So, the biggest news in the book world at the moment is the decision by Waterstones to team up with Amazon and start selling the Kindle e-reader in its shops. No one (certainly not the booksellers who work there) was expecting that. At the same time, The Bookseller reports that owner Alexander Mamut is going to pour ‘tens of millions’ of pounds into shop refurbishment and refits to facilitate the digital experience, including fitting branches with wi-fi and dedicated Kindle areas, where customers can browse electronically and download titles. Presumably Waterstones will get a cut from digital sales bought in-store. If the bookselling and publishing industry have been struggling to find an appropriate response to the challenge posed by the e-revolution, then Waterstones has cut to the chase and employed the old saw – ‘If you can’t beat them … ‘
In the short-term I think this actually makes a lot of sense. For Waterstones to have designed and developed its own-brand e-reader would have been an expensive (very expensive) waste of time, and while Barnes & Noble in the USA has ploughed its resources into the ‘Nook’ e-reader, Britain’s biggest chain bookshop has probably left it too late to try anything similar. It can’t afford to ignore the growing market in e-readers and digital books, and at the same time it lacks the resources to go it alone in chasing the digital pound. Until the proprietary walls have been completely broken down between digital delivery systems, Waterstones’ decision to ally itself with its biggest competitor was probably the best option open to it. Rather than losing sales to digital, Waterstones can now claw a percentage of that money back, and at least the owners of the chain are seriously committed to improvements that, on paper, will make the whole experience seamless for customers.
Long-term, it’s hard to say what this means. It feels like the publishing/bookselling equivalent of two large high street banks deciding to merge, gaining all that attendant power, but destabilising the market at the same time. Monopoly is always the worst option for the customer, and for the industry at large. While Waterstones may have done something to dent Amazon’s monopoly in this one area, in the long term it’s hard to see how the chain bookshop can truly distinguish itself from its monolithic competitor. After all, Amazon’s (perfectly legitimately!) avoided tax bills alone (that’s legitimately avoided, as I want to make absolutely clear) are probably larger than Waterstones annual turnover (and just to reiterate, before I get any menacing legal threats, there’s nothing illegal about tax avoidance, kids). If it proves one thing, it’s that the new owners of Waterstones are not afraid to take large risks, and to back them up with serious investment. It remains to be seen though whether this is a mutually beneficial partnership or a Faustian pact, one that will have serious repercussions for Waterstones, for high street bookselling, and for publishing at large.