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Waterstones makes deal to sell the Amazon Kindle, dismaying many

May 23, 2012 |  2:50 pm

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British bookstore chain Waterstones announced Monday that it would soon sell Amazon's Kindles in its stores. The news was met with dismay from almost all quarters of the publishing industry.

That's partly because Waterstones' chief executive, James Daunt, had been a vocal critic of Amazon and its tactics. In December, Daunt called the company "a ruthless, money-making devil." In the announcement, he said, "It is a truly exciting prospect to harness also the respective strengths of Waterstones and Amazon to provide a dramatically better digital reading experience for our customers. The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop." That's quite a turnaround.

Reactions were swift and strong. At the Guardian, Richard Lea wrote that what Daunt had done was "welcome a ravening tiger into his living room." "[T]his shot at the e-book market seems to be aimed directly at Waterstone's own foot," wrote Martha Gill at the New Statesman. The Bookseller's Philip Downer pointed out that "the opportunity to create an independent online business, benefitting from HMV firepower and leading one day to an ebook solution, was lost." The headline at the English Gizmodo site read, "Waterstones Surrenders to the Amazon Ebook Behemoth and Agrees to Stock Kindles."

Many American observers, including GigaOm's Laura Hazard Owen, recalled a hauntingly similar deal between Amazon and Borders. Back in 2001, when Borders was a major brick-and-mortar bookseller on par with Barnes & Noble (remember that?), it cut a deal with Amazon, letting Jeff Bezos' company handle Borders' online book sales. That six-year deal left Borders tragically behind when it came to the Internet, and was part of the bookseller's decline and eventual bankruptcy.

Although most see Waterstone's choice to sell Amazon's Kindle as a bad idea, a few think it may have some merit. "Some commentators have likened the deal to Neville Chamberlain's infamous pact with Nazi Germany," writes Philip Jones at Futurebook, "but it feels more like Dunkirk. A strategic retreat: allowing the business to refocus its efforts on those fronts where it can continue to fight on."

At the Verge, Tim Carmody takes a moment to look at the deal from Amazon's point of view: "For Amazon, the long-term strategy is much clearer. This is about eliminating real and potential e-book competitors by sucking out all the oxygen in the room." And that, for those who would like Amazon to have a little e-book competition, is the rub.

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Harry Potter e-books to join Amazon's Kindle lending library

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An American shopper tries out a Kindle at Best Buy. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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