Can Nook be Saved?

nook tabletsWhen it comes to eBooks, Amazon’s Kindle is the juggernaut. Everything we hear is Kindle, Kindle Prime, KDP, Kindle Select, Kindle Fire, Kindle — well, I’m sure you get the picture. Rarely is Nook mentioned except to report bad news, like the recent less than expected nook device sales. They get a pretty bad rap in the media, garnering a fraction of the attention that Amazon receives. Part of that is the media’s storytelling narrative. After all, few companies can challenge the dual hegemony of Apple and Google in tech and Amazon is one such company. The other part is, well, Barnes & Noble is really vanilla, the tech equivalent of “meh.” And that just doesn’t sell copy.

Personally, I think that’s a real shame. Barnes & Noble is the only large book retail chain still standing. Considering the path of destruction across brick and mortar retail in the last decade, that’s a pretty big deal. Also, Nook is the solid #2 in eBooks, with 25-30% of the market, and slowly climbing (up 6.8% over previous quarter). To put that in smart-phone terms, they are the Samsung of the eBook world. Not a terrible place to be. Their hardware is innovative and of good quality. The original Nook Color was the first 7″ tablet and the best selling Android tablet — by far — of it’s day. The current Nook tablets, HD and HD+, are, hardware wise, extremely competitive with technical merits above the Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, and iPad Mini.

Unfortunately, no one seems to talk about Nook. Unless there’s some bad news.

What can Nook Media, LLC and Barnes & Noble do to turn this around? Here’s what we think Nook should do:

Make the Tablet OS an Option

The Nook tablets are inhibited by a crippled OS and everyone knows it. I realize that Nook recently announced that they would open their app store to allow in-app purchasing, and that helps. But, it isn’t nearly enough IMO. The Nook app store is absolutely anemic, and their difficult path for developer signup doesn’t doesn’t make it better. Will there be a (small) crowd that prefers the simplicity of the Nook OS? Sure, that’s why it should remain an option. But, let’s face it, if a nearly pure Android was offered the Nook tablet brand would be instantly energized. Alternately, their partner Microsoft could offer a Windows 8 install as well. Not in place of Android, but as another option.

Seriously – optional OS! Who else does this? It could revolutionize the entire tablet sector. Crazy talk? Maybe, but it’s already happening with Nook, and it’s foolish to ignore.

The secondary OS infrastructure market for Nook is booming. XDA forums are rife with methods to hack Android onto Nook devices, as is CyanogenMod. N2A offers a $20 flashable Android ROM, no rooting or tech skills necessary, through the microSD slot. B&N should capitalize on this right away and provide in-store OS swapping services for the same $20.

What OS? Besides Windows 8, which Microsoft should demand be available if this route is taken, I recommend the perfect customizable flavor of Android: CyanogenMod. Nook Media, LLC could easily commission a very slightly tailored CM 10.1 build with a light (but removable) B&N wallpaper and skin with the Nook, Netflix, and Hulu apps pre-installed. And, yes, for those wondering, they should also include Google Play (GAPPS) installation during the OS switch, in the same way CM does if you do an install through the root. Why? Because customers want it.

They key here is to give customers a choice. “Would you like Nook, Android or Windows 8 on your tablet, Mrs Nesbitt? Not sure? Feel free to take it home with Nook OS to start. If you want to change it, come back anytime and we can swap it for you right here at the store, it only takes a couple of minutes.”

Overwhelmingly, in interviewing Nook tablet and eReader owners, I’ve learned that they choose the device because they like B&N as a brand. Regardless of the OS, they’re going to stick primarily with Nook books over Kobo or Kindle because they choose to – not because they have to. Give them freedom and see what happens.

Stop Being Stingy with Your API

At ThirdScribe it took us three weeks of continued effort to get access to the B&N/Nook API. Three Weeks! We got access to Amazon’s and GoodRead’s API in three minutes each.

That is Bullsh!t. The entire purpose of an API is to get your product out there. We really wanted Nook in our ecosphere, so we kept at it. Most others don’t. That’s why so many of these book sites are absolutely covered in Amazon – their API is free, fast, easy, and fully featured.

