Let’s speak up for Waterstones

In Friday's (15 Jan) Book Trade News Digest was a headline "What has gone wrong?", which is a link to seven articles in the UK national papers about Waterstones. There were a couple more of these in November last year, about which I wrote on Petrona. Overwhelmingly these articles are critical in tone: some rehash recent history in providing the authors' own account of where Waterstones went wrong so now have abruptly hired a new managing director; others are simply attacks at the shops and their content.

I think this is all mad. What do we have in the UK? Borders has just collapsed, and other book chains long ago, so Waterstones is in many places all we have got. Not every town has the luxury of an independent bookstore (mine no longer has one, for example). Furthermore, although independent bookstores are much lauded, in particular in articles that denigrate Waterstones, they are not all good.

Of course, Waterstones now has it tough in competing with the Internet (Amazon, mainly) on the one hand and on the other with supermarkets and discount chains (eg British Bookshops, with its great prices but seriously limited stock). Of course, one can look back with hindsight and say that Waterstones should not have entered into partnership with Amazon to sell its books online but should have developed its own web commerce from the start; and that it should have developed a flexible storage and distribution system much more quickly than it has done (and is yet struggling to do effectively). Of course, some specialist and erudite readers say that they don't care about price and want to have a large choice of stock and somewhere nice to sit and browse – but this just isn't economic. Irrespective of the Internet, it is expensive to keep a book (individually cheap) on a shelf for months or years and not sell it.

Instead of criticising, people who want real-live bookshops should be more constructive about Waterstones, because like it or not, it is better than being left with only W H Smith, Tesco and a remainder shop. The branch where I live, Kingston, is always packed on a Saturday or Sunday (including a permanent long queue at the only remaining checkout).  It must be getting something right.

Maybe it is too late for Waterstones to develop an efficient Internet-based distribution system that can compete with Amazon, not for the full range of Amazon's offering, but for a sizeable chunk of non-esoteric stock. If Waterstones can do that, it can have terminals or mobile devices in-store (many per store), so while a customer is browsing, she can search/order a book that isn't in stock or is on backlist then and there, knowing it will be delivered next day. Plenty of publishers don't like the terms Amazon forces on them, so if Waterstones could sort out its back office distribution system, this type of route seems to me to be a good one to go.

One aspect of the critical articles that I do agree with is the need for some local autonomy in which books to sell. Different branches of Waterstones should be able to stock a proportion of books specific to that locality if they sell well. These could be related to a local activity for areas of historical or scenic interest, or books about local people, or just books on a topic that for some reason do well in that area. This is in addition to the various events, signings and so on that the chain already does.

For all I know it may be too late for Waterstones to survive in an environment where Amazon reigns supreme, pricing is highly competitive, and publishers are cutting down on producing "risky" ("mid list") books and are overproducing books on themes they think will be popular (celebrities, humour) and then aren't. Whether or not people are reading less than they did in the past, they certainly have more options for reading devices nowadays, over and beyond the printed book, another challenge to the bookseller.

At the end of the day, let's be kinder to Waterstones. It is a vast, high street bookshop, and that is what I like. Whatever people may say about the experience of buying books in a branch, it is a far nicer experience than trying to buy a book in a supermarket, in a bargain/discount bookshop or in W H Smiths – in all three places you can't see the shelves properly or find a space to look through a book before you buy.

Good luck to Waterstones. I hope it survives.