An Independent Bookseller’s view of the sale and the future of Waterstones
With the planned sale of Waterstones reaching the headlines of the country’s business news, the whole book industry now needs to look up, down a strong coffee and take some notice. Companies are bought and sold all the time, what is happening is not extraordinary. However, it is essential that we think about the relationship between Waterstones and the country’s independent bookshops in the context of the whole of the British book industry. There are a great many jobs dependent on the way that events turn now; and not just the jobs of booksellers, but of authors and illustrators, those working within publishing houses both big and small, and the great chain of designers, printers and distributors involved in our industry. We need to be careful not to talk about the tensions in this complex industry as if they were a mere scrap between the playground bullies and the geeky kids.
Ten years ago we very nearly lost all our high street book chains, as well as many of our independent shops. The revival of Waterstones as a strong high street presence over the last five years or so has been of material benefit to the industry as a whole, and, as the recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research highlights, to society more widely; we should also consider that the revival of Waterstones has played a significant role in putting books themselves back on the map. In an age where our busy, distracted little lives are about speed of delivery, minimal effort and ice-cold consumerism, Waterstones has, for a start, revived the idea that high streets should have a bookshop and, crucially, that a bookshop is a lovely place to go and browse. I can’t think of many large high street shops in which entire families are content to just wile away their time, often with a purchase but many times just to ramble, daydream and look at beautiful objects or treat a friend or member of the family.
Until Waterstones’ revival there was a very real danger that, with the rise of Amazon and bookselling in supermarkets, people would stop visiting bookshops altogether. Amazon is easy, cheap and fast; it fits with our obsessive need to be uber-efficient and to feel as if everything is a bargain (I think there is a wonderful irony about Matt Haig’s book ‘How to Stop Time’ being hyped and then sold at a knock-down bargain price by an online retailer who promises that they can deliver faster than anyone else). In this environment, to revive the expectation that there should be beautiful high-street bookshops is no mean feat; it is a rare little oasis of culture that offers us the chance to rediscover the humble pleasures of being human. In our coarse and discourteous world, it feels like progress.
Waterstones’ approach has also cemented the idea within the book industry that a good business model needs actual booksellers – real people who know the stock, have chosen the stock and have a passion for recommending books.
If Waterstones were ever to disappear from our high streets or significantly change for the worse, do I believe that this would be a huge festival for Independent bookshops and that new indies would spring up where Waterstones vanished? No, not for a moment. Waterstones has a rather different market from an independent bookshop. On a major high street you will get passers-by and visitors-to-town, in a small indie shop, the vast majority of our custom comes from people who have come in for something specific, for recommendations, or even just for a chat (and then they accidently buy a few books because we’ve worked hard to ensure that there are interesting books on display). So what would happen If we lost Waterstones? I believe that the market would polarise faster and further, with selections of celebrity-led mass market publications dominating the large retailers like Sainsbury’s and WH Smiths. Indie bookshops would be selling an edit appropriate to their area, and fill their shelves with books that are a bit quirky, alongside the less populist general fiction. We’d probably need to add more gifts to our stock to boost income and bring people in. While a well-curated, bravely managed and passionately driven independent shop stands a good chance of surviving well in any sector, this would undoubtedly put pressure on margins.
Without the competition from a major bookselling presence like Waterstones, we should consider too that Amazon would have less reason to keep their books at pot-noodle prices. The seemingly beneficent smile of online retail will continue to sun the public with its soft, deceitful wiles, but authors will then get the worst of both worlds: very low royalties for online sales, fewer low prices to attract buyers, and fewer outlets in which their books are sold. Many indie bookshops have fiercely loyal customers who will support them over chains and internet selling; but there is a bigger picture of the economics of the book industry to consider too that are far from straightforward. Aside from the number of people employed in a large chain like Waterstones, publishers need Waterstones as well as Amazon to help sell the high numbers of books needed to maintain already slim margins, and get something approaching nationwide access to browsable books. Authors need a range of bookselling outlets to reach as wide an audience as possible. Amazon sales often bring in such little income to an author that many writers are now prepared to be openly critical, risking the wrath of their publishers because, as one award-winning writer put it to me, ‘So I’m biting the hand that doesn’t feed me?’. Furthermore, indie bookshops alone can’t possibly cater for the vast numbers of books published today; and therefore, there is a risk that, without a significant high street bookshop presence, a huge section of the market would, in time, just fall away.
