We are long-time aficionados of reading e-books. We were doing it long before it was considered the thing to do by the cool kids. We have witnessed the early e-book readers on PDAs, and watched the technology grow to produce dedicated hardware solutions like the Amazon Kindle. Bookseller Barnes & Noble entered the e-book business recently with their purchase of online retailer Fictionwise. It has been busy since the acquisition and recently rolled out its own online e-book shop, in addition to continuing the operation of the eReader and Fictionwise shops. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve Pendergrast, CTO of Fictionwise, to talk about B&N’s plans for e-books going forward.
I should set the background for the interview and explain how Barnes & Noble came to operate three different e-book retailers. Fictionwise has long been one of the biggest e-book retailers, and they purchased competitor eReader. Fictionwise continued to operate both retailers, so B&N acquired both shops with the Fictionwise deal. The eReader platform sells e-books in their own PDB format, showing their Palm roots from the early Peanut Press days. Fictionwise sells e-books in a number of different formats. B&N thus sells e-books in a variety of formats through the three different entities.
I asked Steve to elaborate on the separate retailers, and how B&N intends to operate them going forward. Many current customers are asking if their current relationship will continue. Steve assured me that B&N intends to keep operating Fictionwise and eReader as wholly-owned subsidiaries of B&N. They will both continue operating for the foreseeable future, and B&N has no plans to merge them into the main online shop. The B&N online e-book shop will operate as a third operation in the e-book part of the company business.
The company advises current customers to continue to deal with their retailer of choice. The Fictionwise and eReader online shops have always been independent and will remain so. This means customers can continue to use the e-book reader of choice, although the newly released B&N reader on the iPhone only interacts with the B&N online store. Most importantly, it means that its shops will continue to use the various content formats that are currently used.
Speaking of the reader software, B&N is dedicated to having its content consumable on every major platform. It will continue to provide and improve both the eReader program and the B&N reader. The eReader program is not going away — it is the basis for the B&N reader, as a matter of fact. All features will be enabled on both readers, on every platform. That last phrase is very important, for B&N intends to release its branded reader, currently available on the iPhone and BlackBerry devices, on all platforms that eReader supports.
The eReader program is available for Windows Mobile, iPhone, BlackBerry (12 models supported), Palm OS (the old one), Symbian, Windows and Macs. The B&N reader app will be ported to all of these platforms. Development is underway (both eReader and B&N programs) for Android and the Palm Pre. The eReader program will be updated within the next 60 days to allow online shopping on the main B&N shop, in addition to the Fictionwise and eReader shops. The B&N branded reader will only allow shopping on the main B&N site, to avoid confusing customers not familiar with the other brands.
Any feature present in one of the reader versions will eventually make it into the other versions. The new B&N reader has chapter ticks (show remaining space in the current chapter), for example, that will appear in the next version of eReader to make them consistent.
The company is committed to providing the most flexibility possible to customers, in both the area of the reader and the online store. It emphasizes its goal is to sell content, and giving customers the most options is simply smart business. It firmly believes that restricting the use of their content to one electronic reader, like that “other big retailer”, is a mistake they are not willing to make.
B&N recently announced a deal with electronic manufacturer Plastic Logic to be the exclusive content provider for their electronic reader, expected next year. This device will not be the only way to consume B&N e-book content. Customers will be able to continue to work with all the content formats and software readers currently supported. This fits in with the philosophy to keep their content easily used by customers. B&N will be supporting e-Ink devices as a result of the Plastic Logic reader, and that might mean Sony Reader support.
B&N will have announcements in the coming months that address further innovation in the works. Steve was not in a position to divulge what those announcements might include. He was more than willing to tweak our curiosity, however, by stating that these announcements will show “that mass adoption of e-books is coming.” We can’t wait.
NOTE: This interview was conducted with the CTO of Fictionwise, the e-book retailer purchased by Barnes & Noble. Fictionwise is a wholly-owned subsidiary of B&N and is handling the e-book reader development for them.