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Mourning the Waterstones that Never Was

Four years ago I predicted that Waterstones were working on an ereader, and since then I’ve looked forward to an integrated nirvana of a bookshop that sold books irrespective of format. But now Waterstones are shutting down their ebook store and handing their customers over to a Kobo. And I’m mourning the lost opportunity.

The ebook market has three major players in my country: Amazon, Apple and Kobo. Apple doesn’t offer ereaders. Kobo is in bed with WHSmith, a high street chain that hasn’t been known for books for at least ten years. That left Amazon with the edge. Unless Waterstones entered the market.

Waterstones is the UK’s biggest high street bookseller. If you’re buying a book in the real world, chances are you’re buying it from Waterstones. I believe they could have had a real edge in the UK ebook market. Humanity is a fan of the one-stop shop. That’s a part of why Amazon is such a success. And Waterstones could have out-done Amazon at its own game.

Here’s where my dream comes in. You wander into a Waterstones. You’re looking for a gift, so you browse the aisles. Ooh, the new Robin Hobb is out. The shelf has a QR code on it, which you can scan with your Waterstones app. Want to buy the ebook? A few taps and it’s in your library. Right, back to this gift. You browse a bit until, aha, this one’s perfect. It looks so good you want a copy for yourself. Get to the till and the staff assistant tells you this is part of a deal; you can get the ebook at half price. Sounds like a great deal. She offers you another code to scan with your phone. Moments later you walk out with a gift and two new ebooks.

This is a scenario off the top of my head; I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be done. But it serves to show that Waterstones could have helped tackle show-rooming (where people browse the shelves and then order from Amazon) as well as offering great deals and convenience to readers.

Now I’m not saying Waterstones could have toppled Amazon; I’m not daft. But Waterstones had the perfect chance to compete and innovate. Instead they paid lip service to an ebook store, sold an incompatible ereader, and wondered why they didn’t see a success.

And it’s the reader who loses out. Less competition equals stagnation. The ebook vs paperback war is nearing an end, and I think it’s safe to say co-existence will be the outcome. The winner of this “war” will be the person who sells that co-existence along with convenience.

Because readers just want to read books.

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