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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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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