Barnes & Noble Leans on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Barnes & Noble’s financial performance improved this quarter. Could the steamy trilogy be responsible?

Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images

“That wasn’t so bad. I’m more stoic than I thought.” That’s what Ana, the protagonist of the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, thinks to herself after being spanked by her sadomasochistic lover, Christian. Shareholders of Barnes & Noble may be thinking the same thing after the company reported its results on Tuesday.

Barnes & Noble reported a net loss of $41 million in the first quarter. But the results were an improvement over last year. Total revenues were $1.5 billion, up 2.5 percent from the year before. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (a form of operating profit) were an almost-respectable $24 million, compared with a $4 million loss in the first quarter of 2011.

The demise of one of its main bricks-and-mortar competitors, Border’s, certainly helped. People who prefer to purchase books in person, and in paper, now have fewer places to go. Bookstore sales were up 4.6 percent from the year before, and so-called core comparable bookstore sales, which does not include Nooks or Nook accessories, were up 7.6 percent. The company cited “strong sales of the Fifty Shades of Grey series” as one of the reasons for the sales gain.

In addition to selling books, Barnes & Noble sells electronics (i.e., the Nook e-reader), and electronic content (e-books that can be read on the Nook). Overall, revenues from sales of e-readers, e-reader accessories, and digital content were $192 million, which the company described as “essentially flat as compared to last year.” But sales of digital content—books, magazines, newspapers, and apps—jumped 46 percent in the quarter. Translation: electronic devices are a low-margin business in which prices continually fall while electronic content is a growth area.

Indeed, revenues from the sale of the Nook declined. The company pointed out that its new backlit edition of the Nook, the GlowLight, had “production scaling issues ... resulting in unmet demand.” Which is to say that Barnes & Noble wasn’t ready to produce as many of the e-readers as its customers wanted. Losses in the Nook division increased by $6 million from last year’s quarter for two reasons: Barnes & Noble simultaneously cut the price of Nooks while pouring more money into what it hopes will be a profit center in the future.

The earnings report contained one other piece of good news for shareholders. To date, e-books and readers have mostly been an American phenomenon. Of course, the vast majority of people around the world interested in reading reside outside our borders. The company announced that sales of the Nook and e-books will commence in Britain in October. In a few months millions of London commuters will be able to read about the Red Room of Pain on a Barnes & Noble device without their Tube-bound companions noticing.