Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One

Why do people hate Waterstone’s so much? For the same reas­on, I would guess, people hate Microsoft (and, as a Mac user, I hate them more than most). Waterstone’s is get­ting to be a mono­lith­ic insti­tu­tion, and when some­thing gets that dom­in­ant, the pos­it­ive aspects of its hege­mony fade while the neg­at­ive aspects start to grate.

Like the man says, it’s all about per­cep­tion. Various sources this morn­ing point to a ‘charm offens­ive’ (Grumpy’s phrase) on the part of Gerry Johnson, who is the new Managing Director of Waterstone’s. He thinks that authors and — uh-oh — cus­tom­ers have the wrong idea about Waterstone’s, and it’s easy to see why. Waterstone’s demand huge dis­counts from pub­lish­ers (which squeeze the author dis­pro­por­tion­ately), decide for them­selves how many cop­ies of a book are required and then, charm­ingly, send the units back to the pub­lish­er if they remain unsold after a spe­cified peri­od. If a pub­lish­er isn’t happy with this, they can take their busi­ness else­where — i.e. nowhere. Of course, it’s dif­fi­cult to blame a busi­ness for nego­ti­at­ing the best terms for itself, because the man­age­ment have a duty to their share­hold­ers. And, if a com­pany has huge lever­age, it is likely to adopt a robust pos­i­tion with­in the mar­ket.

Still, when I walked into my loc­al Waterstone’s yes­ter­day (Exeter high street), this was not my impres­sion:

WATERSTONE’S WAS ONCE the favour­ite book­seller of the liter­ati. The shops, with their red car­pets and black shelving, were like ideal­ised lib­rar­ies, jammed with books often over­flow­ing from shelves and tables on to the floors. The staff were know­ledge­able and often mav­er­ick; you got an excit­ing sense that the selec­tions rep­res­en­ted the idio­syn­crat­ic tastes of the company’s book­sellers.

The above quote comes from an art­icle in the Times by Nicholas Clee, formerly edit­or of The Bookseller, now freel­an­cer.

My impres­sion was one of volume-shift­ing. The 3-for-2 table con­tained books that were lit­er­ally years old. I don’t mean clas­sics, which are hard enough to find in Waterstone’s (try look­ing for Norman Mailer), but books like Cloud Atlas, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and oth­er titles I recog­nised from the last time I lived in Exeter two years ago. Variety: out the win­dow. Volume-shift­ing: in the door, smoth­er­ing the 3-for-2 tables and trip­ping you up as your come in.

Clee makes a couple of com­ments about Scott Pack:

Pack has become the bogey­man — the man who rev­els in his power as dic­tat­or of the nation’s read­ing, arrog­antly dis­misses dis­tin­guished writers and has con­tempt for crit­ics. There were reportedly cel­eb­ra­tions in some quar­ters last week when he announced he was leav­ing in the sum­mer.

The way Scott has been char­ac­ter­ised has been very unfor­tu­nate,” Johnson says. “He is an incred­ibly know­ledge­able and pas­sion­ate book buy­er.” Certainly Pack has helped sev­er­al small pub­lish­ers and even self-pub­lish­ers. He has offered them advice, read their books and even giv­en them pro­mo­tion­al sup­port.

Indeed. If Johnson wants to change the per­cep­tion of Waterstone’s, he should encour­age his staff to engage with the wider lit­er­ary com­munity — as Scott has been doing, to great effect — and nar­row the gap between us, the little people, and Waterstone’s, the mono­lith.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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