Recently James Daunt announced that Waterstones had finally turned the corner of the long and winding road leading back to a healthy business. Operating losses have been halved – no mean feat in the economic climate that has stymied business since 2008. I know there are many out there who see Waterstones’ ubiquitous High Street presence as the bête noire of plucky independents but I hope to persuade you that we need them both to survive for our own reading pleasure. I worked for Waterstones for over a decade and was associated with them as a freelance working on the now defunct Waterstones Books Quarterly for close to another so I’m not without bias. It allowed me to observe – sometimes at uncomfortably close quarters – the ups and downs of the business, from the days when Tim Waterstone ran the show, famously declaring that his booksellers had a passion for books, to W H Smith’s ownership, then HMV and now Alexander Malmut. At several points in that period things went horribly awry and the business went from media darling to become the target of disgruntled readers some of whom seemed to see it as the devil incarnate. I’m not going to analyse all that but I would like to try to persuade you that we’d all be worse off without Waterstones.
My argument is this: without a healthy Waterstones displaying a wide variety of books – some from small publishers – alongside the more predictable bestsellers, the range of titles published will inexorably narrow. Amazon may offer you an algorithm-driven selection of books based on your previous purchases but they are unlikely to introduce you to anything a little out of the ordinary. Many Waterstones staff are knowledgeable, well read and eager to spread the word about their latest find, encouraged by an employer who gives them a hefty discount for that very reason. Amazon’s ‘look inside’ facility may give you a glimpse of a book’s contents but it’s no substitute for flicking through the book itself, or for having your eye caught by an artfully designed jacket. Without a healthy High Street bookselling chain publishers are likely to become more cautious – no more Stoner (championed by a Waterstones bookseller, by the way), no more The Hundred-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, a surprise hit for a small publisher. Publishers, already screwed down by Amazon’s demands for ever-increasing discounts, may be unable to offer favourable enough terms for hard-pressed independent bookshops to survive. A creeping blandification is likely to afflict us all. And we all know about the cuts to library services with their worrying effects on children’s reading but no healthy High Street bookseller means far fewer visits by children’s authors or storytelling events in the school holidays.
I hope this post doesn’t read like an advertorial – I’ve nothing to gain from it and I’d be the first to admit that Waterstones are far from perfect – but I believe passionately that without a thriving High Street chain devoted to books both readers and independent book shops will be sadly impoverished.