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.
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.
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.
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”.