Alas, Poor Waterstone’s, I Knew Thee Well. The UK’s Biggest Bookstore Shuts The Door On Ebooks.

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The UK’s prestigious Waterstone’s bookstore chain (the British equivalent of B&N for those unfamiliar) has finally called it a day with its token ebook store, and customers have until mid-June to transition to Kobo.

I’ve been with the Waterstone’s ebook store since the beginning. It helped make one of my titles the eleventh bestselling ebook in the UK back in 2011, and while sales hardly compared to Kindle UK, they were well worth having.

That was then. In recent years Waterstone’s sales have dwindled dreadfully (to be fair possibly a reflection of my shift to children’s titles the last two years, which are generally less rewarding as ebooks) and it’s long since become clear the Waterstone’e book store had lost the will to live. Waterstone’s chief James Daunt knows a futile battle when he sees one. I’m just surprised it took this long.

It’s another notch on Amazon’s bedpost. Waterstone’s joins Sony UK, Nook UK, Txtr UK, Tesco Blinkbox and the subscription service Blloon in the Uk ebook graveyard, leaving token players like Hive, Blackwell’s and Lovereading to compete with the bigger stores.

The bigger stores being Amazon Kindle, of course, along with Apple and Google Play. In addition Kobo has both a localized UK store and a partnership with WH Smith.

The other small but significant player is Sainsbury, but no indie access to that store.

Playster is also in the UK with its subscription service. Indies can get into Playster through StreetLib and I’m expecting an announcement from Draft2Digital soon.

Future competition in this sector may come from subscription service Storytel-Mofibo (or whatever it will rename itself in the wake of the merger), and a subscription service with trad pub titles in number may well find a niche to compete with KU.

But safe to say that now, as opposed to if it had happened back in 2011, the closure of Waterstone’s ebooks will make a difference to no-one but the Waterstone’s clients who will be transferred to Kobo.

Alas, poor Waterstone’s ebooks, I knew thee well.

How well?

Back in 2011 my titles were topping the Waterstone’s e-charts and while Kindle was bringing in far more, of course, the Waterstone’s money was not to be sneezed at.

Bear in mind Kindle UK only kicked off in summer 2010 and ebooks were still a novelty and possibly a fad. In early 2011 you could top the Kindle UK charts with just 20,000 sales a month.

James Daunt only took over at Waterstone’s in May 2011, at which time the Waterstone’s ebook store (it still had a sensible apostrophe back then) was ticking over nicely. There was almost zero indies to compete with (I think Waterstone’s was Gardner’s supplied then – OverDrive came later) which meant the handful of indies that were in could do well.

Daunt took over an effectively bankrupt bookstore chain (backed by Russian money) with a token ebook store and rumour kicked off about a B&N Nook partnership. Clearly at that time Daunt was hedging his bets. He even dropped the apostrophe in the name of the store to make it more on-line-friendly.

No-one was sure what way the ebook wind would blow in the UK, but B&N’s straddling physical and digital with the Nook project seemed (back then – hindsight is a wonderful thing) as good a bet as any.

At that time the Waterstone’s store sold iRiver and Sony ebook readers and displayed them quite prominently.

Then came the surprise Kindle partnership – presumably an offer Daunt couldn’t refuse – to pre-empt the Nook partnership. Why Daunt took it is anyone’s guess, but I suspect Daunt understood the long-term conflict that B&N was later to face – that you can’t cannibalize your physical stores by promoting ebooks.

Under the original B&N model that wouldn’t have been an issue, because the ebooks and print books were all from the same supply base. No problem. Ebooks and print books sold in tandem and complemented one another.

The phenomenal rise of self-publishing tipped over that apple-cart, and instead of ebooks complementing the print titles, ebooks began to cannibalize print.

B&N exacerbated the problem with the self-pub portal, making it easier for indies to sell on the Nook platform (back then Smashwords was the only realistic alternative route into Nook).

Daunt possibly had the foresight to see that coming. After all, at least one indie in the Waterstone’s ebook store – no names mentioned – was outselling the biggest names in publishing and was the most searched for brand in store for three months solid.

I was disappointed to see the Waterstone’s ebook project effectively shelved. The store remained open, but hidden, and the Kindle partnership was never taken seriously. Kindle devices were never displayed to their best advantage and staff studiously avoided being helpful when customers asked about them.

From public statements by Daunt in the last year or so it’s clear the ebook store had dwindled to irrelevancy. He was going out of his way to belittle its impact, suggesting the revenue from ebooks wouldn’t buy a coffee at the Waterstone’s Costa coffee bar. Back in 2011 the Waterstone’s royalties I was collecting would have kept me in coffee for a year, and I drink a lot of coffee!

Even allowing for some exaggeration (de-aggeration?) by Daunt, it was clear the Waterstone’s ebook store was not pulling its weight.

How much that was market economics and the obviously powerful impact of the Kindle store, and how much deliberate policy by Daunt, is unclear.

By 2013 it was obvious Daunt had no intention of developing the Waterstone’s ebook store, and by 2015 obvious it was on borrowed time. The only surprise since is that he’s kept the Waterstone’s ebook store open this long.

I suspect Daunt has ideological as well as commercial antipathy towards ebooks, but all credit to him for turning around an all-but bankrupt bookstore chain to the pont where it’s now expanding, showing that print bookstores can thrive in the face of ebook and on-line print sales from a far bigger competitor.

Without the burden of the Nook – a valiant attempt by B&N, but one destined to fail because the two arms cannibalized instead of complementing one another – B&N might be in a far stronger position, as Waterstone’s is in the UK today.

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7 responses to “Alas, Poor Waterstone’s, I Knew Thee Well. The UK’s Biggest Bookstore Shuts The Door On Ebooks.

  1. Pingback: Alas, Poor Waterstone’s, I Knew Thee Well. The UK’s Biggest Bookstore Shuts The Door On Ebooks. – Karen J Aminadra

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    I didn’t know anything about this before seeing this post – so here’s a timely alert thanks to Mark…

  3. A sad day, but a mean attempt to hold its own, a fight that gave value for money. It was a battle lost, but it is as once was said ‘Better to have loved and lost’

  4. There was an article in the papers that the numbers of e-books sold (even over amazon) is stagnating, while the number of real books is on the up. Maybe people are just tired of looking at another display after spending 9 hours of screen-based work?

  5. The only sure thing in this life is change. Sigh. Great article.

  6. So many changes, and often, for authors and readers. I wonder what tomorrow may bring.

  7. Excellent overview and analysis, Mark.
    Many thanks for sharing your insights.
    Laura Taylor

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