The book trade has become a trade-off

As Waterstone's faces another crisis, will its new owners learn to trust their product?

People seem slightly bemused when you state your profession as bookseller: they're very glad you're doing it, but wonder why. Sometimes, when the rain's lashing down and your only customer is looking up ISBNs on their iPhone, you can wonder yourself.

Sometimes, however, it makes perfect sense: you advise readers, find the perfect gift working only with the description "he's a man, aged 40", discuss books with authors, publishers, agents, and avid readers, and sell lots of hand-picked stock.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not. But if you've charted the fortunes (or lack of them) at the floundering Waterstone's chain of late, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was rocket science.

As an anonymous employee wrote on the Bookseller blog last week, recent years have seen everything from "redundancies and cuts to hours when the Hub [their initially disastrous centralised distribution system] was implemented, to store closures and lack of any recent pay increases".

And now, almost three decades since it was founded, Waterstone's is facing a new crisis. HMV, its parent company, needs to sell up after announcing severe losses that suggest before-tax profits will be down more than 50 per cent on the preceding year's £74.2m. Speculation rages as to whether its founder, Tim Waterstone, and the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut will buy it, or if the current MD, Dominic Myers, and team will make a bid. Whoever succeeds, they need to get it right.

Waterstone's own problems stem from its focus on trying to grab short-term market share via loss leaders, "3 for 2" deals, and centralised less-varied book-buying, often investing too heavily in publisher-pushed titles that just haven't sold. Meanwhile, they've sacrificed knowledgeable staff and store individuality.

The book trade is in a difficult transitional phase, but Waterstone's unsuccessful scrabble for a more modern approach -- they were slow to pick up on the digital-reader market and the potential of internet sales -- leaves them falling between two stools: trying to compete with Amazon and supermarkets, while seeming to have lost faith in their core product. And if they don't believe in the value of books, why should their customer?

It's increasingly common for people to comment on price, as if they'd like an explanation as to why a 200-page paper unit costs £8.99. This is a troublesome trend, and one that Waterstone's has heartily contributed to.

Giving customers a real service and believing in the inherent value of books still works, however. The swiftly expanding Daunt Books is a case in point. They provide well-read (well-heeled) customers with beautiful shops, carefully selected stock and literary staff. Carrying a Daunts bag is akin to wearing a badge of intellectualism among London's middle-classes.

Waterstone's can't compete directly with this model, but there is still middle ground in the market, and the more they give control back to good staff onsite the better. Perhaps the resolution of the current crisis ­- and it's crucial for UK publishing that it is resolved -- will give them the chance to reinvest in the idea of the book. Rather than their awful tagline, 'feel every word', why not, 'believe in the book'?

Recently a customer buying two titles from us remarked how he often left Waterstone's with nothing: he hated to miss the 3 for 2 deal, but got too annoyed looking for a third book he didn't want.

Not necessarily a universal experience, but perhaps something the eventual new owners should consider. The customer was spending more money with us, but getting what he wanted, and crucially, he valued the books he was buying. It's not the complete answer to a complex problem, but it's a solid book-shaped building block.

 

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution