Barnes & Noble pulls comics over exclusive Kindle deal

Bookstore yanks physical titles after DC Comics offers digital versions exclusively to Amazon's Kindle. Analyst says move a sign e-book market competition heating up and hitting new level of maturity.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

In response to DC Comics' exclusive deal with Amazon to sell digital versions of a hundred of its graphic novels, Barnes & Noble has ceased selling physical copies of the same titles from its stores. One analyst said this is a sign that the digital content and bookstore market has reached a new level of maturity, where players now compete against each other rather than collectively against brick-and-mortar shops.

The exclusivity battle that has been going on in traditional retail where stores compete with one another to stock premium brands is now happening to online bookstores, where comics are arguably premium brands, according to Phil Hassey, founder of Sydney-based research firm CapioIT.

Online bookstores competing with each other is a sign of market maturity, he told ZDNet Asia Monday in a phone interview. In the past, it had always been "us against them", he pointed out, referring to online stores versus traditional brick-and-mortar ones.

"Instead of building awareness [of online bookstores and digital books], it is now about controlling market share."

After launching its new range of competitively-priced Kindle readers and the Kindle Fire tablet in late September, Amazon last week announced its deal with DC Entertainment, parent company of DC Comics, to sell digital versions of 100 of DC's graphic novels exclusively on the Kindle platform, according to The LA Times. Among the titles included were Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Sandmen and Watchmen.

The partnership gives DC's comics, made available digitally for the first time, the advantage of being part of Amazon's huge marketing push for the Kindle Fire, said the report.

"We're thrilled to work with the leader in digital books to bring many of the world's most beloved and best-selling graphic novels to Kindle readers," Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, said in a statement.

Linking physical books with their digital versions, Barnes & Noble responded last Friday, saying it will remove all physical copies of the Kindle-exclusive titles from its brick-and-mortar storefronts. It said it had a policy to not put books that are available on other digital platforms--but not its Nook e-reader--in its 1,341 stores, LA Times reported.

"We will not stock physical books in our stores if we are not offered the available digital format," its chief merchant Jaime Carey said in a statement. "To sell and promote the physical book in our store showrooms and not have the ebook available for sale would undermine our promise to Barnes & Noble customers to make available any book, anywhere, anytime."

DC Entertainment replied in a statement it was "disappointed that Barnes & Noble has made the decision to remove these books off their shelves".

Hassey said Barnes & Noble's move is "right and necessary" from their point of view, because it's in their best business interest. The company may be under pressure to ensure they are making the right moves in the digital realm, particularly after the collapse of Borders and other physical storefronts, the analyst explained.

That said, though online retailers fighting with each other in what looks like a tussle for digital content, content providers are unlikely to have the last laugh--just like how a "food producer is at the mercy of a major supermarket chain", he added.

Content providers or small publishers will think twice about how they carry out their business and signing exclusive deals, because "power belongs to the online booksellers" which are the ones in between them and consumers, said Hassey.

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