Any adviser facilitating an industry change on this scale needs to understand the fragility of the current market. The practice of heavy discounting and the devaluing of books by strings of 3 for 2 sales is a good for example of where we the industry have been the authors of our own misfortune, and managed to devalue the work of writers and illustrators. It is shameful, but not surprising that many of our best-loved authors are surviving on overdrafts, unable to make anything but a basic living even after a lifetime of creating acclaimed, even award-winning books. They are the ones who are paying the price for publishers and large retail parts of the sector not having the courage to stand up to the monstrous, gluttonous beast that is Amazon. I’d rather see large retailers having things like discount cards for children’s reading, or for book groups, than a generic ‘just pick the cheapest one’ approach. The heavy discounting on The Book of Dust has been unfathomable and ludicrous; why on earth did the publisher and the large retailers believe that it wouldn’t sell at full price? The result, two weeks after its publication, is that the book is on sale for £9, £13, £15 or full price depending on where you go – what? Who on earth planned (or perhaps didn’t plan) that one? It’s an embarrassing mess of pricing for an important book that was always going to be a bestseller.
If there is a problem that arises from Waterstones ownership, then this could unravel a complex set of issues. With rumours rife in the book industry of a potential arrangement between Waterstones and a large online retailer, it is not difficult to see why so many in the book industry, from authors to publishers and indie bookshops, are more than a little alarmed. Such an arrangement would be uncharted territory, and on the face of it risk the reversal of all those beautiful qualities we’ve started to see glimmering away in Waterstones bookshops: the team-chosen books, the author events, the local history and folklore section, and the enthusiastic booksellers; the things that cut through the cold, impersonal world of modern retail convenience. In every other industry a deal between the biggest high street retailer and the biggest online retailer would be referred instantly to the Competition and Markets Authority (the successor to the Competition Commission), with little chance of a successful deal.
Heavy discounting on new products is something unique to the book industry, which does seem to be exempt from normal retail conventions for some reason. In any other industry, aggressive pricing strategies, and the predatory pricing behind many loss-leading book sales for major retailers, would be referred to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
The pricing strategy on The Book of Dust was intensely aggressive – bordering on predatory because no smaller retailers could buy into their stock the product for the price it was being sold to the public elsewhere – and whether it was actually intended to keep sales within major retailers, and price out the smaller ones, or merely an unthinking and irrationally risk-averse marketing plan, the pricing-out of a large part of the market was the net result. Within a market now used to pricing strategies that crush the producer (in this case the authors and illustrators) while Amazon reports a surge in sales, to extend the market share of the biggest predator in the pond, would pressure this little ecosystem to its own stagnation, and we can only expect poison from standing water. While I would never wish for arrangements within the book industry to have to be assessed in the seething nest of vested interests that is our Parliamentary system, I cannot see a change of ownership pass it by completely. Any adverse change to Waterstones will impact the buying public and of course, jobs. It will therefore need careful and very public scrutiny – and the careful attention of the rest of the book industry. Tempting as it must be to secure financial stability, it would be better the shun the bait than struggle in the snare. We must create a new system, or be enslaved by that of a plunderer. Better than a sale of the chain would be a Management Buy Out. I’d hope that James Daunt has contacts from his time at JP Morgan to find a broker who could help facilitate raising of sufficient funds for an MBO, enabling James Daunt to remain at the helm – something that emerged within this industry as a major concern about the sale of Waterstones.
I hope sincerely that the anxious chatter about Waterstones’ future ownership is not true, but merely symptomatic of the general worry among authors that their interests, along with their basic incomes, are really under pressure. If rumours do turn out to be true, then this marriage hearse will truly blight our chartered high streets.