Boyd Tonkin: Chain is author of its own misfortunes
Friday 15 January 2010
Will Waterstone's survive the new decade? This week, the book chain's likely future looks as slim as one of those volumes of poetry that you won't find in its celebrity-heavy outlets. To lose 8.9 per cent of sales over a tough pre-Christmas period might be pardonable in another business. With a virtual monopoly on high street specialist bookselling in a nation that still reads pretty avidly, it seems like worse than carelessness. Remember that this plunge, which has cost the job of the outgoing MD, Gerry Johnson, happened just as nearest rival Borders gave up.
Of course, structural shifts mean that even a brilliantly managed bookstore network would have suffered over the past decade: the end of the price-setting Net Book Agreement without any legal limits on discount levels; the flight to internet sales pioneered, and still led, by Amazon; the multiplication of new-media entertainments. But to a large extent the HMV subsidiary (since 1998) has proved the author of its own misfortunes. The heyday of the small-scale boutique chain created by Tim Waterstone after 1982 now feels like a golden age, but the rot of over-expansion set in early.
It accelerated under WH Smith. More continued to mean worse when, in 2006, Waterstone's swallowed Ottakar's. The founder's snug platoon of 20 – even 50 – richly stocked shops in the right places had swollen into an unwieldy 300-strong battalion. Many branches stood like threadbare sentinels in nasty shopping precincts.
The quality of their offer fell off a cliff. Too many Waterstone's forgot the meaning of depth and range. They piled 'em high; they flogged 'em cheap. Shrinking choice and Stalinist centralisation lost the goodwill of the literary world. Top brass also mislaid any coherent plot – and, crucially, the support of staff. Last year a new distribution "hub" rolled out in a total mess.
With a third of the current stores, a dozen or so spectacular "flagships", and an upgraded web operation to challenge Amazon, the new MD, Dominic Myers, could write a happier chapter. His problem is that too many people no longer want Waterstone's as the leading character in their own romance with the printed page. If bricks-and-mortar bookselling in Britain does have a continuing story to tell, it will need a fresher hero.
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