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Waterstone’s – your life in their hands

February 6, 2011


Bag of Sugar

Commodity selling - has Waterstone's lost touch with what it is to be a bookseller?

Waterstone’s. What does it mean these days? I was interested to read an article in the Spectator (20th January issue) entitled Bookselling for Illiterates. It paints a very depressing picture of the state of what is now the last of the big bookselling chains in Great Britain.

The article points to crass errors such as a book reviewer referring to Evelyn Waugh as a she. It highlights numerous mis-spellings on a number of on-shelf book reviews in different branches. It highlights how the company no longer recruits English literature graduates but instead aims to be “more inclusive”.

I grow weary of these Ed Balls-style announcements which aim to make everyone feel worthy and which, by default, paint academic excellence, rigour and hard work as somehow worthy of guilt at best and opprobrium at worst. Ah, the nonsense which is socialism…

But never mind the fact that bogus policies around “inclusiveness” ignore simple requirements that people should be able to spell. Ignore the fact that booksellers should in some way be enthusiastic about what they are selling. Look instead at the discount levels which Waterstone’s seeks to heap on publishers for the privilege of being represented by them.

If Waterstone’s seriously expects publishers to pay discounts which in many cases are north of 50%, then surely a publisher can expect that Waterstone’s repays this generosity? Alas, no. Waterstone’s seems to have lost touch with the beauty of writing and pays lip service to being a guardian of English literature.

Its policy appears to be to pile books in its stores and, seemingly, to be unconcerned about how the books are sold. Given that the book trade is the alternative available to publishers seeking to avoid the expense of direct marketing, the little wonder that its efficiency has declined in recent years.

If the best that Waterstone’s can do is to be ignorant and illiterate, then little wonder that publishers become ever more frustrated with them as ambassadors of literacy, art and culture. Little wonder that Waterstone’s is having to close branches. Little wonder that Tim Waterstone is once again rattling his cage and desires to get back involved.

By following “inclusive” recruitment policies, by failing to protect standards and by seeming to be contemptuous of publishers themselves, Waterstone’s has dug itself into a big pit. Little wonder it is in trouble.

What, after all, does Waterstone’s stand for? what is its brand? Indeed, if they don’t care then why should we, the book-buying public?

In a recent article in the Wiglaf Journal by James T Berger describes the latest cash injections at other troubled retailers Borders and Blockbuster as follows;

“It now appears that Borders and Blockbuster will get their life-saving transfusions of cash and will live to fight another day.  As P.T. Barnum once said:  “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Neither of these companies deserves to survive.”

If Borders doesn’t deserve to survive, then neither – frankly – does Waterstone’s. Unless the team there pull its collective finger out and returns the business to its roots.


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