The Nameless Horror

Would the last bookseller out please turn off the lights?

So apparently, Waterstones has decided that capitulation is the only honourable choice, that or the chain’s upper management have been smoking some really rocking shit. The details are yet to be released, but from the sounds of the arrangement, Waterstones and Amazon will have a deal whereby you can buy books via your Kindle in-store from Amazon, presumably allowing Waterstones an affiliate percentage (or vice versa) for arranging the sale.

[Quick edit to add: unless they really are expecting you to purchase a specific Waterstones-labelled ereader and shop on that (presumably for those who’ve not yet taken the software/hardware plunge). In which case, well, everything below will only happen the quicker..]

I appreciate, in all seriousness, that MD James Daunt is “selling reading”, and that this is an attempt to keep his chain (and bookselling in general) relevant in a digital age by offering, effectively, what Amazon is exceedingly poor at - “curation”, presenting to the customer things they might want that they never knew existed and making it easy to find good stuff.

But - and I’m not the only one by any chalk to think similar things - given that ebook sales are rapidly overtaking print (albeit print, especially for big, colourful non-fic - photo and fashion books, some types of text books, etc. etc., though the iPad-only ibooks will and are making inroads here too - won’t die out completely), and given that you have to sustain massive amounts of very expensive town centre real estate and staffing costs, it seems insane, totally, utterly, insane, to say: “Sure, we’ll accept only making x% on what we would’ve had from the dwindling print sales to feed from a growing portion of electronic ones that are, nevertheless, cutting our existing sales base off at the knees, while you work on figuring out how to better curate your own content so we won’t be needed, and in the meantime we’ll make it seem more ordinary to buy via your hardware until we exist only as a sort of vestigial showroom storefront, commercially and financially fucked, while you kick on into the future.”

Obviously my own opinion is showing through there. I doubt anyone actually said that when Bezos invited Daunt to the Death Star and told him to turn or be destroyed, but I imagine that will turn out to be more or less the gist of the deal.

Waterstones isn’t B&N, it doesn’t have its own hardware and ebook storefront known across the land and beyond as the Other Place to buy books. It’s sold the Sony ereader for a few years (though I’ve never noticed much push for a matching online storefront, however much I’m sure that one exists), and presumably that experiment tanked. The management - and if, as that profile of Daunt suggests, he’s kept most stores open and encouraged, in a few at least, a return to the more independent buying habits of the pre-hub days, he’s to be applauded - clearly see the future as being primarily digital. It’s just a shame that they seem to have settled for slowly turning the company into something between a living museum and a UK customer service front end for Amazon while all the money-making happens out the back in the parent organisation’s HQ inside a hollowed-out volcano. Shaped like a skull.

"I’m selling reading," says Daunt, who shares my view that, from many perspectives, this is a golden age for the consumer. "We have to insinuate ourselves into the process, and we have to be seamless." On closer examination, "seamless" turns out to mean persuading Waterstones customers to choose an e-reader (and ebooks) through a Waterstones-sponsored device. Daunt won’t say when this will happen – "it’s the bit we have to get right" – but it’s imminent. "We’ll be different from Amazon," he says, with characteristic ebullience, "and we’ll be better."

Huh. I see.

I call the people who say such things the Gutenbourgeois. They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them. They say: “We gave away all those short stories on our website but it sold no books.” Or: “We built a promo site for our famous author who does the crime novels and it was just a total boondoggle with no traffic.” Or: “The magazine can’t get enough pageviews, even after we hired the famous blogger. Now management wants to make people pay for access.”

“Look,” I say, “maybe you’re doing it wrong.”

“But,” they say, “we tweet.”

That’s when I tell them about the fundamental question of the web.

Aidan: I’m going to be really smart for the wedding.

Me: I know, mate. We’ve got your suit all ready for you.

Aidan: … But if I go to another wedding, I’m going to dress really smart. I’ll wear jeans, and a jumper, and a top, and trainers that are black and yellow, and socks with advertizements on them. Do you know what ‘advertizements’ are?

Me: What are they?

Aidan: They’re pictures of town halls. I’m going to be so smart.

Aidan, men’s formal wear expert.