The ebook retailing business consists of three elements: hardware, content, and selling model. Dedicated e-readers (think eInk devices) are losing momentum to tablets. Content is mostly quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions, or "paper under glass", if you will. The typical selling model is to buy one ebook at a time. Pretty simple. And not a whole lot of innovation happening in any of the three areas by the major players.
Recently there's been speculation that B&N is about to ditch the hardware part of their Nook business and focus instead on content and licensing. If true, that's probably the wisest thing I've heard from Riggio & Co. in a long time. Hardware has been, and will increasingly become more of, a fool's game for B&N.
They can't possibly steal Apple's mojo, so why try? I'll bet more people are reading B&N ebooks on an iPad or iPhone than they are on the Nook tablets.
On the Amazon side, B&N simply doesn't have deep enough pockets to lose money on both hardware and ebooks as long as Bezos can, so it's time to cut bait. Plus, Amazon's goal is to turn the Kindle Fire into a gateway for purchasing much, much more than ebooks. Amazon has a significantly larger product catalog outside of books, so Amazon can afford to lose money on the device if they make it up on the sale of electronics and other goods B&N doesn't sell.
So if B&N completely gets out of the hardware business what can they do to compete in the ebook world? Think app functionality, reader experience, and content sales model.
Today's e-reader apps have pretty much the same functionality as yesterday's. There's basically no innovation happening with the user experience in any of these apps, whether they come from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.
Now is the time for B&N to shift all those resources they have in hardware onto the team that develops their Nook apps. What features are customers asking for? More importantly, what features have readers never even envisioned but would love to have? Channel Steve Jobs. We were all pretty content with our MP3 players back in 2000 and then in 2001 the iPod hit the scene. What a game-changer. What will be the "iPod moment" for e-reading apps?
And while they're working on that, be bold and work with publishers to develop some genre-specific, all-you-can-eat, ebook subscription programs. Romance is a good place to start but look at other verticals as well. What kind of package would compel customers to pay a subscription rate of $5 or $10 per month? They'll need to find the publishers who are willing to experiment here but that's why you focus on just one genre to start and build a success story to create others down the road.
At the end of the day B&N should continue to let Apple, Google, et al, distribute their Nook apps. They don't need to lose any more money selling devices that are viewed as commodities. They should instead focus on dramatically changing the reading experience and content acquisition model. After all, once hardware is eliminated, those are the only two other elements of ebook retailing that matter.