Stephen Heyman has written a long panegyric in Slate to the achievement of Waterstones in the UK, and its head, James Daunt, in reviving group sales and even the very concept of a chain bookstore. And he continuously contrasts the dire fortunes of Barnes & Noble, and all the wrong steps it’s taking instead. Is he right? Has Waterstones found a template for book chain success that B&N can use to turn itself around? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
As Heyman outlines it, Daunt managed the Waterstones turnaround through sheer focus on the bookstore experience. He ditched the network-wide planogram that allocated stocks according to publishers’ priorities (and payments to secure top shelf space), and gave individual store heads freedom to stock shelves according to what their local audience would read. (Although only browsing-friendly books, so out with the technical manuals.) Heyman implies that this comes from his sheer love of books, bookshops, and the experience of reading, “a bookseller by trade and inclination” who cut his teeth at his own travel-focused independent Daunt Books mini-chain.
All this makes Daunt sound like the reader’s, and the writer’s friend, but I do wonder. For one thing, there’s his attitude to the indie ecosystem. “I didn’t want my supply—the talent, the nurturing, the world I’m in—to just get severely buggered around,” Heyman quotes Daunt as saying. But Daunt seems unremittingly hostile to just the kind of flexible, vibrant print/digital crossover environment that self-publishing and digital have fostered, dismissing Amazon out of hand as a “ruthless money-making devil” and celebrating the falloff of Kindle sales in his stores. (And yes, I loved the trained owls joke, but doesn’t that suggest more than a little underlying jealousy and hostility?) That’s more than a tad harsh on the self-published and indie authors who earned their recognition through digital channels and their own sheer pluck. And “ruthless money-making devil” is rather rich criticism, coming from someone who cuts deals with Penguin Random House, fired half of Waterstones’ managers, and pulled his chain out of near-bankruptcy through a mysterious donation from a Russian oligarch. B&N could wish for such a not-so-white knight.
Plus, I suspect a powerful, albeit unstated, snob factor at work in Waterstones’ resurgence. You should never underestimate the mulish conservatism of the English, especially when part of the snobbery involved is intellectual snobbery. Amazon has attracted perhaps disproportionate hostility in the UK, partly for its tax practices, admittedly, which make it easy to caricature as a brutal MNC outsider – unlike, of course, cosy, fusty, Author Solutions-owning Penguin Random House, or Rupert Murdoch-backed HarperCollins. But I reckon many Brits dislike Amazon for reasons that have nothing to do with reading, literature, or culture, and everything to do with totems and misty evocative cliches like “the English High Street” or “the Old Bookseller.”
Daunt’s early background as a JP Morgan banker, and first bookselling venue on Marylebone High Street, bespeaks deep understanding of this English snob factor. Waterstones’ store livery is notably dark, with enough of an old-gold tinge to attract the kind of Glyndebourne-going English clientele who value the port-wine, leathery ambience of bookshelves and rustling paper far more than they do the actual literary and intellectual content of the books. Kindles are just too plasticky and slick and bright for a chain that’s playing frantically to a Laura Ashley-loving audience reeking of the Old Rectory Syndrome. I doubt that’ll fly Stateside, where people seem to get by without needing to live in knock-off sets from Downton Abbey. B&N, think again.
Finally, Daunt may have turned round Waterstones by applying indie thinking, but it’s still a chain. It competes directly against the smaller, truly independent UK bookstores, and is arguably far more of a direct threat to them than Amazon or ereading are. Heyman admits that he has a “a sentimental attachment to the chain bookstore” born of “growing up in an intellectually impoverished American suburb,” but if you want true intellectual stimulation, are you going to find it in a chain? Aren’t the true Meccas of literary culture still the likes of City Lights Books in San Fran or Shakespeare and Company in Paris? Such venues would likely upset or baffle the average Waterstones customer. For all its window-dressing, Waterstones to me is still all about retail. And aside from some fairly obvious plays to the retail experience, I suspect that the Waterstones retail formula is distinct to one national market and its prejudices, and won’t help out B&N.