WH Smith begins selling e-readers, asks ‘what’s an e-reader?’

You know the Kindle has become truly ubiquitous when even WH Smith has to acknowledge it in some manner. Startled out of its cosy seat in front of the fire with a nice hot chocolate and a copy of Louie Spence’s autobiography lying face down on its lap, and just as it was dozing off too, the venerable high street newsagent, stationer, James Corden-enabler (Cordenabler?) and yes, alright, technically bookshop, has begun selling e-books and compatible readers in partnership with Canadian e-reader manufacturers Kobo.

As of this week, Smith will be the sole UK retailer of the Kobo e-reader and its library of 2.2 million e-books, with the readers retailing from £89.99 – putting it 99p behind the latest Kindle variant’s £89 – and over a million of the books available free of charge, including some truly astonishing-sounding titles, such as Slow Hands (but not that one), Kiss Me Deadly (but not that one) and Dancing In The Moonlight (but not that one. Or that one).

Whilst on one level it makes sense that Smith would want to keep up with Jones (he says, trying to spin a combination ‘keeping up with the Joneses’/Alas Smith & Jones crack out of the shaky assumption that everyone will understand Amazon also goes by the name Jones, which it doesn’t), e-readers on the whole aren’t exactly the kind of thing that Smith’s regular customers would likely go for, by its own admission: CEO Kate Swann describes the chain’s base as ‘lighter book readers’, with figures showing the average Smith customer buys just three books a year, with particularly strong showings from non-fiction and children’s books.

Compare this with the heavy reader/early adopter technology spod audience of the Kindle and it doesn’t seem like a particularly lucrative avenue for a company whose main source of revenue appears to be commuters who have forgotten to pack something to keep them occupied on the train – if they already have a Kindle, they can download new books from Amazon there and then; and if they forget to pack it, they’re not likely to splash out on another one just for the five hours from London to Glasgow.

Still, march of progress, etc., etc., and obviously the way things are going, this is an inevitability that Smith would have to deal with sooner rather than later regardless. Maybe by getting a foot in the door at this relatively early stage, they might be able to claw back a bit of the market from Amazon. Or maybe the Kobo will just end up the Zune to the Kindle’s iPod. Remember the Zune? Yes? Wait, yes? Wow. Microsoft wishes you didn’t.

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