For a business whose model was thought to be in terminal decline, Waterstones is looking decidedly feisty. Last week the bookseller claimed that sales of Amazon's ebook reader Kindle, which it started selling after a surprise deal in 2012, had 'all but disappeared', but that physical book sales were up 5% in December.
It looks like it's not giving up hope for digital books altogether though. Yesterday it emerged the chain was in exclusive talks with Tesco to snap up its Blinkbox books service as the supermarket looks to offload loss-making assets.
Although neither side would confirm the story, Waterstones' chief exec James Daunt told the FT, 'One of the things we don’t like about digital reading at present is we don’t know what people are reading and how they’re reading. We’re cut out from not just the commercial benefits of selling digital reading but also the knowledge of what our customers are actually reading.'
'Blinkbox is a modern platform that delivers books through an app, so that you can read them on any device that you wish to, excluding of course a Kindle, which is a closed system,' he added. This seems like a clear statement of intent - and another shot at Amazon.
The Kindle does seem like an awkward fit for Waterstones. Though Daunt hailed it as a 'solution to the digital question' at the time, sales of ereaders appear to be plateauing as tablets have boomed. The tie-up also means Waterstones is effectively selling its customers a device to help them buy books more cheaply from a competitor. Buying Blinkbox would give it control over distribution of content.
Daunt, a former banker who also founded his eponymous chain of book stores, took over Waterstones in 2011 after it was sold by HMV to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. As well as spending millions refurbishing the chain's 290 stores, Daunt gave local managers the freedom to run their own stores in a way that would appeal to the local area.
After a long period of making losses the chain expects to break even this year, and if it can make Blinkbox work then who knows, maybe that could even tip over into a profit. Amazon's Jeff Bezos is unlikely to be quaking in his boots, but this could at least be a slice of hope for the bookshop and the British high street.