In July 2008 when Waterstones revealed that it planned to stock Sony’s e-book device the Sony Reader in its stores, The Bookseller described the decision as “a bold one”. Almost 10 years on, I wonder what happened to that boldness. This month Waterstones announced its exit from the e-book market and although there’s no surprise in this—Waterstones may have been first into the waters, but Amazon was the stronger swimmer— nevertheless it feels final. And, understandable though it is, also regrettable.
Eight years is a long time in this business, not least for Waterstones, which looked down and almost out before it was acquired by Russian businessman Alexander Mamut in 2011, who appointed James Daunt to rescue it. Even so, that there is now no home-grown challenger to Amazon’s digital might is disappointing. It may seem ironic but Waterstones, even under the digitally reticent Daunt, was probably our last, and best hope. Daunt is right to say that the chain was unable to sell e-books well enough for them to warrant a place in its offer, but 276 stores and 3,000 booksellers remain a potent weapon for selling content across more than one channel and, dare I say it, in more than one format. Booksellers should be pushing to be at the forefront
of the new reading and, for all the sensible reasons why they are not, the e-book market would be a better place if they were.
That said, publishers will be sanguine about Waterstones’ decision. When the chain briefly flirted with acquiring Tesco’s e-book platform Blinkbox Books they counselled against it, fearing that the move would distract management, as it did at US chain Barnes & Noble when it took on the Kindle. As our Lead Story on the e-book market, based on an Enders Analysis report, demonstrates, high street bookshops are fundamental to how this business develops and crucial to the status quo. More importantly, as e-book publisher Michael Bhaskar argues in his article on curation, the skills that have got the industry this far—selection, editing, judicious stocking—will serve the sector well as it looks to a future where anyone can publish, but not everyone will curate.
That, at least, is the theory, and it’s a pretty good one. The problem I have with all this is a niggling suspicion that the future as we imagine it today is curiously similar to the present; and actually, when I look back at The Bookseller of 2008, the future we imagined for ourselves then was also curiously similar to the world as it was then. Did we think back then that Amazon would grow so dominant? That e-books would be sold for 20p? Or that self-publishing would be such a large threat to publishers? Disruptive change by its very nature surprises. Incumbent beware.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.