James Daunt: 'Amazon are a ruthless, money-making devil, the consumer's enemy'

After the success of his eponymous chain, the new Waterstone's boss tells John Walsh why physical bookshops still have a future

December is the month the nation's booksellers go into overdrive. With Christmas twinkling like a Lottery win, they will probably shift more books in the next three weeks than in the other 11 months together. After a sluggish autumn, the signs are encouraging: The Bookseller reported on Tuesday that week-on-week sales of printed book have soared by £5.5m compared with 2011, as shoppers realised the time to purchase Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child for their brother-in-law and the new biography of Dickens for their dad had finally arrived.

All booksellers will be wondering if more punters will come through their doors than will buy online. But the managers of the 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 chain by its new Russian billionaire owner, Alexander Mamut, and given the task of making its shops profitable and its 4,500 staff content.

Overnight Daunt became a major player. In The Guardian's recent list of 100 key figures in the book world, he and Mamut came fourth, beaten only by J K Rowling and the bosses of Amazon and Google. But Daunt's name has been famous for years – it's emblazoned over the six bookshops in a chain he founded 20 years ago. The shops are calm and wood-floored temples to literature, and are run on old-fashioned, eccentric lines: they don't offer discounts and the staff are book enthusiasts.

So is he going to turn Waterstone's into 300 clones of Daunts? He shudders. "I wouldn't begin to think of having 300 Daunts. Daunts is deliberately idiosyncratic in everything it does; it has a place because it's different. We sell a fraction of the books Waterstone's sell in London. 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."

When Daunt says "we" or "our" these days, he means Waterstone's. This Sherborne-educated Cambridge history graduate and former banker at JP Morgan has thrown himself with gusto into the role of makeover king. Watch him walk into the west London branch of Waterstone's, and you'll see his eyes flicker everywhere: that table crammed with games shouldn't be the first thing a shopper sees. Those shelves in the children's section are too high for children. He examines paperbacks by the window and sees their covers are warped by sunlight – unsellable.

In a nearby café, he puts a single brown sugar cube on a spoon, melts it with hot coffee and drinks it quickly. He's a man of precise movements and a precise cast of mind, as he considers how to bring individualism to 300 stores.

"You have to let the booksellers decide how to curate their own stock," he says. "The skill of a good bookseller is how you juxtapose your titles, and create interesting displays, and reflect what your community wants."

"Curating" is a favourite word, as if each of his booksellers were masterminding a gallery. He's spent the first six months getting to know them. "I've been talking to booksellers in groups of 40. I get the train to York, see the people there, train to Edinburgh, see people there. They come in and I tell them what they should be doing, give them the tools to do it, then send them out to start getting on with it."

Daunt believes in localism. "My vision is of a local bookshop completely at ease within its local community. Looking after its local authors, who are often their best customers, a very good reason to be nice to them. Where Waterstone's used to send booksellers a photo and say, 'Make sure you have all these books on display', we leave to the individual. I'll say, 'Here's a crime fiction table – what's the best crime fiction you want to have there?' Or if you're in Barnstable and it's full of hunting, shooting and fishing types, why not have a special bay for hunting, shooting and fishing books?"

In September he announced the end of three-for-two promotions that for years have left book-buyers' shelves groaning with titles they "bought" but never wanted. "If we're doing our job properly," says Daunt, "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, or are buying for others – it's hard enough to sell them just one book."

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. "You'll walk into a Waterstone's and there'll be a bit of the shop where you can look at e-readers, play with them. 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 never struck me as being a sort of business in the consumer's interest. They're a ruthless, money-making devil." He dreads the physical bookshop disappearing altogether in the digital tsunami.

"The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that 'If you read this, you'll like that' – it's a dismal way to recommend books. A physical bookshop in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books is the environment you want."

As to the books-industry Cassandras who predict that publishers, agents and booksellers may all disappear in the next five years, "I wouldn't bet against publishers," he said. "The editorial process and the marketing – someone has to do it. I don't think agents are the best people to do it. Authors certainly aren't – they need editing. I think either all three will survive or they'll all disappear, swept away, replaced by one big fat Amazon, getting his way. And if the bookshops go, they will never come back." His combative eyes glitter.

"So I have a responsibility."

James Daunt: The CV

Born: October 1963. His father,Timothy, was a British diplomat,and ambassador to Turkey from 1986 to 1992.

 

Education: Went to Sherborne School in Dorset, the same school as his father, and read history at Cambridge, where he met his wife, Katy.

 

Career: Worked at the bank JP Morgan in the US the 1980s, before leaving in 1990 and setting up the independent Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, London (now with six branches in the city). Made managing director at Waterstones in July this year.

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