Daunting Task to Revive Waterstone’s

Online book retailers Amazon and Waterstone’s have both announced that ebooks are outselling print books. Amazon ebooks for its Kindle device are selling more than all hardbacks and paperbacks combined, not including free downloads. The caveat to this news is that the figures reflect volume, not value. Many Amazon ebook bestsellers sell for US$0.99.

In other news, Waterstone’s has been sold by its embattled parent company HMV for £53 million to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. It’s the latest prized British cultural asset to be sold to a Russian oligarch, following the acquisition by Alexander Lebedev of the Evening Standard and the Independent groups, each of which he acquired holus bolus for £1. Waterstone’s, which has seen overall sales decline 8% in the past three months, has 300 stores across the UK. The new company will be run by James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books, who advocates a customer service-oriented approach to surviving the book retailing downturn, best described as ‘no teenagers in t-shirts’.

The term ‘Russian oligarch’ refers to a group of business tycoons who emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union. Educated, well-connected apparatchiks in the Soviet bureaucracy (often the KGB), they were well primed to take advantage of the fire sale of state assets - particularly in the oil and banking sectors - that occurred under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who was often accused of being their puppet. As president and prime minister, Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent, has battled to rein in the influence of the oligarchs, forcing many of them to expand their horizons abroad. Many have settled in London, which British journalist Nick Watt has called Moscow-on-Thames. Other prominent UK-based oligarchs include Boris Berezovsky and Chelsea supremo Roman Abramovich.

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