Named a Best Book of 2011: Englewood Review of Books and Hearts & Minds Books
“I read it in three sittings. Then I read it again. It’s a beautiful book, easily my favorite book on writing since Bird by Bird.”
—author Kimberlee Conway Ireton
By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From May 24, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Saints preserve us, the Bezosian Beelzebub has struck again, this time spinning his stinking seductions, pants on fire, in the High Street, itself.
Publishing’s punditti and free-range bloggers have been on overdrive since Monday, of course, heaving their loudest lamentations back and forth across the Atlantic over the news that the UK bricks-and-mortar bookstore chain Waterstones has made a deal to sell Kindles.
In fact, let’s stop right there, get up, and run around the room for a good 45 to 60 seconds before continuing. Rejoin me here after you’ve taken your Indignation Lap.
OK, good, welcome back.
It’s bad enough for lots of folks to have thought Waterstones was getting cozy with Barnes and Noble about the Nook, only to find that Lucifer’s Own eReader is actually the conquering device.
But what’s worse, the company’s managing director, James Daunt, maybe he was Waterstoned at the time, did this deal with Amazon without calling up each of our commentators first for his or her permission.
Unthinkable cheek! We are beside ourselves. An arrangement to offer handguns for sale in the front windows of the bookseller’s more prominent locations may have gone down much more easily than this blast of blasphemy.
To be sure you catch the acrid air of sheer disgust here, I offer you a round of headlines. Sit well back from your screen, safety first.
Daunt dances with the devil. That’s our good colleague Philip Jones at TheFutureBook, referencing a phrase that has come to rather haunt Daunt — no extra charm for the rhyme. Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December that Daunt was quoted as saying, “Amazon are a ruthless, money-making devil, the consumer’s enemy.”
(Yanks: The Brits refer to companies in the plural. So “Amazon are” to them is “Amazon is” to us. Daunt may have disparaged his future dance partner, but he didn’t mistake a foxtrot for a square dance, as it might seem to US sensibilities.)
Author Nick Harkaway went for the Huston-Eastwood treatment on his first pass, The Unexpected. Then he circled back again — and another thing, damn it — for Day Two, a bit more begrudging, maybe: Waterstones/Amazon: Clever, But Scary.
Even the dean of our commentators, Mike Shatzkin, couldn’t temper the surprise factor, getting out a fast turn headlined Shocking news from the UK: Waterstones selling the Kindle.
You have to love his headline: Waterstones to sell Amazon Kindle in possibly unwise move. May I ever-so-sweetly suggest that we all could take a gentle lesson from Friend Westaway about not overstating what we know in our headlines?
(Mike Cane, my good buddy, I’m talking to you, with your Waterstones Talks Big Then Surrenders To Amazon headline. And your first line: “Here’s a lesson for you, kids. Just STFU or this can be you!” I don’t know why, but the word “intemperate” just keeps coming to mind, crazy, huh?)
Waterstones primarily sells books made of mushy tree, so you’d think it would be less keen on the idea of inviting the all-consuming digital company into its brick-and-mortar shops. I’ve tried to puzzle out a way the move could help Waterstones, but this does feel rather like the three little pigs offering to pay for the wolf’s deep breathing classes.
Thank the Lord somebody in the Sceptered Isle still can do that with the language.
In fact, Westaway goes so far as to offer you the Waterstones video in which James the Reviled tries to say something for himself about his “curious move” (Westaway’s phrase). I’m embedding the tape — with its twinkly love-of-books music, sounds as if Jo Rowling is just around the next stacks — so you can enjoy it for yourself and at least let Daunt plead his case.
The point Westaway is making, however eloquently, is right. Crowning the Waterstone embrace of Amazon’s Kindle “family” is this thing of, as Harkaway puts it, “the goldfish offering to clean the cat’s teeth with his head.”
Remember Borders. Here is Laura Hazard Owen in her own second pass at the story, Why the Waterstones/Amazon deal could hurt Waterstones:
Waterstones’ outsourcing of its digital shopping experience to Amazon is reminiscent of the deal that the now-defunct U.S. bookstore chain Borders made with Amazon in 2001. By the time Borders ended that deal six years later, it had lost years of managing its own digital strategy and placed its customers right in Amazon’s hands. As a former Borders employee told Bloomberg last summer when Borders liquidated its remaining stores, Borders “ended up being a customer-harvesting vehicle for Amazon.”
