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.

11 thoughts on “Let’s speak up for Waterstones

  1. Spot on, Maxine – in Swindon we’re down to Waterstones, W H Smiths and Tesco/Asda, and I know which I’d rather shop in. The staff still show an interest in books in Waterstones (even if most of them have never heard of the Society of Authors discount), and they aren’t all about celebrity books.
    The nearest independent to me is about 8 miles further, and frankly is of the ‘little tourist town, mostly tat’ variety, rather than the sparkling metropolitan independents Waterstone is usually compared with.
    As you say, Waterstones is a heck of a site better than not having a real bookseller at all.

  2. I think it was early last year that a friend alerted me to the fact that an online order to Waterstone’s, delivered to your local store worked well. I have used it a few times and never had a problem, with all books in perfect condition on collection. It did take me a while to remember to take evidence of my order with me, however…

  3. I agree our local Waterstones has a fantastic display of translated crime fiction. The Exeter staff/buyer obviously makes an effort to have a full range of books, and not just Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell. In my experience they also have excellent branches in Dorchester and Winchester as well.

  4. Our Waterstones has a good crime fiction section too, Norman. I have a suspicion that the man who runs Crime Squad (Chris) has something to do with that – he organised the recent author evening that Karen and I attended.
    Good point, CFR – Waterstones could be like Next. Next has a huge catalogue which it delivers twice a year. It has a chain of shops, and a fantastic distribution system (and good website). You can order online and either pick up in your local store (for free P&P) or pay a small charge and have the goods delivered to your door, usually next day. They are also very good about taking returns by either route.
    Thanks, Brian – and of course in my rather hastily written, anguished post I should have mentioned “local authors” as a good selling point in Waterstones branches, though I know many branches already do this kind of thing. (To those who don’t know him, Brian is the author of many popular and educational science books.)

  5. Thanks for your support Maxine. I think we’re all hoping that the new MD will mean a return to more local purchasing and more tailoring of shops to the local market. We can’t all carry a huge backlist – as you rightly say it is uneconomic – but any branch of Waterstones will order a book for you for delivery in store, or order from Waterstones.com and choose from store collection or home delivery.
    We’re the last major chain bookstore standing and I think we need to shout about all the good things we do, and about all the fabulous, enthusiastic, talented staff we have.

  6. I think some stores do have a degree of autonomy over the stock. For example, the Waterstones in Dublin seem to be able to order in what stock they feel will sell in the Irish market.

  7. Very good post,Maxine. The mere fact that Waterstone’s isn’t perfect (which business is?)is no reason to overlook the fact that readers and authors would be very much worse off without it. I’ve done events at various Waterstone’s up and down the country, and had some fun times. I do agree that the business would benefit from focusing more on local writers. And centralised purchasing does make life harder for midlist writers.

  8. My local town Windsor only has Waterstone’s now. I try to shop there, but it is hard to justify to myself sometimes. I got a book there last week for £9.99 – and later checked on Amazon who will deliver it free for £5.99
    I follow @Waterstones on Twitter, and they flag up some good offers. Recently one of them was for a book I really wanted (Millennium trilogy – Part 3) for a ridiculously small price – I ordered it on-line and had it delivered to the shop where I picked it up. This is definitely the way forward.
    One thing Waterstones definitely do right is their children’s section. Kids want to look at books and touch them and choose one to take home right away. I buy more children’s books in Waterstones than adult ones.

  9. Thanks for all the comments. On the online ordering idea, I was thinking of a two-way process (like Next) – either you can order in the shop and have the item delivered to the shop or to your home next day; or you could just order online from anywhere for delivery at home/shop. I agree the pricing is the tough one, given Amazon. Waterstones have a loyalty card scheme which might help – it works for me and John Lewis!

  10. Maxine, I agree with your comments about supporting Waterstone’s, now that so many mighty competitors have fallen. I regularly visit the flagship shops round Piccadilly and in Bloomsbury. I would like to say, though, that bookselling practice at the small Daunt Books chain is brilliant. There are now five in London (all in ultraposh areas, but still…) and although known for their travel literature, they showcase a really diverse range of fiction, with ‘marginal’ or lesser-known writers cheek by jowl with bestsellers. It’s a big of an edge habitat, and so all the richer…

  11. I agree, Barb, that Daunt books is a lovely bookshop, having twice visited the Mayfair branch. However, the simple fact is that most people are not lucky enough to live within hailing (let alone walking) distance of a good independent bookshop. If Waterstones goes under, we’ll be left with W H Smith!

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