Nook, however, is only free. It is not easy to get and it is not fully featured. Our intended use for the Nook API was to obtain customer reviews. But, guess what, there’s no data there to be pulled. There’s a call for that data, but no actual data available. All of that work, and no payoff. Hence, no Nook review data on ThirdScribe – or anywhere else – in the near future.

If only the Nook API was easy to get, easy to use, and fully featured… Maybe some day.

Empower Affiliates

Just as with the API, getting access to the Nook affiliate program is a total PITA. It didn’t take three weeks, but it did take four days. And, we had to be vetted. We were, in fact, actually denied at first until we gave B&N a look at our private server demo site and convinced them we were a real website.

Compared with Amazon’s streamlined, and open, API and affiliate system, B&N/Nook seems positively archaic. To make matters worse, Nook has no payouts for digital products, like eBooks. I’m glad that Nook is seeing some growth in this sector, but imagine the growth if people could easily link and promote their tablets and books.

Contrast this with Amazons affiliate program, which gave instant access, and it’s not hard to see why Amazon links outnumber Nook links 100 to 1.

Amazon’s affiliate program, probably the most ideal affiliate system on the web, is amazingly intuitive and simple to use. For Affiliate associates, you simply go to Amazon, find the product you want to link to, and click the “Link to this Product” button. It gives you the code and you copy/paste into your site. Done. With Nook, you have to go to a separate site and search. It’s a subtle distinction, but sometimes that extra step is enough to discourage use.

If Nook wants to get out there, they need to make it easy for their evangelists to do so.

Make Things Easy to Find

That is not mobile friendly.

That is not mobile friendly.

The Nook Book website is not that easy to use. It should be, but for some reason it isn’t. What’s the big problem? It’s just not designed to find stuff. And, for those on the web, it’s not even easy to link to stuff, which means authors and book writers have a hard time linking to the book from their sites.

Yes, even the linking of Nook books is difficult, as many independent authors have found to their displeasure. It’s hard to keep constant links to a book in their digital catalog for some reason (Kobo has the same problem, actually). Several have gotten innovative and don’t link to a book, but instead to a search for the book using a unique identifier (ISBN or BNID). Clever, but a real PITA.

I’m sure if those wanting to post links had access to the Nook Affiliate program, they might be able to have a sustainable link, but many are reporting that they have to check and change the links regularly to ensure accuracy. That kinda sucks. So, link stabilization.

But, that’s not enough! The site needs to be optimized for mobile. Seriously – mobile!

The iPad is a huge tablet market, and you can’t buy Nook books through the iPad Nook App because no one wants to give Apple a 30% cut (you can’t buy though Amazon’s app, either). The most convenient way is to put a link on the phone’s screen to the Nook Bookstore and buy through that. But, the Nook Books site is not mobile friendly, which makes using it from an iPhone, iPad, or iPad Mini difficult.

Mobile is not going anywhere. The B&N site needs to be mobile friendly, plain and simple.

Get a New Story

For a company that makes its fortune selling stories, it’s amazing what a poor story they have for themselves.

Instead of comparing yourself to Amazon and tech companies, try telling the world how you can make their lives better. How you’re behind them and in their corner. How B&N is a company that not only serves its customers, but really loves them. You’re not some company in the cloud with remote warehouses, you’re the book store down the street, the cafe they frequent, the place where you can actually meet your favorite author.

Part of this narrative is acting more like a real bookstore and not just a well decorated warehouse of books. The staff needs to be both friendly and intensely knowledgeable. Those curating their genre have to be able to sell someone the exact book they want while making really good recommendations for their next book. The tech department can’t be just sales – they need to be the Apple Genius Bar of tablets and eReaders, capable of providing the device and support that really helps their customers.

In the modern retail landscape, customers are more than revenue – they are the voices telling the story of your brand. Get a new story based around your customers. Do it right, and they’ll tell it for you.

If I was running Nook, these are the steps I’d be actively working on.

How do you feel about Nook? What else do you think they should change? Let us know in the comments or tell us on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter.

About Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine — a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

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