Curation, Curation, Curation!
Waterstone's new strategy - to me, anyway - looks to be about curation. It's about local connections, personal relationships, judgements about taste. Instead of chasing the supermarkets down the discount road, paved with three quid copies of the latest would-be successor to Michael Crichton, Waterstone's are going back to their roots: staff will get to pick more books and each shop will be specific to its area.
It's an interesting move, and I think a very good one. It's also interesting because it suggests a way forward for bookshops - and publishers - in the digital era. (Digital era? Really? After, what, ten years it's an era already? I must be losing my grip. But what else to call it? Digital Century? Bleeugh... Anyway...)
Actually, before I go on and explain that, another parenthetical moment: there is no way on the back end of this blog to categorise this post. I've tagged it 'ebooks' but really it's about the crossover between print and digital and what their coexistence will mean, and there's an interesting lesson in the absence of a category for that here. I see digital and print getting treated separately, accounted separately. That's weird. They're tightly bound up, interwoven, and trying to drag them apart is counterproductive. One complements the other. We need to be able to bounce them off one another to get the most for both. Putting them at opposite ends of the room as if they had nothing in common... please don't.
Okay, so: curation. The interesting thing about this from a publishing point of view is that it highlights a possibility I think is really cool: with a couple of exceptions - the Penguin vintage-style editions, SF Masterworks, maybe - books are not publisher-branded. No one outside publishing says, for example, "I think I'll go out and pick up the latest from John Murray today, see what they've got."
But why not? It could work really well. If one were to associate a brand with a particular taste, people would follow the brand, the experience they were comfortable with, and discover new writing, rediscover the backlist, and be loyal to one or more imprints. And curation is one of the things which works really well in the digital environment. The internet is a snowstorm, and most people are looking for a single snowflake. That is, after all, where Google makes its business - in finding stuff.
Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crud. There's money to be made in finding and making accessible the remaining 10%. And that is what Waterstone's, tacitly, are saying they will do here.
To run along side that, they may need a strategy for in-store wireless purchases. Not every branch can carry every book, of course. One of my frustrations with Waterstone's is the speed of ordering books in. It's weird to me (with my consumer hat on) to be told that it will take ten days for a book to arrive. Everyone in the universe knows by now that Amazon will get your stuff to you in two days at the outside. Why would I ever order from Waterstone's, however much I like the people who run my local branch, with that kind of lead time? I might do it out of brand loyalty - except that if I'm ordering books in a slightly inconvenient way for the sake of love, I'll go the extra mile and use my local indy bookshop instead. (The irony of that, of course, is that they're often faster than Amazon.)
However, picture this: I'm in my local branch, and they don't have what I want. I go online from my handheld device, connect to their website, and order the book for delivery to my home the following day, for print-out via Espresso, or even just download the digital edition. I might even pick up the sequel at the same time. If the ebook and the print copy were bundled, I'd almost certainly get both so that I could start reading on my phone and continue on the paper copy when it arrived.
Digital and print in harmony. Nice. And of course, it works for indies, too.
Yes, I know, these two models are in competition with one another. Curated publishing versus digitally enabled curating bookshops. But that's fine, surely. It's not about stamping out competition; it's about making book shopping so damn good that books are on everyone's list all the time.
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