Waterstones announced today that they’ve teamed up with Amazon to provide Kindle books in store. This seems to have been met with one of two reactions:
- A mixture of bemusement and horror.
- Utter bemusement.
The reasoning behind reaction 1 is that Waterstones was somehow obliged to stick up for booksellers by either formulating their own device (which by their owm admission they’re about three years late to the party, and this was a s-l-o-w party to get started) or that they’ve taken their 30 pieces of silver from amazon and sacrificed the book industry while they’re still in a position to make a bit of money out of it (although nobody’s sure precisely how Waterstones ever will, aside from a vague suspicion that maybe there’s been some up-front investment from Amazon’s side). The reasoning behind 2, well, that seems to be a mild tendency in publishing to greet everything new with suspicion, naysaying and a quick look at the person next door’s answers.
To be sure, there is something slightly ominous, and slightly baffling, about this announcement. Where’s Waterstones’ revenue going to come from, aside from shifting Kindles at Christmas and to anyone who might have forgotten theirs at the airport? Surely nobody’s that bothered about taking advantage of the Waterstones wifi, when you’re probably right next door to an internet cafe or, I don’t know, have the 3G Kindle? But at the same time, you can’t blame them to want to get on board with the Kindle’s astronomic trajectory, and they certainly won’t do it themselves. If you can’t beat their slightly clunky but reasonably-priced device that nevertheless seems to be doing rather well, why not join it?
No, what gives me that sinking feeling, though, is the idea that Waterstones’ involvement will give the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my digital reading. Because Waterstones certainly doesn’t give me the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my bookshop. Although Daunt’s got rid of the ubiquitous 3 for 2 tables, the books still go through precisely the same filtering process of booksellers, top 10 deals, prize longlists and purchased positioning in the marketplace. Perhaps it was naive, but I had seen ebooks as an antidote to this, and potentially a way of finding peer recommended novels that haven’t had so much money spent on them. Rather than having books aimed at you, their covers clearly forcing an arbitrary decision as to what kind of book this is or isn’t, the nice thing about a Kindle is that all books are equally lacklustre, forcing the writing to shine through. But I expect those Kindle books that are being pushed by Waterstones will be precisely those that are laid out on the tables, positioned front-on on the shelves, and have displays in the window. What’s worse, if we’re now expected to hang around in Waterstones sipping a £3 Costa coffee while we wait for that book that we’ve seen everywhere to download, I for one would rather get down the charity shop and buy myself a well-thumbed paperback I’ve never heard of. And I’m all for e-readers.
Navigating the amazon store on the Kindle is one of the most depressing experiences I’ve ever had – I only tried it once and thought my Kindle was broken or possibly the internet was – and we definitely need some way of sorting through the reams and reams of terrible ebooks there are out there (trade published and self-published alike). I’m pretty sure Waterstones can’t hurt. But I’m equally sure it’s not going to make the e-book marketplace as exciting, as diverse, and as excellent (surely, surely it can be all 3? Diversity in ebooks doesn’t have to mean poorly edited fan fic, however much it feels like it) as it could be. So maybe this is a wake-up call for those of us who complain about Waterstones’ responsibility to the book trade, those of us who are sick of homogenous ‘genre fiction’ or of being told what we want to read, to find a better way.
I feel a manifesto coming on.