Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Given the circumstances of my acrimonious departure from Waterstone's, I think I've exercised considerable restraint on this blog. Yes, I've taken the odd pot shot, but most of the time I resisted temptation, because listening to someone droning on bitterly about their former partner or boss is very boring, not to mention counter-productive.

Earlier this year, I got out my magnetic self-help cliches kit and decided to move on, get over it and achieve closure. I had a new, better job. It was time to put the past behind me.

But I've never quite been able to get over the fact that the company I loved - Ottakar's - was taken over by one that was run by a cabal of people who didn't read (I thought that the baddies were supposed to lose?), so it was with extreme satisfaction that I read these two articles in the Bookseller.

If you can't be bothered to follow the link (and I won't hold it against you), here is a potted history of recent events:

Three years ago, Waterstone's acquired a new managing director, Gerry Johnson. With increased competition from the internet and supermarkets, Waterstone's sales were beginning to shrink, so Johnson's brief was to reverse the process. He had three big ideas:

  • Establish a proper transactional website
  • Introduce a loyalty card scheme
  • Introduce central distribution for all stock items
The first two were, to use my least favourite phrase, a no-brainer. However, the third was more controversial. Johnson's rationale was this: a centralised "Hub" would reduce distribution costs, enabling Waterstone's to ask publishers for higher discounts. It would also make the goods-in staff redundant, enabling Waterstone's to save at least £4,000,000 in staff costs.

I expect that Johnson calculated that the savings made from getting rid of staff and closing underperforming shops (which was done very quietly, with the minimum of publicity), plus the inceased revenue from the dot.com site, the loyalty card and various hideous initiatives, would put Waterstone's back into positive figures.

But it hasn't worked. The sales are still going down and the Hub, depending on who you talk to, is at best problematic, at worst a disaster.

I'm not in a position to comment on the sales figures - perhaps the odds against high street booksellers are too great. However, what interests me most about the comments threads on the Bookseller articles is the depth of feeling. Why has morale sunk so low?

As a desperate, knee-jerk reaction, Gerry Johnson has banned booksellers from accessing the Bookseller website. Since the demise of Publishing News, this is the only significant trade journal for the book industry. What is Johnson thinking? It is ironic that Waterstone's, who ran an effective promotion about banned books and censorship a few years ago, are now resorting to such desperate measures.


Harry Tournemille said...

Not knowing what kind of traffic your blog gets, I suspect this sort of post would be of keen interest to many. Have you uploaded it to Digg or any other source that could get it out to the masses? Just a thought.

What surprises me most about the Hub...or how I understand it, is that the streamlining has had no positive effect. In fact, it seems like Waterhouse is saving money by diminishing the quality of its service.

Similar things have occurred out here in Canada. We call it Parliament.

depesando said...

Nice picture, the film was on this week at about 4am - the timer on my recorder is so complex I considered staying up - but couldn't face it.
Is it just me, but I find calling the electronic replacement for books a 'Kindle' rather sinister.

Jim Murdoch said...

It would be interesting to learn how the sales of other large booksellers are doing by comparison (I suppose that would be Borders then) as opposed to web-based sales. If I was in charge of a bookshop I think I would have to recognise that my place in the retail chain had changed and try and assess who my new customers were. I think I've been in Waterstone's twice in the last year and one of those times was because I had a gift certificate. I used to be in there twice a week on a bad week. They've lost me. The fact is that I can never be sure what they're going to have on their shelves. I happened to have a look under B last time I was in an thery had a couple of books by Beckett. A couple! He's a major author and they had a couple of his books. Not good enough. But then is their revised clientèle the kind of people who would be buying Beckett? Unlikely.

Steerforth said...

Harry - Thanks, I'll look into this. I'm not very good on things like traffic, but I must be getting some as I've unwittingly beat J K Galbraith's Age of Uncertainty into second place.

Steerforth said...

Richard - I watched it last night, hence the picture. One of my favourite films.

Jim - I can rant on as much as I like, but if the punters are noticing the difference, then Waterstone's really is in trouble.

Waterstone's declining sales are, apparently, in line with other high street book retailers. This would be okay if they hadn't launched the dot.com website, loyalty card and a horrible initiative called 'Get Selling', which aims to make customers buy more books.

If their MD survives Christmas, then something is clearly wrong.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Saving a few quid by having a central hub at the expense of customer service is insane.

No customer is going to wait for a book for 4 weeks which they could get over the internet within days or even in another shop within days.

No customers = no business.

I've always found Waterstones slow, tedious and dull with piles of the same title often on various tables (apparently the more a publisher pays the more prominence a book is given hence all the repetition and pushing of only a few best-sellers).

Mind you Blackwells is not much better lately and had some real disasters re supplying books to the Oxford Literary Festival despite weeks of advance notice as to which authors were reading there and the capacity of each venue! Let alone did they have enough extra to stock the welcome tent for over week/in their own shop in the city.

Yes the book industry is a tough old game, but it's also not helped by the fact that some bookshops do not seem to want to sell books even when customers are there and actually queuing up to get them signed and buy them!