Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Waterstone's scandal

Some prominent figures in the book world have expressed their dismay over the discovery that Waterstone's charges publishers up to £45,000 to secure a front-of-shop position for their titles. One of the most vocal opponents is Anthony Cheetham, who complains that Waterstone's are 'breaking the unwritten contract with the customer.' In their defence, Waterstone's argue that books are bought on merit and the deals are secured after a title has been selected.

I'm surprised at the level of naivety on the part of many people. Waterstone's is not a philanthropic society - it's a business which is largely run by retailers who have worked for companies like Marks and Spencer. Their remit is to ensure that Waterstone's makes a profit for its parent company, HMV Media and in order to achieve this they have introduced practices that were once alien to bookselling but common in other areas of retail, including asking suppliers to subsidise promotions. Borders do it and WH Smith's certainly do, charging up to £200,000!

Publishers like to moan when retailers behave like cynical opportunists, but they are being completely hypocritical. Publishers have been happy enough to undermine high street booksellers by offering preferential terms to supermarkets and internet retailers and when they mounted a spirited opposition to Waterstone's proposed takeover of Ottakar's, they failed to acknowledge their complicity.

So has the bond of trust between Waterstone's and its customers been broken? I wasn't aware that there was one. Waterstone's is a brand. The brand is that it is a quality bookseller with a large stockholding and knowledgeable staff. If they start promoting crap just because they've had a backhander from a publisher then customers will vote with their feet and they know that.

As far as I can tell, the promoted titles in Waterstone's are, first and foremost, picked by a buying team who have a background in bookselling and try to pick what will sell. No self-respecting retailer would risk alienating their customers by putting poor quality products in their front-of-shop and Waterstone's cannot afford to be the exception. If Waterstone's had remained the bookseller that some people still like to think it is it would have gone under years ago.

I'm actually surprised by how bookish Waterstone's still is, given the current market conditions, but that's largely thanks to the booksellers, not the senior management.


Sara said...

Yup, there does seem to be a perception that W's is not the same as say WHSmiths, some appear to view it as almost library like, providing a service to its customers with little regard to how to stay afloat in a hugely different market to the one pre-internet (Amazon) and pre-supermarket. I think that it still counts for something to have passionate and knowledgeable staff happy to advise and assist. There are still bookseller recommends slots and local authors tags and plenty of areas in which to display eclectic choices. It is foremost a business though, and money needs to be made. The same people who whine on and on about W's would surely hate a time without it. It wouldn't mean the appearance of more independent's, more the success of the supermarkets.

bye bye bellulah said...

Unfortunately I think the problem for W is that most of the reasoned debate about this will be from Book insiders. The general member of public, which now includes me, doesn't have a responsibility to any vendor to understand the arguments. All they/we hear is 'charging for books' and then most will almost forget about it and move on with their lives because it has no personal resonance for them. Next time they think of W or whoever the report of the day happened to have been about, their bond with the brand might be a little weaker as they perceive the brand to be duplicitous/putting one over on them, and sales might be lost.
It's a cost-benefit analysis. Is the income derived from selling promo slots higher than the damage done to sales and brand image by associated 'bad press'?