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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era