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21 May 2012

What the hell is Waterstones doing?

Waterstones makes a deal with "the devil".

By New Statesman

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.

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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.