When B&N was acquired by a venture capital firm last year, and James Daunt named CEO, many feared that he would shutter B&N struggling digital division. Daunt was seen as anti-ebook, after all, and Waterstones ebook sales certainly did not thrive under his leadership (in fact, since Waterstones’ Overdrive-powered ebookstore was closed way back in 2016, the bookseller had no ebook sales).
The Bookseller published an interview of Daunt on Friday where he said:
He also referenced the US e-book operation Nook, part of Barnes & Noble. “Evidently it has been helped by the pandemic, but things have turned around for Nook. The perception that I am anti-e-books is wrong. I am very in favour of them if I can sell them, and I have not been able to do that [in the UK]. One of the things where I differ from my immediate predecessor at B&N is that I consider the ability to sell e-books to be a great strength, and the company had stopped investing in Nook. That will change. We will make Nook very much part of what we do [in the US].”
He said questions about selling e-books in the UK had been parked during the coronavirus crisis, but added that it would be looked at again. “I wouldn’t hold your breath, but all other things being equal, it is something we should aspire to do. We sell an awful lot of e-books in the US.”
I know that Mark Williams has made a big deal about Daunt supposedly rewriting history about his being anti-ebook, and I think Williams is mistaken.
The problem with labeling Daunt as anti-ebook is that it lumps him in the same group with the major US trade publishers. The Big Five actively sabotaged their ebook sales, and even engaged in a conspiracy to to rig ebook prices, but Daunt has never engaged in any action showing that degree of hostility to ebooks.
I would instead say that Daunt was really good at selling print books, and really into the print book buying experience. I would say based on his public statements that it’s not that he hated ebooks so much as he knew how to sell print books, and could grow a business built on physical bookstores, while ebooks required a different bag of tricks.
To give you an analogy, folks, I do not know how to play a cello, but that doesn’t make me anti-cello. It just means I am doing other things. The same applies to Daunt.
That said, we live in a post pandemic world. Retail is going to change radically in the next few years, and Daunt’s new opinion on ebooks reflects that fact that he is building a new business in a new era, one in which ebooks will likely be more important than they were this time last year.