That question of seemingly handing over the digital customer base of Waterstones to Seattle is, far and away, the most troubling.
Harkaway, in his second-day take on the matter, gets at it this way:
One major issue has begun to loom larger in my thinking …and that is the impact of Waterstones’ dedicated heavy readers converting to dedicated digital readers on Amazon’s platform. The sales those dedicated heavy readers drove will be lost to Waterstones.
But, as Shatzkin points out, in agreement with Owen, there are questions, too, of how the deal benefits Waterstones financially. He writes:
Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch reads the press releases the same way I do and we both get the message that the only ebooks Waterstones will share revenue on are those that are purchased over Waterstones’ in-store wifi network.
And Cader, in that article, Waterstones In “Far-Reaching” Alliance with Amazon to Sell Kindle, gets at something a lot of us noticed — word of the deal came right atop a feature in the Guardian. Here’s Cader:
Having walked into a puff piece over the weekend claiming Waterstones’ digital initiative would be “imminent” and quoting Daunt saying, “We’ll be different from Amazon, and we’ll be better” (while bizarrely implying that publishers are sinister masterminds behind “the semi-corrupt practice” of making books returnable), the Guardian repents today with a headline that reads, “Waterstones Kindle a deal for destruction with Amazon.”
That “deal for destruction” piece is a blog post at the Guardian, from Richard Lea, and freighted, like so many writes on the topic, with opinion. It’s worth noting Lea’s first line, cunningly redolent with the industry! the industry! hysteria:
Monday morning and already it’s the end of the world.
The Guardian’s set piece is from Zoe Wood, the paper’s retail writer, steadier as she goes, in Waterstones deal with Amazon puts Kindle and ebooks instore. You can hardly ask for a more restrained line than this:
Amazon is a controversial player in the book industry with both publishers and retailers complaining that its aggressive pricing is undermining the success of the whole industry.
Wood does get the job done with an important point the more emotional writers tend to overlook, one that helps explain the tenor of the UK reaction to all this:
Last month the Guardian reported that Amazon.co.uk paid no corporation tax on the profits generated by last year’s UK sales of £3.3 billion – and is under investigation by the UK tax authorities.
Never a screamer, Eoin Purcell in Dublin does, at this writing, have two rounds of commentary out on the situation already, yes, but as usual he manages to work in some thoughtful perspective worth taking onboardl. In Thoughts On >> Waterstones & Amazon:
The value of inaction is often underestimated and right now when the ebook retail and distribution space is changing rapidly and requires such a huge investment, this move brings revenue, options but most crucially of all, time to just see what happens while rebuilding the core bookselling business. Impressed by the cojones if nothing else!
As it turns out, a write that’s been favorably commented on by several folks comes from Tim Carmody at the Verge. It’s headlined Amazon’s Kindle deal with Waterstones deflates Nook’s global balloon — hysteria-free, you notice, plus it takes the story a step farther, to make us think, “Oh, yeah, what about Barnes and Noble and the Nook?”
Carmody takes the time to listen to a bit of Daunt-running-the-gauntlet, enough at least to catch and highlight for us this line:
“We had to give the customers what they wanted”
That hits somewhere near home in an industry trying to convince itself that the reader is our customer. So Carmody has gone about getting our attention with an unstated reminder of a newly promulgated principle. Then he reminds us that the Kindle is the reigning ereader at the home office:
Waterstones would effectively have to build the Nook e-reader brand up from scratch…Right now and for the immediate future, Amazon’s Kindle is the best viable candidate.
For its part, Carmody writes, Amazon needs a way to roll out the Kindle family of devices since only the basic Kindle is in widespread use yet in the UK. And Waterstones is a known, home-rule fixture.
Waterstones now becomes Amazon’s friendly British face. That’s well worth a small cut of e-books and e-readers sold inside Waterstones’ shops.
Their story has the bonus of an object lesson in how to write a clean headline: Waterstones strikes deal with Amazon. They quote Daunt:
“Our problem was that the part of the market being served by high-street bookshops is in decline and we have to do something about it…We are in the business of selling reading.”