E-readers on the shelves at Waterstone's? Head for the hills, lovers of real books! Do not turn back, lest thee be turned into a pillar of salt.
OK, enough of my mock gravitas and Biblical allusions, though judging by the outrage across the blogosphere this week, many British bibliophiles fear that their beloved hard and paperbacks are doomed by the appearance of Amazon's Kindle e-reader on the shelves of Waterstone's. Or should I write "Waterstones", as the chain recently (and controversially) removed the apostrophe from its name for search engine optimisation purposes, drawing the ire of the Apostrophe Society, which, I have to say, is one of my favourite associations, along with Monty Python's Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things.
Despite the uproar, it's not like Waterstone's - yes, like the Apostrophe Society, I refuse to validate the punctuation obliteration - is new to selling e-books. In fact, electronic versions have been outselling hardbacks four to one on its website for quite some time. The move to introduce the Kindle into stores does, though, represent a volte-face for Waterstone's head honcho James Daunt, who once called Amazon "a ruthless, moneymaking devil."
So what changed Mr. Daunt's anti-Amazon stance? One assumes that, like the chief of any company, he wants to increase profits rather than decrease them. Business basics, right? So perhaps he figures that by bringing Kindle power users into Waterstone's, the chain's employees can engage these potential customers and convince them to make in-store purchases. Rolling out free wi-fi is to each shop will not just attract those who want to download books, but also e-commuters and others who want to use their wi-fi only tablets and laptops in a quiet location. This has worked well for Barnes & Noble in the US, which has also added Starbucks coffee to its list of wares to temp would-be book buyers. There must be some measure of pragmatism behind Daunt's decision.
The next point to consider is the myth that e-books are "bad for authors," as many writers have claimed. In fact, a standard publishing contract in the US entitles an author to between 20 and 25 percent of the sales price, rather than the sliding scale on hardbacks that typically runs between 10 and 12.5 percent. Of course, royalties don't kick in until the individual sells enough copies to balance out whatever advance they received, and the e-book price is typically lower than its hardback equivalent. But still, the royalty amount per copy on a hot title such as Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies - currently £11.99 for the e-book and £11.60 for the hardback on amazon.co.uk - can be greater for the electronic version. And for authors, any unit moved is one more step toward getting into royalty territory and, hopefully, exceeding the publisher's expectations to the point that the next deal will be more lucrative.
Furthermore, the presence of Kindle devices and the ability to download e-books at Waterstone's is not going to dissuade dedicated traditionalists from purchasing a physical copy. True, e-books don't take up shelf space, are more convenient for traveling and make it easy to pinpoint a certain word or phrase. But reading on an electronic device fundamentally alters the relationship between the reader and their books. Yes, you can add "notes" by typing them into the Kindle, iPad or other tablet, or highlight favourite passages, but it's not the same as adding your own hand-scrawled marginalia to a beloved, oft-referred-to volume. And while Amazon and others have enabled digital "lending" for e-books, it will never be a valid substitute for pushing a book into the hands of an unsuspecting friend and telling them, "You have to read this." To say nothing of the cathartic process of wandering aimlessly for an hour among the shelves at a used, independent and, in some cases, chain bookstore, where, heaven forbid, the employees actually know something about what they're selling and can make intelligent suggestions that aren't based on algorithms. Thankfully, the presence of the Kindle at Waterstone's will not remove this particular pleasure for out-of-step, hardback- buying fogies like me, assuming that the chain can avoid the grim fate of Borders.