Tuesday, 10 November 2009

How Lazy Headlines Killed Journalism

This post is in response to an article published on Guardian Books today entitled 'How Waterstone's Killed Bookselling'

Today the Guardian posted an article by Stuart Jeffries in which he tracked some of the most important changes in the world of books and traced their impact on the changing landscape of bookselling. Through viewing the evolution of Waterstone's within the wider context of the past 25 years, it is clear that for all the negatives attributed to it, Waterstone's is as much a product of the climate it has developed within, as the lead protagonist in creating it.

But all of this is thoroughly degraded by a sensationalist headline which neither reflects the character of the article or any reasonable person's perspective on Waterstone's. It is easy journalism at its worst, unexpected and unnecessary from a reputable source such as The Guardian. In no way does it contribute to an improved understanding of the complex situation that Waterstone's and all other booksellers find themselves in.

For what it is worth, my view is that Waterstone's is a big corporate business which has made some mistakes and taken some depressingly corporate roads over recent years which have alienated some of its most passionate customers. Sometimes in its quest to be all things for all people it has forgotten what it does best which is, and continues to be, and always has been , having the biggest stock of backlist books you will find in any bookshop in the UK. It also has some of the most exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate staff of any retailer in the country. Every year it does plenty of interesting and market leading promotions, encouraging its booksellers and customers to promote the books they really love. These are big achievements which are sometimes drowned in the waves of press that follow each and every controversial policy announcement.

And yes, quite often these policy announcements deserve all the bad press they get. The arrogant and condescending communication between head office and stores is a clear example of those without bookselling experience trying to tell those who know their job how to do it. The flagrant attacks on experienced staff over the past 3 or 4 years have been damaging for all concerned. And Waterstone's as a company has rightly taken flack for them. Add to that the reduction in opportunities for booksellers to use their extensive knowledge of their local readership and wider literary trends to determine the character of the store in favour of selling window space to the highest bidder, and it is no surprise they are one of the least popular employers in the UK right now.

But how on earth does anyone think Waterstone's is going to be encouraged to shift its focus towards a more traditional form of bookselling if everyone who wants such a shift spends their whole time clambering over each other to complain about how awful they are? Creating an 'us against the world' siege mentality in the upper echelons of the Waterstone's head office management is not likely to win friends or influence anything.

Indeed, it is likely to encourage them to continue down the path which has won so much popularity with the casual book buyer over recent years. For even the most traditional book enthusiast would struggle to argue that the plethora of changes have met with an impenetrable wall of opposition. Quite simply, they haven't.

What is needed is for people to focus on what Waterstone's does best, re-affirming that they can continue to do traditional bookselling well, even in a modern marketplace. That means booksellers, (a volatile, highly educated and under paid group unrepresentative of the rest of the retail world) must stop reacting negatively to every change, and try to see things from the perspective of the head office once in a while. There have been times in recent years when staff have reacted negatively out of instinct without stopping to think about the wider picture, and that has only harmed their cause.

Similarly journalists need to stop bashing Waterstone's for the sake of easy headlines and remember that without it, Ottakers would have gone under anyway, and Amazon and the supermarkets might have an unshakable monopoly on bookselling. That is not something anyone wants to see.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I used to a bookseller at Waterstone's and left just before the recent hub-inspired changes and staff cuts took place.)


Anonymous said...

Much turbulence in the blogosphere about this one. Last week, the talk was all 'Waterstones: The World's Most Evil Firm'. Now we're all leaping to its defence, after some Grauniad pseud complains he can't find any Tacitus in their stores.
I agree with everything you've said in this post. There seems to be a school of thought in Waterstone's head office that says 'if the long-term experienced booksellers don't like something, it must be a good idea'. There is indeed a 'them and us' mentality there: if there were a little more generosity on both sides, accepting the fact that we ALL want the firm to be successful, it would be a much happier company.
Take the till-points for instance. Under the 'no clutter' rule (as if anyone ever walked out of a bookshop because there was a pencil on the till), we're allowed a maximum of five (!) 'features'. Since these have to be 'linksave' items, or giftcards, or the magazine, it doesn't really leave much space for booksellers to display, er, books.
The biggest problem Waterstone's faces is one it has created itself. If you say to a publisher 'give us 50,000 quid and we will guarantee your book a place in our front of store display', well and good, you've made 50,000 big ones. But where is the sense in having identical displays, down to the precise position of individual titles, in Kensington AND Hull?
This one-size-fits-all approach to an activity as personal and idiosyncratic as shopping for books does Waterstone's no favours at all.

Nikki Dudley said...

Hi Sam,

I was going to write a blog on this too as Joe sent me the link! I too was depressed by this headline and the clear bashing of a bookshop which is probably one of the best we have. Speaking as someone who has also worked within the chain, I would say working in that role, I met some of the most passionate and informed people I have worked with in a multitude of places. The encouragement to remain knowledgable and to develop is constantly on the cards. Speaking also as a reader, Waterstones do have an amazing stock of books, often stocking one or a few copies of books that many other stores would not. Often there are 'local author' tables and personalised reviews from staff which can be absolutely any book in the store.
It's easy to blame Waterstones for discounting, and I am by no means saying they have never made a bad move, but after all- they are a business and above all, they are merely responding to the climate in which they are operating. Publishers are selling them celebrity biogs, reused thrillers, cookbooks by some half famous person etc etc. And no offence to the public, but if this is what they buy, then Waterstones have no choice but to stock it! Any bookshop, independent or chain would be stupid not to put the most popular books at the front. Did independent bookshops leave Harry Potter out of the store window in the last few years? - I think not!
Anyway, perhaps I shall blog on this too but thought I'd write a response to yours. Good stuff and glad you highlighted it.

I like books... said...

Anonymous, I agree and I also think that there is a school of thought among booksellers that says 'if head office like something, it must be a terrible idea'. This mutual distrust is damaging for all involved and prevents any worthwhile dialogue, even at specially designed talking shops such as the Forum's (is that what they were called?) set up after the abysmal staff satisfaction survey a couple years ago.

Nikki, I couldn't agree more. People get so caught up in what is in the front of store, but forget that you can actually venture into the rest of the store too. As long as a bookshop stocks the sort of books I want to read then I really don't care what else they stock and I don't think many other people do either.

If people want to read celebrity biographies then all power to them: they're not likely to go and buy Proust if they don't find a book by Jordan are they?! Better, then, to read something than nothing at all.

And equally publisher's have to take a huge amount of responsibility for the book industries current fixation on celebrity biographies and aging celebrity writers' latest hardbacks at the expense of new writers. Again, its all down to understandable economic models and I thought the article was perceptive in attributing the end of the NBA to reduced investment in discovering new talent.

For what it is worth, my attitude is that there is just too much moaning that goes on in the world and nowhere near enough celebrating that actually lots of things a f**king brilliant. There are lots of books published that I am desperate to read (ESPECIALLY ELLIPSIS!) and I'll be able to buy most of them at a local chain bookstore or an independent. Sounds pretty good to me.

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