Amazon launched Kindle Fire last week, a tablet competitor to the iPad. Poor old Waterstone’s: is this the last nail in its coffin?
Kindle’s technology means that books can be bought instantly, many of them for 99p and £1.99 instead of the £20 you might pay for a hardback in Waterstone’s. And the fact that the new $199 Kindle is in colour means that users can browse magazines and picture books, giving booksellers yet another reason to worry.
Waterstone’s, the UK’s largest chain of book shops, has experienced similar woes to the US’ Barnes and Noble, losing out to online sellers and supermarkets. New Waterstone’s boss James Daunt acknowledges that Amazon is tough competition but asks: “Why wouldn’t you want to spend half an hour in a really nice bookshop?” His plan is to turn the 300-strong fleet of stores into a collection of friendly, local venues in which readers can comfortably browse and buy.
The idea has merit. Of course people don’t want to go to another identikit Waterstone’s in Leeds or Birmingham or Manchester. Foyles had the idea of the ‘destination event’ bookshop long ago and its overhaul saw it win bookseller of the year for 2010, among other gongs.
But can chummy staff and a frapuccino work for such a large chain? The job to pull Waterstones’ stores up to standard is a big one in itself, but to do it in so many locations with such tough competition is mammoth. And even those who love browsing through bookshops have to admit that it is much simpler to ping a request through cyberspace to get the latest read sent to them for a fraction of the cost.
Recent reports from UK publishers suggest digital book sales now account for around 9-10% of their overall book sales compared to 4-5% last year. That still leaves 90% of the book market sold as actual books.
There are takers out there for the ‘book buying’ experience. Daunt has to find a way of get them through his doors, and fast.