I promise I have an excellent justification for such a terrible pun: this month has been a particularly good one for print publishing. By all reports, we’ve just had the most energetic and productive Frankfurt Book Fair in recent memory; sales figures show physical books holding their own and even growing for the first time in years; reports from The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference and Nielsen have found that children of all ages prefer print; James Daunt is recalling Kindles from all but a handful of Waterstones stores. But let’s stop at that last point – does Waterstones reclaiming its display space for print books represent a victory, or a failure?
Just as a week is a long time in politics, a year is a long time in digital technology. The Kindle has only been in-store since 2012 – I know this, because I, like my colleagues at Waterstones, spent that winter’s lunch breaks frantically swotting up on specs: why was the Paperwhite so special? What should we say to the customer confused about why a Kindle Fire was better than an iPad? Publishing recruiters Atwood Tate recently told The Bookseller that in 2010, there was a rush to put ‘Digital’ in front of industry job titles; by 2013, this went without saying. Now, that quick turnaround in attitudes is going the other way. Just a couple of years ago, it was not fashionable, even in publishing, to herald the coming Age of E. The king is dead; long live the king. After all, no one wants to be the idiot who failed to get on board – much safer to point and shout, ‘This is the future!’ and risk being proved wrong a decade later. Now, though, the print world has started to become cautiously optimistic. But where does the Waterstones announcement fit into this?
For Daunt, the withdrawal of the Kindle was a rational business decision: sales were ‘pitiful’. But as anyone who commutes on the Tube will tell you, the e-reading population hasn’t thrown in the towel. They’re still there, fomenting endless speculation about how many Kindles on the 9am southbound Bakerloo are displaying the ridiculous new gender-swapped version of Twilight. So what does it actually mean that Waterstones hasn’t managed to sell the Kindle? It tells us that the UK’s last remaining chain of high street bookstores has failed to persuade the consumer that taking their advice about e-readers is better than reading the spec yourself on Amazon.
Given my above account of Christmas 2012, perhaps that’s fair enough. Yet that sort of book-tailored service is right up Daunt’s street – his vision for Waterstones is one where each store is staffed with book experts, curating an offering to local tastes and creating a dedicated physical space for book-loving, not just bookselling. This vision is succeeding; Waterstones is no longer on the brink. So I have to assume that the abandonment of the Kindle is a conscious decision to exclude e-readers from that list of reading questions which any bookseller should be able to answer. This isn’t what we’re good at, he’s saying, this isn’t what we know.
So here comes the next question: is this a problem for Waterstones? Some say its failure to integrate digital and print reading/buying experiences will prove a disaster; others insist that it’s perfectly in line with Daunt’s streamlined, focused approach – let Amazon get excited about e-readers, and let us excite our customers about print. I must say, I’m inclined to side with the latter view. E-book sales are strong, but The Bookseller’s 2015 Digital Census has found that the growth is slowing, largely propped up by continued expansion of e-learning and educational resource markets. I think what we’re seeing now is the initially colossal disruption of a wholly new industry settling down into its allotted market. I often think of the Kindle, or e-reader, as publishing’s version of the BluRay player, or the e-cigarette. We’re more or less reaching the point where, in net terms, everyone who’s going to buy one has bought one.
This is worth nuancing, though. Earlier this month, in response to Daunt’s press release, Nielsen Book Research Director Andre Breedt told The Guardian that:
“The physical nature of books has appealed for centuries and is fundamental to their allure. Digital versions have some advantages but, due to their single function, not enough to significantly overturn this.”
I too simply can’t imagine a future without print books – a logical observation, not an emotional denial. But I can’t get on board with the idea that e-books have a ‘single function’. There are so many reasons for wanting to use an e-reader. I myself will always prefer and use print, but I do own a Kindle (battery dead for approximately five years) – it was given to me (I never would have bought one), for use on the obligatory post-Year 13 Interrail trip. Even someone with a library as large as mine has to bow before the wisdom that five weeks’ worth of books aren’t going to fit into one backpack. Due to back problems, I’ve spent a lot of time reading lying on my back – fine when lightly perusing a poetry collection or novella, but not so easy when it’s a 700-page door-stopper on the Ottoman Empire.
There are as many reasons for e-reading as there are reading tastes. I have a clutter-phobic Boyfriend’s-Mother who simply couldn’t bear the thought of the bookshelves continually expanding for the rest of her life. I’ve known grandparents who, very reasonably, want to avoid individually ordering large-print copies of each book. Among my friends are many Font Nazis, whose ultimate digital dream would be a headset allowing them to walk around converting every printed word they saw into Helvetica. I may personally have perfected the art of shoving my book’s spine into fellow commuters’ backs until they accept that, however crowded rush hour might get, I will read my book – but I’m ready to admit it’s much, much easier with a Kindle. And, yes, it’s rather easy to download free things, both genuinely out of copyright and of more dubious origin.
How can this pile of advantages be called a single function? Like the disadvantages of e-books (lack of pagination makes referencing difficult, click-based blurb-browsing is arduous, cookbooks work much better 3D), their importance is conditional. This is because they relate to where we read, how we read, what we read, what we love about reading and what stops us from reading. The challenge of Daunt’s Waterstones is to cater to absolutely all of these variations – he recently told me that he measured the success of Daunt Books by its popularity not with people like him (white, middle-class intellectuals) but with the local cabbies. Ultimately, though, only the consumer – the reader – knows their own reading background, and so it is for them, and them alone, to cultivate their own reading habits, including how they blend, or don’t blend, E and P.
So I don’t see a problem in Waterstones continuing to draw a business line between the two. Yes, this position may end up looking naïve when Amazon’s hegemony boxes itself up into Prime deliveries and eats us all for breakfast. But it’s just as likely to become a bold move in the staking of territory, and the fixing of Waterstones’ identity as authentically specialised – against Amazon’s and everyone else’s overwrought attempts to ‘have it all’.