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
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.