Barnes & Noble: Subs up 150 Percent Since Xmas

You won’t be able to get any real sense of the economics from this but Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) just released some stats about subscription and single-copy sales driven by the NookColor. B&N has sold more than 650,000 subs and single copies of some 120 magazines and newspapers through its NookNewsstand, including 150 percent more subscriptions since Christmas than it did in the previous 12 months. So why doesn’t that tell you anything about the real money or how meaningful the numbers are?

A few reasons:

— The company isn’t explaining the split between single-copy and subscriptions. It also isn’t including the churn for subscriptions, which can happen faster in the digital world as people figure out what their shiny new toy does best or realize how much money they’ve committed to spending.

— It’s impossible to tell from the outside how many of the sales were driven by promotions and what kind of conversion rate they might have. For instance, B&N has been running a promo offering a free $5 gift card after purchase of a subscription or single copy. (That covers the cost of at least one single copy in most cases.)

— We don’t know the proportion of price points or the mix of titles. The top mag titles are Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Maxim, Star, O, the Oprah Magazine, Food Network Magazine, Women’s Health and Shape. USA TODAY, The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) and The Wall Street Journal.

Then there’s the actual experience. While I have no doubt some users are enjoying seeing glossy mags on a lovely 7″ color screen, I’ve tried a number of titles on a review unit of the NookColor and it is not the Newsstand of Eden. Reading the Rolling Stones cover story on John Lennon that way took much of the pleasure out it. Martha Stewart on the NookColor compared with the company’s special iPad edition was high-end fast food versus gourmet. It all looks very good. But reading the articles requires an “article” view and the pages, while accessible, don’t really scale yet.

Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) makes no pretenses about the Kindle. If you read magazines and newspapers on it, it’s 99 percent about the text (though the greyscale art is getting better). The iPad doesn’t have a newsstand solution — yet — or subscriptions — and it isn’t aimed at people who want paperback-sized dedicated devices.

The NookColor experience will get better. It may take blowing up the idea of “replica” interactive publications and going completely custom for the device. In the release about the numbers, Jonathan Shar, VP & GM for the digital newsstand, promises more interactivity this year.