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Shock horror announcement

28 May 2012

That’s not putting too strongly the chorus of disapproval which greeted the surprise announcement from James Daunt of Waterstones that he had agreed an alliance with Amazon which would see Waterstones selling Kindles in their shops and providing wi-fi acess so that customers can browse the shop’s stock and then order ebooks on their Kindles.

Just last Sunday Daunt was assuring the Observer that Waterstones would "insinuate ourselves into the [digital] process", by persuading their customers to choose an e-reader sponsored by the company, and buy e-books to read on it. But the anticipated deal with Barnes & Noble on the Nook was not to be, and maybe Daunt simply concluded that Waterstones, already trying to make a go of its second attempt to sell books online, was never going to have much impact on the internet or with ebooks.

His view now seems to be that "Digital is very much an adjunct to the reading of physical books. They in no way replace the pleasure from having a bookshelf at home, and the tactile experience of reading a physical book. This will complement and strengthen the traditional attributes of the bookshops to which the company remains fundamentally committed."

Nevertheless, many commentators have seen this as the equivalent of putting your head into the lion’s mouth. Richard Lea of the Guardian said: "The risk that Waterstones runs is that by welcoming its greatest rival onto the high street it puts Amazon's device into the hands of its most committed customers." Why encourage them to defect to Amazon when it is already tempting enough for them to do so because of Amazon’s convenience and low prices?

Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at Profile, said: ’It will mean more e-books sales in the short term but in the long term it is cutting competition out in the market for e-books and e-readers. You cannot deny it will be a concern to publishers that this deal will hand even more power to Amazon in the market – it consolidates the Kindle as the number one e-reading device in the UK."

John Walsh of the Independent said: "It's still a matter of wide regret to see the digital future of British publishing handed over to a Godzilla-sized monster which would like nothing better than to put it out of business – or keep it simply as a colourful showcase of goods behind its cyberspatial-sales monopoly."

Nick Clee of Bookbrunch expressed the view that: "The deal will consolidate Amazon's position as the dominant ebook retailer, in part at Waterstones' expense. Amazon has attained this position by creating a proprietory format that locks customers into buying from its store. As the Amazon store is by far the best, customers have not minded the arrangement. The hope for Waterstones and others is that this proprietory approach will go out of fashion. There may well come a time when readers decide that they would prefer ebook devices and stores that offered choice. If they do, they will loosen Amazon's market dominance."

Mike Shatzkin in his famous blog the Shatzkin Files wrote: "It is hard to escape the conclusion that this arrangement will accelerate the British public’s move to ebook reading and, at the same time, strengthen what is already the strongest book retailing platform. Amazon’s commanding share of the online print market and their share of ebooks can only rise from the commanding levels (often referred to as 90%, but I don’t know if that’s accurate) they now hold."

He added that Waterstones’ claims that they will be both be growing their online print business and delivering their own ebook store might indeed be sincere, but they are almost impossible to take seriously.

It has been an astonishing turn of events and many observers are left feeling even gloomier about the future of terrestrial bookselling in the UK, because Waterstones, inevitably an important part of that, now seems to have joined forces with its biggest competitor.