Or: Why I think Waterstones has lost the plot
Amazon has launched its UK Kindle store with a predictable blare of publicity. The new UK device will cost £149 with WiFi and 3G, or £109 with WiFi only, which compares very well with the cost of other readers – Sony’s Reader Pocket is £124 at WH Smith, and of course has no Wifi or 3G. I already have a reader, though, so what interested me was the price of the books, and whether or not the arrival of Amazon will make the UK’s eBook stores buck up their act (and both WH Smiths and Waterstones could do with whole new sites, frankly).
Since buying my Sony PRS505, I’ve bought thirty seven books for it from Waterstones; now, I know there are other places out there, and that’s the great thing about ePub – you can (unless you’re using an iPad) buy your books from a range of stores. But Waterstones is the site that Sony pushes their customers towards, it’s a known name on the High Street and I suspect it’s one of the highest profile eBook sellers in the country.
Anyway, between May 2005 and Jun 2010, I’ve bought 37 books from Waterstones in ePub format, costing me £208.65. How much would it cost me to buy those on a Kindle, I wondered. So I popped along to Amazon’s UK Kindle store, armed with a list of the books I’ve bought.
Big savings, and a death wish
The headline figure: I could buy the same collection of books that I’ve bought, right now, from the UK Kindle store for £163.60. Now, the astute amongst you will see that that’s actually a saving of around £45 for shopping at Amazon, so how did I come up with the headline of this post, claiming a Kindle is a year of eBooks from Waterstones?
The price I quoted is what I spent, so the prices relate to how much a book cost at the time I bought it. What, I wondered, if I were starting out with eBooks, and wanted to buy everything from scratch, today?
You might think that, with the biggest name in the eBook business opening up shop in the UK, Waterstones would be striving to protect their business and, perhaps, being just a little bit competitive, wouldn’t you? I’d certainly do something if a big competitor was moving onto my turf.
But the thing I probably, almost certainly, wouldn’t do is put my prices up. Yet that seems to be what Waterstones has done. If I bought the same collection of books now, it would cost me £239.59, or thirty quid more than I’ve spent over the last year. In fact, it’s a bit worse than that; one of the books is no longer listed on the Waterstones site, so in all the other comparisons from here onwards, I’ll remove that book, and we’re now looking at a selection of just thirty six.
For those thirty six books, then, my original cost was £203.39. The price I’d pay to get them from Waterstones now has gone up by £36.20, to £239.59, which is about 18% more.
Meanwhile, those same thirty six books would cost me £158.97 on from Amazon, a saving of £80.62. Still not quite the cost of a Kindle, but I’ve not given up on paper books entirely yet, and probably still buy around a dozen or so a year from the Stoke Newington Bookshop. If those paper books were also replaced by electronic ones, I’m pretty confident that the saving from all my book buying in a year, by using Amazon rather than Waterstones, would amount – at the very least – to the cost of the WiFi edition of the UK Kindle.
Essentially, if you buy a lot of eBooks (say 40-50 a year) from Waterstones, even if you already have a Sony Reader, it’ll probably cost no more, and likely be cheaper, to switch to Amazon and stump up the cost of the new Kindle too.
What the hell are Waterstones playing at?
Buying elsewhere, and VAT
Of course, one of the things about ePub (except on iPad) is that you can buy from elsewhere, and there are other bookstores. The other High Street name that’s involved in selling eBooks in the UK right now is WH Smith, and so I did the same comparison on their website. The same selection of thirty six books would cost me £205.61 from WH Smith, which is a little more than I paid originally, but £33.98 cheaper than buying from Waterstones now. That still leaves Amazon about £47 cheaper, though.
One thing to note is that eBooks are subject to VAT. As far as I can tell – neither the online receipts nor the email versions from Waterstones list the VAT rate charged, which I’m pretty sure is against the regulations – Waterstones charges UK VAT. That means that all those books I bought in 2009 had VAT at 15%, while those I’ve bought this year have it at 17.5%; so have I been unfair in accusing Waterstones of a price hike?
I went back to the figures, and readjusted the price of all the books, as if there had been 17.5% VAT on them. That made the adjusted total for Waterstones £205.56, around £2 more. In other words, the change in VAT has had no significant impact on the prices. Even after allowing for the VAT increase, the price of the thirty six books I bought from Waterstones has gone up by £34.03 since I started buying them, in May 2009.
There are – and I intend to write something later in the week – many objections people have to the Kindle business model, or simply to the idea of a large foreign-owned company coming in and cleaning up the market.
But, frankly, when the UK book stores aren’t competing, and one of them seems to be actually putting up the prices of eBooks in the face of Amazon’s arrival, they deserve everything they get, and the public deserve much better service.
Note: some of the links in this article use my Amazon Associates id. Not that I’ve ever made any money from it, but I thought I should make that clear.