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.)