Brand Wars: Bookmageddon.

A recent article in the July 29 August 4, 2013 Business Week about the trauma at Barnes and Noble got me thinking about the retail book business. Few categories have gone through as many changes as this one.

Call it the Amazon effect coupled with the Kindle then the Ipad effect coupled with the expansion of access to digitized content coupled with the growth of e-books. All these forces taken together have reshaped consumer reading habits. It has been the bookselling equivalent of the Perfect Storm.

The preliminary victims of Amazon were the bricks and mortar retailers, but next, in the things you read category, were newspapers and magazines. The neat trick of Amazon was to build an international brand that started with books, but quickly morphed into a staggering array of consumer products. It was the way a brand could be built in cyberspace and stretched over a number of product categories by offering a great buying experience, plus developing the almost limitless ability to track and measure real live purchase behavior. My guess is any other ways of building a brand the size of Amazon would have cost more than a fleet of F-16s.

Next the Kindle-and their early mover advantages- made e-bookery widely available and the Ipad made it cool affecting the sales of the late-to-the-party Nook and continuing the assault on hard cover books. The newspaper and magazine businesses were sent into tailspins and raced to build web presences.

There was a lot more that happened. Sound like a disaster? It could have been one of biblical proportions, except for two unusual shifts. Meredith Publishing showed that taking their digitized content and pivoting into e-zines essentially put their feet in both worlds. Publishers felt that maybe there was an audience for e-book readers and dipped their toes in the e-waters

And even more amazing, the portion of Barnes and Noble’s business that both turned a profit in FY 2012 and so far this year was their brick and mortar stores. The losses on the Nook almost sank the ship creating a “Nook-lear” disaster. Sorry.

What gives? Well, it appears that enough people still read hard cover books to support the book retailer that can pick the best locations and offer device choices for customers. Maybe it is the tactile allure of a book or newspaper that is a large part of the reading experience. And besides, aren’t there still people who (gasp!) want to curl up with a tangible book than with a computer? Some probably do both.

Even though the long term jury is still out on all the winners and losers, there is evidence that brick and mortar book retailers can find a profitable, albeit smaller niche and Amazon will, of course, be able to sell hard back books.

And in a move that would have been considered ludicrous a decade ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is buying The Washington Post….a fortune that started with technology that made books cheaper via the Internet is being spent on a traditional newspaper that broke the news on Watergate.