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  1. Culture
19 April 2011

The book trade has become a trade-off

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

By AC Goodall

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”.

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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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