Viewpoint: Does Waterstones deserve to die?


After being cajoled into taking the open mic spot at last night’s BookMachine, I decided to organise my provocative thoughts about the future of Waterstones a little, and publish them alongside some cute panda pictures.

Pandas are cute. Pandas are cuddly. And pandas are synonymous with the “world’s leading independent conservation body” (the WWF). But they also eat nutrient-poor bamboo, are prone to various diseases, live in ever-shrinking forests and usually refuse to breed in captivity. We spend “millions and millions of pounds on pretty much this one species”, says TV naturalist Chris Packham, when we really ought to let them die out.

Spot the difference: pandas and Waterstones are both under threat... Image courtesy Souvant Guillaume/Rex Features

Waterstones offers an in-store browsing experience you can’t replicate online. Waterstones is, as my debating adversary on Thursday night Simon Juden said, “our last remaining high street book chain”. And Waterstones is absolutely vital to the book trade. But it also isn’t adapting to the environment it operates in. When the bookshop of the future needs to be “digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement”, what is Waterstones doing? It’s dropping its apostrophe and chasing the coat-tails of its disruptive competitors with a yet-to-appear e-reader.

Spot the difference: Waterstones and pandas are both ill-adapted to their environments... Images courtesy Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features and Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Rex Features

When the newish Waterstones Managing Director, old-school bookseller James Daunt, was scheduled to talk at a recent dinner of the Society of Bookmen, the assembled great and good of the publishing world waited with baited breath. Everyone wanted to know how this self-styled “champion of the bookshop” was intending to save the under-threat chain. But an inside source tells me he said nothing. Of course he fulfilled his agreement to actually utter a substantial number of words. But there was no vision for the future of Waterstones, and no clear steps it was taking to adapt to the world it now finds itself in.

Failing to adapt to your environment is a crime punishable by death – at least in the business world – and the hangman’s noose is certainly swinging over Waterstones. Nine months on, there are hints that the initial excitement greeting Daunt’s appointment may be starting to wane. Like another new leader with a desperate need to reinvent his organisation, Ed Miliband, Daunt could be accused of failing to outline any alternative to the status quo.

Spot the difference: Daunt and Miliband are both men in search of a transforming, disruptive, vision. Images courtesy Alex Lentati/Associated Newspapers/Rex Features and Stephen Simpson/Rex Features

As Simon Juden most sensibly pointed out, turning Waterstones around isn’t an easy job, something also summarised by the former CEO of now-extinct Borders last year. Juden therefore eloquently lobbied our BookMachine audience to do everything they could to support the chain. But is that the answer? Buying one of WWF’s Adopt-a-Panda sets may make people feel like they’re helping. But the pandas are still eating tonnes of bamboo, failing to breed and generally lumbering on towards extinction.

Daunt himself described Waterstones as “desperately vulnerable” in a recent interview. If he doesn’t take drastic action soon, it – like the panda – will move from vulnerable to the brink of extinction. Of course none of us want to wave goodbye to cute and cuddly bears or the last bastion of high street bookselling. But emotional responses won’t get any of us anywhere. As I said last night, the debate isn’t about whether we want Waterstones to survive or not, it’s about one simple fact: “it needs to adapt, or die”.

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3 responses to “Viewpoint: Does Waterstones deserve to die?

  1. You make some valid points Anna, if Booksellers don’t adapt to future, like the Panda’s refusal to ‘get jiggy with it’ (as Will Smith puts it) the future does look rather bleak for the both of them. However, there are always test tube babies, artificial insemination and fertility treatment. And let’s not forget the Noah’s Arc genome. Oh! And cloning. Now before I get too off topic…I shall put to you this.

    As digital as the world is becoming and as helpful the internet is being – with its super competitive prices and quick, smooth delivery times, there are just some things the digital world cannot provide.

    For example, if you accidently forget to order that book for your course – or god forbid it is unavailable from amazon – there is a certain charm about being able to go into town and having the ability to pick it up (at double the price) from Waterstones. I had to resort to this recently and the instant gratification of purchasing a book that I want/needed, without waiting for that ‘super saver’ free delivery (3-5 working days) was something I admit is rare for me, but none the less exhilarating.

    Being an impoverished student, unfortunately the rather illusive 10% discount Waterstones sometimes provides for students is not enough to sway me to purchase from them – as it’s friendly online alternative slashes the price of the books I need almost by half on some occasion. However, as I fuel the poor Book stores demise – I will admit, I am not a patient person and as ‘free’ as the delivery is, I hate waiting for it.

    Although when it does arrive it does feel a little like Christmas and you open that box to see all these shiny new books…I must admit, there is some magic lost in that waiting. There is something about the rush and the anticipation of just opening that book off a shelf and starting to read it – because you want it, right then, and couldn’t possibly wait another minute to find out what’s in it.

