I really thought I knew what today would be like, and then this happened.
I did not, I suppose, really believe that Waterstones would pull a fully-formed Amazon-competitor from its inside pocket and slap it down on the counter with a High Noon sort of vibe. I may have thought the chain was thinking of a deal with Microsoft and B&N for Nook. I suppose Waterstones might have teamed with Kobo or swallowed Cooler or even found some kind of odd common ground with Google or Apple.
I did not see this one coming, at all.
And now that I see it, I cannot imagine how it can possibly be a good idea. It seems more like a declaration of intent to be assimilated. Amazon's aggressive tactics regarding other sorts of items - "go window-shop in physical shops, then order online" - combined with their cuththroat pricing seem to me to make them a perilous pal for a bricks'n'mortar store at the best of times, and these are not those times. I don't even have to be sceptical about Jeff Bezos' assertion of love for books to feel that way - I'm sure he is passionate about bookselling Amazon-style, and while Amazon's heft alarms my commentator side, the sheer volume of books it moves to consumers excites my authorial admiration - I just think that even if Amazon were actively trying to prop Waterstones up, this partnership would run the risk of the online giant rolling over in its sleep and smothering its bedmate.
Less fancifully, I'm not sure that the commercial logic of Amazon's existence can hold off from harming the de facto competition which is Waterstones. Amazon's entire existence is predicated on economies of scale and taking advantage of not having shops to pay for. It is, as we know, an "utterly, utterly ruthless" entity. By dint of this deal, it gets a legitimate shop window in a place where books are more expensive than they are online.
James Daunt is a smart guy. He has no doubt thought of all this and feels he has strong answers. I hope they're the right answers. Maybe the deal is good enough that the Amazon tie-in will support the chain long enough to get it on its feet and find a new identity; maybe there are clever ways of using the deal to increase the number of people coming through bricks'n'mortar shops, and once they're in, they'll buy. If so, nice footwork! But it's a high wire act, for sure.
I have to confess I am also just blazingly disappointed that there isn't an interesting new thread of competition coming out of Waterstones' self-reinvention. I really want to see some distinctive ebook developments coming out of non tech-giant caves, presenting a different model and kicking up a ruckus. This surely is not that. I had a vision of in-store wireless, deals and bundles, branded ereader software, ultra low-cost ereader tech with just-enough functionality... blah blah.
As someone said to me on Twitter just now: "Welcome to the puzzled club."
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