May 22, 2012

Et tu, Daunt? Waterstones partners with “ruthless, money-making devil” Amazon


A Waterstone's bookseller responds to author Nick Harkaway's shock at the news that the store will sell Kindles

Just last December, it was the talk of not just the UK but New York when James Daunt, legendary London indie bookseller and currently head of chain retailer Waterstones, publicly attacked Amazon as a “ruthless, money-making devil.” As Ellie Robins reported here on MobyLives, Daunt used no uncertain terms in pronouncing Amazon as purely bad news for brick-and-mortar bookstores, and maybe even books themselves. After all, he said, “The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that ‘If you read this, you’ll like that’ — it’s a dismal way to recommend books.” As for the company itself: “They never struck me as being a sort of business in the consumer’s interest.”

Booksellers and publishers cheered. It was refreshing, for God’s sake, for a major player to finally speak out publicly — and with such unstinting clarity — about how dangerous Amazon is to the book ecosystem.

Meanwhile, rumors began circulating that Daunt would soon be announcing a deal with Barnes and Noble to sell the Nook. He was seen as actually taking charge of his position to do some good for the entire trans-Atlantic industry, by both helping to foster healthy competition to Amazon, and shoring up one of the last remaining and desperately-needed volume retailers.

Then, just two days ago, Daunt gave an interview to the Observer, the purpose of which was clearly to plant a build-up to the long-awaited announcement of an e-reader deal — with Barnes & Noble, of course. Daunt left little doubt — as interviewer Robert McCrum describes him:

“We’ll be different from Amazon,” he says, with characteristic ebullience, “and we’ll be better.”

Well, as it turns out there are two things factually incorrect there. For one, “ebullience” is not a characteristic of James Daunt. For another, there will be no difference with Amazon. James Daunt announced yesterday that he had in fact partnered with the company he called the devil.

From Zoe Wood‘s report in the Guardian:

Waterstones has announced a surprise tie-up with Amazon that will enable shoppers to pluck ebooks as well as physical books from its shelves.

The companies did not reveal the terms of the deal, but Waterstones said it was planning a digital revolution in its stores, with Kindle e-readers on sale for the first time and free Wi-Fi, so customers can choose between buying a physical book or downloading it there and then. … Its managing director James Daunt, who once described the website as a “ruthless, money-making devil”, struck a more positive note, calling the new venture an “exciting prospect”.

An exciting prospect, it must be observed, that he surely knew about two days earlier when he misled Robert McCrum.

Was he lying to McCrum? Or do Daunt’s comments belie a weather-beaten conscience, wrestling with itself till the end? Most likely we’ll never know, but thanks at least in part — one can only think — to Daunt’s own earlier elucidations about what made Amazon so dangerous, critics were quick to note the significance, and in some instances, the hypocrisy, of his newest announcement.

In a Wall Street Journal report, for instance, graf two tells us “The deal, which will bring Amazon’s Kindle to all 294 Waterstones shops in September, emphasizes the growing clout of the Seattle-based Internet book giant whose sale of both physical and e-books has made it a major headache for brick-and-mortar bookshops world-wide.”

It fell to Matteo Berlucchi, head of Anobil, an ebook-retailer funded by UK publishers to compete with Amazon, to say what Daunt would have said in December: “It’s very dangerous because you bring the fiercest player in the space into your house. It’s opening the doors to your enemy.”

A report at CNET UK observes “this does feel rather like the three little pigs offering to pay for the wolf’s deep breathing classes.”

Richard Lea, in a smart commentary for the Guardian, agrees, noting that “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.” Meanwhile, he notes, “Writers and agents reacted with incredulity to a deal which seems to do little more for Waterstones than legitimise Amazon’s controversial price-check app.”

The New Statesman’s report says it all in its headline: “What the hell is Waterstones doing?”

But New Statesman reporter Martha Gill also offers the lone theory on why Waterstones went with Amazon instead of B&N: misplaced competition.

The deal might have been a panicked one, motivated by Barnes and Noble’s recent alliance with Microsoft in a $300m venture last month. This was clearly an excellent move for Barnes and Noble, as they have their own e-book reader and through Microsoft immediately recruited millions of customers. By moving onto Microsoft’s turf, Barnes and Noble could only stand to gain.

In contrast, Waterstones, who has no e-book reader of its own, seems to be inviting Amazon to onto their turf. It feels like a bad move.

What’s more, it’s a bad move that will be unmitigated by further deals for devices with other companies — as the  Wall Street Journal report observed, no matter what Daunt is saying, the deal is, de facto if not de jure, exclusive: “Mr. Daunt said the deal with Amazon doesn’t preclude Waterstones from selling other reader devices but he has no plans to offer alternatives. ‘I think our job is to say to our customers, “Here’s the one we think you should use,”‘ he said.”

Well, let’s be glad he doesn’t take that attitude with the books he sells.

Meanwhile, no doubt foreseeing exactly the reaction that has come to pass — as if news reports of shock and outrage weren’t enough, MobyLives got several notes from people in London publishing yesterday calling the development “bizarre” and “disturbing” — Waterstones posted a video statement by Daunt himself, explaining the decision. (See below.) Beyond the fact that he seems to be trying to be the “ebullient” character described by Robert McCrum two days ago, the more striking and perhaps more telling aspect of the video is that it gives off rather the opposite affect — as a terse remark in the reader comments section put it: “he looks like he’s been crying.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives