Why Is Barnes & Noble Still Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight?

Barnes & Noble is fighting the good fight, as did George Custer, the Light Brigade, and the 1962 New York Mets before them. And like all of those famous losers, B&N is still going down big time.

The bookstore chain has just announced a new publishing platform for the Nook, called Nook Press, intended to compete with the Kindle Direct publishing platform offered by Amazon. If you were a self-publishing author and you could use Kindle Direct, and you can, why would you go anywhere else?

You wouldn't.

Barnes & Noble is locked in a technological arms race with Amazon, which is better funded, much more popular, and is not teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Whatever B&N can spend updating the Nook, or adding new services like this one, Amazon can outspend it. You have to admire B&N for still trying to compete, but it's playing a game it just can't win.

Barnes & Noble owes its continued existence, no matter how perilous and fraught, to three unlikely events. The first is the collapse of its main competitor, Borders, which brought a terrible business model to a failing industry. That business model: sell music in stores when people want it online; sell your online brand to Amazon for $20 million, figuring who'd buy books from a website; and locate in Class B real estate.

The second factor is Fifty Shades of Gray, the publishing equivalent of 11 undocumented factory workers winning the PowerBall, buying the company that employed them, and then dynamiting the factory. In other words, Fifty Shades is a one-off; a publishing phenomenon not likely to be equaled in our lifetimes. And it brought just enough bookbuyers into Barnes & Noble stores to keep them open through the present day.

The third reason why you still have a B&N store near you is that a deal to sell the chain's stores to Liberty Media, which owns QVC, fell through. Otherwise, it would have been books out, tchachkes, jewelry, and makeup in.

Right now, B&N is trying to decide whether and how to split in half. The funny thing (unless you're an investor or an employee) is that it's hard to tell what part is trying to get away from the other part -- whether the Nook part is trying to escape the bookstore side or whether the bookstores are trying to get away from the technology side.

Either way, your heart goes out to the Nook, which is trying to do everything right. Keep up technologically with the Kindle. Create a clean, well-lighted place for self-publishing authors. But at the end of the day, B&N is bringing a knife to a gunfight. Why? Because, sad to say, these days, a knife is all it can afford.