Daunting task for Waterstone's chief as he takes on Amazon

 

December is the month the nation's booksellers go into overdrive. All of them will be wondering if more punters will come through their doors than will buy online. But the managers of the UK's 290-odd branches of Waterstone's will have an additional concern: trying to impress their new boss.

It's seven months since James Daunt took up the biggest challenge of his life, when he was appointed managing director of the bookshop chain by its new Russian billionaire owner, Alexander Mamut, and given the task of making its shops profitable and its 4,500 staff more content.

Daunt's name is emblazoned over the six bookshops in a chain he founded 20 years ago. The shops are calm and wood-floored temples to literary communion, and are run on old-fashioned, eccentric lines. So is he going to turn Waterstone's into 300 clones of Daunts? He shudders. "Daunts is deliberately highly idiosyncratic; it has a place because it's very different. But do I have ideas of how to present books? Of course. And do I think many of our shops are very shabby? Yes I do. [The chain] needs a makeover."

This Sherborne-educated Cambridge history graduate and former banker at JP Morgan has thrown himself with gusto into the role of makeover king. "You have to let the booksellers decide how to curate their own stock," he says. "The skill of a good bookseller is how you reflect what your community wants."

"Curating" is a favourite word, as if each of his booksellers was masterminding a gallery. He's spent the first six months getting to know them. "I've been talking to booksellers. I get the train to York, see the people there, train to Edinburgh, see people there. I give them the tools, then send them out to start getting on with it."

Daunt believes in localism. "My vision of a Waterstone's is of a local bookshop at ease within its community... looking after its local authors, often their best customers, a very good reason to be nice to them."

In September he announced the end of the chain's three-for-two promotion that has for years left book-buyers' shelves groaning. "We should be the bookshop of choice for the serious reader. But where we compete with WH Smith and supermarkets is for people who don't read much, don't buy books or are buying for others." He is alive to the threat bookshops face from the digital revolution, but his attitude is, broadly, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "There'll be a bit of the shop where you can look at e-readers. We're inventing one of our own – perhaps we'll call it the Windle – and we're working on the Barnes & Noble approach. They've embedded their own e-book, called the Nook, within their bookshops and have succeeded in taking market share from the Kindle."

He adds: "If the bookshop lets you have both and has a product every bit as good as the Amazon one, why wouldn't you do it with a bookshop?"

Daunt makes no bones about his dislike of Amazon: "They're a ruthless, money-making devil." He dreads the unimaginable happening – the physical bookshop disappearing altogether. "The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. Absolutely terrible."

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