BN branded tablet from some other manufacturer may emerge.  What is not clear is why anyone would buy a Nook, as the risk of being stuck with unreadable e-books (or without a modern device to read them on) appear to be unacceptably high.  

What all this will mean for Pearson, which spent $89.5 million for a 5% stake in the Nook Media division, or Microsoft ($300 million for 17%) is also unclear.

David Pogue calls the demise of the Nook Tablet "all bad news", writing:

"People who bought e-books from Barnes & Noble may wind up with libraries they can’t read. Amazon no longer has a competitor to keep it on its toes (and its prices low)."

This is certainly bad news for the education world, as Amazon now has even less incentive to invest resources in providing licensing arrangements that enable academic libraries and programs to offer e-book content to students.  

Pogue writes that "In the end, it may be that all we can salvage from this smoking mess is a lesson or two — although what they might be escapes me at the moment."

I'll offer a few lessons from "this smoking mess" for higher ed:

Lesson 1:  Know What Business You Are In

BN's Nook business was probably doomed the minute that its CEO said “We’re a technology company, believe it or not".   Lynch was confusing the means with the ends.  BN is, and remains, a book seller.   Losing site of the core mission is a sure recipe for disaster.  

In higher ed we are in the teaching and knowledge creation business.  We are no less susceptible than the Lynch and the BN leadership to confuse technology as a goal rather than technology as a lever

This does not mean that we should not invest in and experiment with new modes of education that utilize new technologies.  Only that we should judge the success or failure of the technology against our larger institutional educational goals, and be vigilant in guarding against any investments that distract us from our core mission.
Lesson 2:  Embrace the Physical

BN is a bookstore business that tried to become a technology business. What would happen if BN put all its energy and focus on improving the bookstore? If BN carefully examined each of the 689 brick-and-mortar stores that they own, figuring out what makes one store highly profitable and one store not. They could use this scale to determine best practices, close non-performing locations, and open up new stores in unders-erved but potentially profitable areas.

I've always thought that claims that the days of the residential campus experience are numbered are about as ridiculous as claims that physical bookstores will cease to exist. People like learning and living on a campus, and we like browsing and hanging out at a bookstore.  

Lesson 3:   Focus on Creating (and the Creators)

Just because building their own tablet was a bad idea does not mean that having an e-book strategy does not make sense.  BN should have a strategy for the digital world.  I think a better approach would be invest heavily in developing original content.   Do what Amazon has been doing with the Kindle Singles program, only at a much larger scale.  BN should become a publisher, selling both print and digital books they release at their own properties (bookstores, website), and through Amazon, Apple and every other digital and physical book seller.   

In higher ed we should be doubling down on our faculty.  

We should be investing as much resources as possible in recruiting and supporting our scholar educators.  

When content becomes free, it is necessary to move to a revenue model based on enhancing the relationships and interactions between students and instructors, learners and knowledge creators.

What higher ed lessons do you draw from the BN Nook debacle?

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Joshua Kim

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