May 26, 2016

As Waterstones prepares to stop selling ebooks, are we seeing physical books trumping digital?


KindleFrom 14th June, Waterstones, the UK’s largest book retailer, will no longer be selling e-books directly and will instead be partnering with Kobo. Customers will receive emails explaining how to transfer their e-book libraries.

Waterstones was one of the first retailers to move into the digital arena when, in 2008, it started selling Sony e-readers. They later partnered with Amazon to sell the Kindle, but withdrew the product from sale in October 2015.

At the time, the company’s managing director, James Daunt, told The Bookseller:

Sales of Kindles continue to be pitiful so we are taking the display space back in more and more shops. It feels very much like the life of one of those inexplicable bestsellers; one day piles and piles, selling like fury; the next you count your blessings with every sale because it brings you closer to getting it off your shelves forever to make way for something new. Sometimes, of course, they ‘bounce’ but no sign yet of this being the case with Kindles.

So are e-books on the decline? According to the Guardian, e-book sales fell by 1.6% to to £554m in 2015, the first drop recorded in the seven years since the industry body the Publishers Association has been monitoring data. Yet sales of printed books grew by 0.4% to £2.76 billion (about $4 billion American).

However, Amazon itself remains a huge stronghold. The company is famously cagey about reporting any actual sales data, but speaking at the Nielsen BookInsights conference last year, Tim Walker, the president of the Booksellers Association, said (as reported in The Bookseller):

I do a have a concern that Amazon’s dominance is causing problems… We estimate Kindle has a 95% market share of e-book sales in the UK and this is having a damaging effect… Consider the struggles of Barnes & Noble and the Nook platform, the problems of the established Txtr in Germany, and the decision here of Tesco to pull out of Blinkbox Books.

And their hold continues to grow, with their new, recently-launched reader, Kindle Oasis, being called by the Guardian “the best e-reader available at the moment.”

So how to compete with the digital giant? Waterstones deferring to Kobo seems a drop in the vast Amazon-filled ocean at present. But one can take hope from the seeming resurgence of and interest in print books. As Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said to the Guardian“Digital continues to be an incredibly important part of the industry, but it would appear there remains a special place in the consumer’s heart for aesthetic pleasure that printed books can bring.”

It seems Amazon will hold its dominance and print books will continue outselling digital until the next wave of the revolution, which surely has to be a new e-reading device to make reading digital books a more pleasant experience. Or a device that does everything at once—after all, who wants to carry around a phone and a tablet and an e-reader? As the Wall Street Journal reported last year: “It’s not the e-reader that will be driving future books sales, it’s the phone.”

Could they be right? Only time will tell.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.