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Barnes & Noble Beats Amazon Down to Zero

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"The days of the subsidized Kindle -- perhaps even down to zero -- may be on the way," I wrote two years ago. "If The New York Times were to offer two years of prepaid service with a free Kindle included, wouldn't it take e-readers to a whole new level?"

Well, I was early and got the wrong e-reader, but we've finally hit the age of publisher-subsidized e-readers.

Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) is offering its $99 Nook Simple Touch for free to bibliophiles willing to pay $19.99 a month for a year's subscription to New York Times' (NYSE: NYT  ) namesake digital paper.

I know what you're thinking. Paying $240 for a year of a digital newspaper sounds like an expensive way to get a $99 e-reader for free.

It can even get more costly.

"After the initial year, your New York Times subscription will automatically continue at the then current price, which you can cancel at anytime, without penalty."

Yes, if you forget to cancel after those first 12 months, the digital reads and monthly bills will keep coming. How many deal seekers will forget their Nook anniversaries a year from now? However, what about the folks that will actually want to keep paying? New York Times is going to hook a lot of digital readers who have told their paperboys to get off their lawn.

Subsidization station
There are no official details on who is picking up the tab here. New York Times would normally be expected to pick up most -- if not all -- of the tab for the Nook, but the bookseller is also rightfully motivated to give the newspaper giant some kind of break here. Just last week Barnes & Noble blamed sluggish sales of its entry-level e-reader as a reason for hosing down its guidance.

In other words, it's a convenient deal. New York Times wants to pump its online circulation, and Barnes & Noble has e-readers collecting dust. The offer is also available as a $100 discount for those seeking to buy the $199 Nook Color.

Buyers angling for the richer features of the $249 Nook Tablet are also in luck if they're into paparazzi and celebrity news. A deal with Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) People magazine slashes $50 off that price -- essentially matching's (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Kindle Fire -- for buyers willing to pay $9.99 a month for a full year of that magazine's digital edition.

"The only way to make a dent in Amazon -- or Sony for that matter -- is to create tablets so cheap that newspaper companies can subsidize the costs by sending them out to their willing subscribers." I wrote four years ago, when Amazon and Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) were the only two household names in the e-reader market. The Nook and iPad were still far away from becoming public realities.

I guess I nailed that one.

Your move, Bezos
The only shock here is why Amazon didn't beat Barnes & Noble to the punch. It has seen the prices of its entry-level Kindles go from $399 to $79, so it had to know that publisher subsidization was an eventual reality with every passing price cut.

The New York Times has been its top-selling newspaper since the Kindle's debut ahead of the 2007 holiday shopping season.

Knowing this makes it more than likely that Barnes & Noble is taking a bigger hit here than one would expect. After all, why would New York Times subsidize a $99 Nook Simple Touch before swallowing down the more popular and cheaper $79 Kindle as an incentive to drum up digital subscriptions?

In shocking investors by targeting a deficit this fiscal year of $1.40 a share -- more than double the red ink that investors were expecting -- Barnes & Noble pointed to "additional investments in growing the NOOK business" as a drag on its bottom line. Advertising and international expansion were explicitly mentioned, but taking a hit in cahoots with a major daily would also fall under this category.

Amazon will need to respond. Booklovers don't care about the math behind the scenes to make this freebie work. They're not breaking down who is paying what in the subsidization process. All they see now are free Nooks if they're fans of the widely read daily and cheaper tablets if they're a People person.

Amazon finally has someone hungrier and clearly more desperate to get its e-reader into the hands of users willing to spend on digital media. Amazon can always wait until Barnes & Noble implodes financially, but it can't risk the Nook eating into its market share.

It's time to turn the digital page. The next chapter should be a good one.

The popularity of e-readers, smartphones, and tablets opens the door for some surprising Wall Street beneficiaries. Read up on three hidden winners in a free report. If you wait for the report to show up on your Nook, you may be too late to the party, so check it out now.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the other stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (2)

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  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2012, at 5:50 PM, Popnfresh100 wrote:

    "After all, why would New York Times subsidize a $99 Nook Simple Touch before swallowing down the more popular and cheaper $79 Kindle as an incentive to drum up digital subscriptions?"

    In part, because the $79 Kindle already comes with ads.

    But perhaps more importantly, because Amazon has just burned too many bridges. Between publicly screwing over suppliers (m-edge, affiliates in tax disputes), publicly competing with suppliers (ADP), and publicly arguing with suppliers (Agency pricing dispute). I'm not sure why any company would voluntarily favor them at this point.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2012, at 6:12 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    ^^ I'm not sure either, but as a newly minted Kindle user, I can tell you why consumers would. It's simple, painless, and a joy to use. I got one for Christmas and haven't set it down.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2012, at 6:57 PM, constructive wrote:

    "Amazon finally has someone hungrier and clearly more desperate to get its e-reader into the hands of users willing to spend on digital media. Amazon can always wait until Barnes & Noble implodes financially, but it can't risk the Nook eating into its market share."

    This article has a reactive, short term view which is the complete opposite of how Bezos thinks.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2012, at 10:12 PM, kthup wrote:

    He actually quotes himself twice in this one. Good job, Shaq. Since you will surely be retiring now on your riches, having the crystal clear vision for the future that is your gift, I suppose this will be the last we will hear from you!! The rest of us will just wait here, and hope that someday, somehow, another prophet will rise up to guide us to wealth, as you have guided yourself. Farewell, and as you sip your umbrella drinks in the Carribean, tip generously, sir! Remember that if only the barkeeps had your foresight they would be reclining next to you!

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2012, at 2:28 PM, Popnfresh100 wrote:

    "This article has a reactive, short term view which is the complete opposite of how Bezos thinks."

    You mean completely the opposite of how Bezos CLAIMS to think.

    He swore up and down he wouldn't do a "me-too" touchscreen, but when Barnes and Noble had a successful one, ME TOO!

    What Amazon- and Amazon's investors- need to realize is that the razor-and-blade business is perfect for Barnes and Noble, because it allows them to:

    1. Use stores to promote digital sales simply by promoting hardware distribution

    2. Eliminate Amazon's "first mover" advantage by making existing customers a liability (I want a new cheap Kindle too) rather than an asset.

    3. Eliminate Amazon's sales tax advantage as ebooks are not taxed in the first place, but hardware is.

    4. Turning Amazon's "electronics" segment against them. traditional ecommerce business has four core product categories- books, cds, dvds, and electronics. Three of those categories are already being disrupted by digital distribution. By selling hardware at a loss, that disruption extends to the fourth.

    If Amazon starts seeing losses in their gigantic core business, then digital won't even matter. They can't fall back on their coffee shop.

    Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, has no exposure to the electronics industry other than the nook itself.

    Amazon needs to focus on doing the opposite- decoupling ebook and hardware sales as much as possible.

  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2012, at 10:43 AM, sepaton wrote:

    Rick the author (blogger) is quite full of himself here, and at the same time taking great liberties to frame this smart and proactive Barnes & Noble move in a negative light. Your observation 4-years ago was apparent to many so don't get too proud of yourself. The premise of partnering to get the device cost to zero has played itself out successfully for decades... razors, diabetic readers, cellphones, digital radio, etc.

  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2012, at 10:49 AM, sepaton wrote:

    Rick..., one other thing.

    My prediction is that Amazon will be bankrupt within 4-years following the loss of their sales tax advantage.

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