    Obviously, that is lost in the world of Amazon and this is mostly due to the fact that – yes being cheaper – you are going to tend to buy more. With more books, you are less likely to feel the same passion for each one. It has becomes very easy to purchase a lot of books in bulk and not get round to all of them. Good for business, less good for the consumer.
    Another down side to the delivery process is that in the ‘real world’ many of us work 9-5 jobs and cannot wait around during the day for parcels. You are left in that sticky situation where unless you order them to be sent again at a mutually convenient time or use your Saturday to find the depo your parcel is being held at – wasting more time – it’s just not practical.
    Yeah you may have digital recommendation lists and reviews to read, but isn’t that the charm of books? That you get to form your own opinion before you are swayed by others? That you give that book a chance, when you see it there on the shelf – rather than trawling through peoples rants on how good or bad it was before you make that ‘click’ to put it in that digital basket. And do you really want to have a million of the same genre book rammed down your throat, because you unwisely once brought a Twilight book…and they assume that’s your bag?

    I know you might say this is something sentimental, but the reality of it is whether we are buying books for necessity or pleasure, there is a charm to actually holding the physical book in your hands and deciding whether or not you want to part with your money for it. That is something the internet cannot do.

    Also, as hard as it tries, you will never actually ‘see’ as many books on a website, then you would in a shop. Now before you cry “There are millions of books on amazon!” …I’m talking about actual engagement. Your eyes can soak up much more in a shop, then it will when scrolling through a website, being told what to like through ‘recommendations’ rather than actually going out and finding a book you might like for yourself. It’s false convenience! They’re trying to control your choices. Run.

    ‘But at the end of the day, they’ll become obsolete show rooms!’ I hear you cry…and my answer would be….well, most likely the answer to that will be – yes and no. Book stores are indeed going the way of the electronic stores. But they are still important in their own right. As an option.

    You NEED to go into an electronic store to test a camera before you buy it, to see if you bond with it, if you gel, if you are going to use it as much as you think you will. To see if the product is worth the money you are spending on it. However, there is still going to be that small percentage who say, ‘yes…I want to buy this camera today, I want the extended warranty’ – these people often have more money than they know what to do with…and obviously do not know how to shop around, to get a bargain…but that is beside the point. They still have the choice! Book stores will be the same and the digital world is and always will be a matter of choice.

    Now, you say they are not doing anything to evolve. I feel this is untrue – as Waterstones does not just sell books… but stationary, cards and pretty designer note books. I feel that this possibly may become the main source of a large amount of their earnings in the future…and if they continue to buy into the coffee culture and become attached to such conglomerations as Neros, Starbucks and Costa – I feel we have nothing to fear with their demise. People enjoy coffee/warm drinks…and people enjoy reading. If you join the two, you have pretty much a match made in heaven.

    Another example you could compare this ‘diversification’ to…would be HMV – originally a record shop – selling vinynls and CD’s. When the MP3 hit the stage, yes it was a massive blow to the music industry and CD sales – but it did not stop HMV selling CD’s. Of course now they sell MP3 players, head phones, I-pod speaker docs…as well as the majority of its profits coming from the sales of Game consoles, Games, DVDs, Blu Ray sales and funnily enough – Books! We do not know the future of technology – who knew fifteen years ago that VHS would finally find its demise? Who knew that Music CDs would slowly become obsolete? But truly these ‘hard copies’ will never be obsolete.

    What happens if by some freak occurrence the internet dies? The Millennium bug lives, rears it’s ugly head and kills the internet and anything remotely electronic.Or we run out of power. There is no such thing as electricity or the abiltiy to ‘charge’. All our money disappears – because let’s be honest at the send of the day we have never seen the majority of our lives savings in cash. We rely on our electronics – but at the end of the day if these electronics do not withstand the test of time. What will? Well – the cave men used the walls – our physical paper trail is in books.

    You can hide a book – no metals there. You don’t need to charge it. You can’t break it’s screen…sure you can burn it, but other then that they are pretty sturdy things. So this digital age…whilst overwhelmingly popular – I do not think will take over the physical need for a book store. Not everyone has access to the internet or computer – although the government tries to teach oldies to get on the net (I am sure they must be shocked by what they find there!) but really? No book shops? It’s like saying that Library will be shut down – because they’re not popular enough. It doesn’t matter it’s not popular – it’s there as a choice. A choice for those who maybe cannot afford books.

    Book stores are for those who can afford it, those who are looking for that last minute gift whilst shopping (complete with Birthday card choices) and those who want their books NOW – not next day delivery.

    But I shall leave you with this note – will our only option REALLY be to go into stationers, such as WHSmiths for books in the future? Or will Waterstones become the coffee house-library-stationers in order to survive?

    (Sorry this is most probably a sentimental rant, not backed up and with no real thinking behind it – but hey…I’m a writer! 😛 )

  2. Pingback: Stop dilly-dallying, it’s time to be direct! | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

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