Barnes and Noble Splits In Two

In their fourth quarter financial report yesterday Barnes & Noble announced it was spinning off its Nook business into a separate, wholly-owned subsidiary. My first thought was, “about time.” Barnes & Noble should have never had the Nook business as apart of its primary business. The only way to disrupt yourself at that size is to run the new business on its own, completely separate from the politics of the primary business, which in B&N’s case is retail book sales. Being an upstart, it is ripe to be squashed. Keeping it separate would have helped, or at least given it a fighting start.

The question is can the Nook business survive on its own? I don’t know. Many people made a bet on e-book readers already and bet Amazon. I did. Because of that decision, I make a concerted effort to buy books for only that device. On top of that, we have a couple of them around here, all linked to the same accounts. If my wife wants to read a book that I’ve read, she can just by downloading it from the Amazon store.

Then I saw this: “Any separation of NOOK Media and Barnes & Noble Retail into two separate public companies …” (emphasis mine). Oh, that’s not good. The Nook business has been blamed for years on dragging down Barnes & Noble’s earnings. It’s been a money loser. Instead of given it room to grow and then go public on its own, Barnes & Noble is attaching an anchor called quarterly filings to it and setting it to sail. I have a hard time seeing how it survives that.

The last remaining piece, of course, is the Barnes & Noble retail stores. Supposedly this is still a profitable business. I’m not surprised. Almost everyone else is gone except a few hold out independents (like Portland’s very own Powell’s). For many many people holding a book in one’s hands is still magic. We have hundreds of books in our house still, even after going mostly digital, although most of them are kids books. e-books don’t really cut it in many cases.

Is that enough to sustain a business? I’m skeptical but I guess we’ll find out. Apple has figured out how to make a physical business survive and thrive in a digital world. Can B&N figure this out, too?