Waterstones’ decision to stop selling the Kindle says more about shops than e-readers

Person reading a Kindle

The bookshop Waterstones is ending its sales of the Kindle, citing its “pitiful sales”. A big noise is being made about this, with some analysts heralding the resurgence of the physical book.

Douglas McCabe from Enders Analysis has gone as far as to say, “The e-reader may turn out to be one of the shortest-lived consumer technology categories.”

But it is surely wrong to read too much into the Waterstones decision. After all, why would anyone go to a shop — rather than Amazon — to buy a Kindle?

The articles covering this story contain a graph showing the sales of digital books continuing to edge up each year. Meanwhile sales of physical books are falling at a more-or-less equal rate.

Physical book sales may have increased at the start of 2015. But it’s too early to say that this is a reversal of the long-term trend rather than a blip.

Waterstonesq.jpg

Instead, the move says more about Waterstones than it does about the Kindle.

I should point out that I am quite a fan of Waterstones, at least as a place to browse for books. Meanwhile, I do not own a Kindle, and I read very little in the way of ebooks.

I have always remained a fan of the physical. I never stopped buying books. I have a huge pile of CDs waiting to be unwrapped and listened to. Even if it is trendy now to talk about the analogue revolution, the truth is that many people have always maintained a relationship with physical media.

Some people mistake the digital revolution as being a wholesale shift to doing everything digitally. But think about that for a second and you realise the absurdity of it. We all live in the real world.

The music industry freaked out when people started downloading music (after decades of consumers being overcharged for CDs and records). But after some bumps, they found their way to survival by focusing more on live performances and upping the quality of the physical products.

In the same way, physical books will always have their place. And despite the gentle downward trend, revenues from the sales of physical books still completely dwarf those of ebooks.

That is why it has always puzzled me why Waterstones dedicated so much floorspace to Kindles. My local branch has had huge area at the front of the shop that I have honestly never seen a customer in.

Kindles may be about reading, but at the end of the day they are still an electronic device. People wouldn’t think to visit Waterstones to buy electrical goods any more than they would go to B&Q to look for clothes.

HMV, Kirkgate, Wakefield (10th March 2013 - photo by Mtaylor848

It reminds me of the time HMV (the former owners of Waterstones) freaked out about declining music sales. In response, they dedicated what felt like three quarters of their floorspace to headphones, tacky iPod accessories and various other items of ephemeral junk.

Meanwhile, the CDs were condensed onto a tiny shelf at the back. You had to practically go on a safari expedition to find them.

HMV had become the music shop that made it difficult for people to buy music. No wonder their sales plummeted to the point where they had to go into administration.

By focusing on what they know best — selling music — HMV has made a recovery. It now makes more in physical music sales than Amazon does.

But you’ll notice that the digital revolution has continued unabated in the music world. That’s because for most people, it isn’t an either–or situation. We all use a mixture of physical and digital products. Both will exist.

Waterstones is discovering that just now. But we can’t pretend that the removal of Kindles from their bookshelves signals anything significant about the popularity of Kindles. All it tells us is that a physical shop is the wrong place to try to sell a digital product.

E-readers are likely to be here to stay. As is Waterstones. And so they both should.

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