Is Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) late to the e-book party or simply early for its wake?

The bookstore chain is spending at least $15.7 million to buy Fictionwise, the parent company of and eReader bills itself as "the world's largest eBook store" while eBookwise markets a namesake e-book reading device.

Fictionwise is different from's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle storefront. Its eReader store markets books -- typically free of any digital rights management protection -- across various devices. Letting readers use everything from netbooks to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone to dedicated e-book readers, it's a far cry from Amazon's closed ecosystem. Kindle titles only work on Amazon's device (even though the company is clearly expanding its reach these days with the debut on the App Store Wednesday).

The real mystery here is where Barnes & Noble is heading with this.

"Barnes & Noble said it plans to use Fictionwise as part of its overall digital strategy, which includes the launch of an e-Bookstore later this year," it says in the press release.

Good luck with that, B&N.

The chain's allure in its superstore format is clear. It's an inviting place with cozy chairs and aromatic coffee. What makes the chain think it can stand out in cyberspace? Borders (NYSE:BGP) thought it had a good thing going when it teamed up with Sony (NYSE:SNE) to market the Sony Reader three years ago. Only a glutton would pull up a stock quote on Borders these days.

Barnes & Noble is more prolific, of course. It also has had fair success with its online store and launched the Wikipedia-esque Quamut last year.

I still see the company tiptoeing quietly into this market. Digital delivery is a great idea for a long-distance merchant like Amazon, but the last thing Barnes & Noble wants to do is cannibalize sales by convincing booklovers to stay home.

This may not be a deal made reluctantly, but I'll call it a half-hearted one until I see Barnes & Noble truly throw its weight behind the e-book market. If the company's timetable is honest, I guess I only have to wait a few more months before reading that particular chapter.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz bought his Kindle back in May. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.