It came as a surprise a couple of months ago when pre-eminent UK bookstore chain Waterstones announced it would be entering a partnership with Amazon to sell Kindles. Now that the shock has worn off, Publishing Perspectives reports, a number of UK publishers and bookstores are speaking out (mostly anonymously on the publishers’ part, of course) about it.
The consensus among publishers tends to be backhanded admiration of how shrewd the deal is for Waterstones, while at the same time recognizing it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the industry. One publisher compares it to “Vichy France,” with Waterstones as the conquered French who can “continue living as French people, but they just happen to have a major empire that’s parked up next to them.” Another notes that it buys Waterstones a little more time, and suggests Amazon might be interested in buying the bookstore chain if its owner “gets tired of losing money” (though it’s an open question whether the UK’s Office of Fair Trading would allow such a purchase).
UK’s independent bookstores also express concern that this will make it even harder for them to compete, and that it accentuates the need for them to have a credible e-book solution of their own. (Which they are working on, as a recent meeting of the UK Booksellers Association to present three such solutions shows.)
At The Bookshop in Kibworth, Leicestershire, Debbie James said: “As a business owner, I think it’s crazy to get into bed with a competitor whose scruples you’ve been known to doubt so vigorously. I do understand that bricks and mortar shops need to provide a service when customers want e-books, but to align oneself with such a competitor is absurd. If his motivation is customer service, he would stock all e-readers.”
Waterstones is going to continue selling its own EPUB books as well as Kindle titles, though strangely enough the Kindle titles the store sells will only have a 3% value-added tax, because they’re sold via Amazon’s European HQ in Luxembourg, while Waterstones’s own EPUB titles will have UK’s 20% VAT. And the Kindle titles may well be priced lower to start with.
The interesting thing to me is that the deal really doesn’t have a US equivalent—there’s no major American chain of bookstores that is also carrying the Kindle. Both Barnes & Noble and Books a Million have the Nook, and the late lamented Borders had the Kobo. Amazon has plenty of physical outlets for the Kindle now—mostly big-box retail stores—but they’re not bookstores. Of course, the US has a pretty big head start on e-book adoption, and Amazon was able to achieve dominance here without any other bookstore’s help. From the point of view of pushing the Kindle’s adoption in the UK, getting into Waterstones is a pretty shrewd move on Amazon’s part as well.