Barnes & Noble Puts Sterling Publishing Up For Sale

Barnes & Noble Nook - PR image - P -2011

UPDATED: The retailer drops asset in an effort to transition into the digital book business, primarily through its Nook products.

Barnes & Noble has put Sterling Publishing up for sale, almost 10 years after acquiring the company, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The paper cited sources confirming the Sterling sale, which underscores the bookstore chain's concentration on becoming a leader in digital publishing. Barnes & Noble acquired the New York City-based publisher -- whose imprints span nonfiction to children’s books to self-help -- in 2003 for about $115 million; back then, Sterling had a list of 4,500 titles published. 

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On Thursday, Barnes & Noble reported that holiday sales for its digital Nook devices had increased 70 percent over the same nine-week period last year. It also said digital content purchases, including books and web apps, grew 113 percent over that same period.

Meanwhile, given those results, the company said it might spin off its Nook business.

"We see substantial value in what we’ve built with our NOOK business in only two years, and we believe it’s the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value,” said William Lynch, Chief Executive Officer of Barnes & Noble. 

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"In NOOK, we’ve established one of the world’s best retail platforms for the sale of digital copyright content," Lynch continued. "We have a large and growing installed base of millions of satisfied customers buying digital content from us, and we have a NOOK business that’s growing rapidly year-over-year and should be approximately $1.5 billion in comparable sales this fiscal year."

Even so, Barnes & Noble's stock took a hit following news of the possible Nook spin-off and the company's holiday sales updated. As of 10 a.m. EST, the stock was down 23.4 percent at $10.38.

John Malone's Liberty Media holds a stake in Barnes & Noble. The bookseller, confronting competition from in a new Kindle era, is attempting to make itself over as a purveyor of e-reader products including Pubit, which allow authors to easily self-publish their own books and collect royalties. (According to reports, Apple will soon unveil a new self-publishing service in New York City to compete with the increasingly popular Pubit and Amazon's version, Kindle Direct Publishing.)

In November, Barnes & Noble launched its Nook tablet to compete with Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle Fire.

Peter Wahlstrom, a senior analyst at Morningstar Equity Research, told The New York Times that Sterling, whose sales do not appear in Barnes & Noble’s public filings, was not a crucial part of Barnes & Noble's business agenda.

"They probably don’t have the time to dedicate the resources to it or they’ve got bigger fish to fry," Wahlstrom said in an interview with The Times. “They need to be very careful where they’re spending their money, and I don’t think they’re seeing the benefits of owning a publishing business.”