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A Quick Word on the Barnes and Noble-DC Comics Kerfuffle

A couple of weeks ago, DC announced that it would sell 100 of its digital graphic novels exclusively through the Kindle Fire. This was breathlessly reported as “another exclusive content deal” for Amazon. In reality, it was more of a PR maneuver by DC—the titles in question are all from DC’s backlist, and the exclusivity agreement lasts only four months. If this news hadn’t had something to do with Amazon’s brand-new buzzed-about minitablet, it would’ve been a non-story.

But Barnes & Noble, quite unwisely, didn’t treat it as a non-story. They felt retribution was needed, so they decided to yank all the paper versions of the pertinent DC titles from shelves in their stores, decreeing that the Kindle-exclusive comics “will not be allowed on Barnes & Noble premises.”

This is crazy. Not just because the deal only lasts four months, or because it’s bad business for a company to act like a petulant child. This is crazy because Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell any digital titles on DC’s backlist. The Kindle exclusivity agreement has no effect on B&N whatsoever, in the same way that the NFL’s exclusive deal with DirecTV has no effect on them. Barnes & Noble is not in the business of broadcasting football games and they are not in the business of selling digital DC comics. In fact, they barely sell digital comics at all, from any publisher.

This was one of my chief complaints with the Nook Color when it debuted almost a year ago. The device seems ideal for comic books, but it took six months for B&N to allow a pitiful handful of old titles to limp onto the Nook Color as individual apps—a purchasing system that manages to be really irritating as well as entirely impractical.

If the new, overhyped “exclusivity deal” was going to affect Barnes & Noble at all, they should’ve taken it as a shot across their bow instead of a declaration of war. They’ve now had almost a year to develop a woefully unrobust platform (and I’m a big fan of the Nook Color), and they’ve done next to nothing for it. You still can’t get The New Yorker on the Nook Color, and I still can’t find the cookbook from the commercial with the embedded videos.

In fact, of the things on my Nook Color wishlist from ten months ago, they have added, legitimately, three features: Goodreads, Evernote, and a note-taking app. That’s well and good, but rolling out those feature without, say, comic books points toward a misunderstanding of the Nook Color’s priorities. Those priorities should be:

1. Content
2. Ease of use
3. Extras (like Goodreads, Evernote, etc.)

The fact that B&N reacted to DC-Kindle deal with such anger suggests to me some very serious problems lurking just out of public view. Barnes & Noble should be building relationships with eager content providers like DC, not burning them down. I have to imagine this reaction is misdirected frustration because the Nook Color isn’t doing as well as they’d hoped (cf. misordered priorities, lack of content).

It should be interesting to see how it plays out, but I’ll be surprised if B&N isn’t already doomed.