What the hell is Waterstones doing?

Waterstones makes a deal with "the devil".

Why is Waterstones MD James Daunt, who once described Amazon as "a ruthless money-making devil",  joining with said devil in a massive deal?

The bookstore is now going to sell Amazon's Kindle, and "launch other Kindle digital services", refurbishing its stores with digital areas where readers can sit and browse.

Waterstones is yet to fully explain the move, simply saying that:

"The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop."

But this shot at the e-book market seems to be aimed directly at Waterstone's own foot. Why invite the e-book into one of the few nooks which paper books still occupy? One of the pleasures of buying physical books is mooching around a bookshop, browsing, as opposed to the more prosaic digital experience. It might also be noted that Waterstones is doing away with the demographic who continue to buy from them simply because they haven't yet stumbled across e-books.

The deal remains wrapped in mystery. The day before it was announced, an interview with Daunt ran in the Guardian, in which he said Waterstones would soon be joining the e-book revolution, but oddly, that this would involve:

 ...persuading Waterstones customers to choose an e-reader (and ebooks) through a Waterstones-sponsored device. Daunt won't say when this will happen – "it's the bit we have to get right" – but it's imminent. "We'll be different from Amazon," he says, with characteristic ebullience, "and we'll be better."

What's going on?

The deal might have been a panicked one, motivated by Barnes and Noble's recent alliance with Microsoft in a $300m venture last month. This was clearly an excellent move for Barnes and Noble, as they have their own e-book reader and through Microsoft immediately recruited millions of customers. By moving onto Microsoft's turf, Barnes and Noble could only stand to gain.

In contrast, Waterstones, who has no e-book reader of its own, seems to be inviting Amazon to onto their turf. It feels like a bad move.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.