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At Barnes & Noble, the future is now

Keeping up with the e-reading industry is really cutting into my writing time. But the business and tech geek/reader in me is just fascinated by all the twists and turns in the epic that is digital books. The latest news — the shakeup at Barnes & Noble — is notable because William Lynch, the company’s dot-com president, is now the struggling bookseller’s CEO.

It’s like a metaphor for the cultural shift that is happening with books and the transition to e-reading. Out with the old, in with the new. Lynch’s experience is in online commerce: Before he joined B&N last year, he was at HSN, founded gifts.com, worked at Palm. At 39, he’s relatively young. A quote in the Wall Street Journal by B&N Chairman Leonard Riggio  — brother of the 55-year-old CEO being replaced by Lynch — speaks volumes:

We need someone who has a vision of the new space, somebody who can recruit great people in technology. We have to be more than a retail bookseller.

Now, the Nook doesn’t have the hype of the forthcoming iPad, or even Amazon.com’s Kindle, but in February then-B&N CEO Steve Riggio boasted that the e-reader boosted online sales 67 percent. (Neither Amazon nor B&N releases sales figures for their e-readers, so I’m always skeptical about the claims made by either retailer about their success. Amazon has been touting the success of its Kindle for the longest time, but I bet many, many people out there haven’t even seen one in person.) The Nook has had its problems, including a supply shortage that prevented some consumers from getting their e-readers in time for the holidays. But apparently the shipping delays weren’t a complete disaster: Lynch was the man in charge of the Nook’s rollout, and now he’s No. 1 at the No. 1 bookseller.

Barnes & Noble’s move also reflects how Apple’s iPad has already become a game changer even before consumers get their hands on it. From the furious battles between Amazon and book publishers to the apparent changes upcoming in the Kindle (color screens, just like the iPad!) to both B&N and Amazon making their e-bookstores available to as many people as possible, the tablet cousin of the iPhone has put e-books front and center. Even if there is no immediate clear winner in the industry once the iPad rolls out, e-reading itself has already gotten a huge push toward the mainstream. People are talking about it, and some who previously dismissed electronic readers are now probably seriously considering how the Kindle, iPad or Nook could change the way they live.

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