In the world of books, small is beautiful

Click to follow

Yesterday I had a go at Waterstone's. Sorry about that, especially as I am having another go today. What I said was that our tiny local bookshop in Bradford-on-Avon, Ex Libris, was much quicker at ordering and getting books than our mighty Waterstone's. I also said that Roger Jones, who runs Ex Libris, publishes good local history books which he used to sell direct to the local Waterstone's. But Waterstone's head office no longer allows him to do this. They closed his account last July and told him to wait for orders from a wholesaler called Gardner's.

Yesterday I had a go at Waterstone's. Sorry about that, especially as I am having another go today. What I said was that our tiny local bookshop in Bradford-on-Avon, Ex Libris, was much quicker at ordering and getting books than our mighty Waterstone's. I also said that Roger Jones, who runs Ex Libris, publishes good local history books which he used to sell direct to the local Waterstone's. But Waterstone's head office no longer allows him to do this. They closed his account last July and told him to wait for orders from a wholesaler called Gardner's.

Roger wrote back saying that he thought it was a sad day for Waterstone's, as it clearly marked the time when any local autonomy was being taken away from local branches. He also wrote:

"What your somewhat disingenuous letter really means is: 'Please go away. We can't be bothered with small publishers who represent only a minute fraction of our turnover. If any customer actually troubles us with a request for one of your titles you might eventually receive an order for it from Gardner's. Good bye!'"

This is taken from a book Roger is about to print privately called Fully Booked, a diary of a year in the life of a small bookseller. I wonder if anyone in Waterstone's would dare to do the same? Of course not, especially after the Edinburgh Waterstone's recently fired a senior employee for writing critical thoughts on his weblog.

It is extraordinary to see how quickly Waterstone's has gone from being the bright new kid on the block to the big bully in the office block. In the 1980s the chain was a breath of fresh air, bringing well-stocked bookshops to well-heeled towns. Even if they sent some small shops to the wall, well, their enthusiasm sort of compensated. But enthusiasm is not the emotion you associate with HMV-owned Waterstone's these days. Corporate efficiency ... cost-cutting ... ruthless discount demanding ... that's what seems to come over.

"It's a shame," says Roger. "WH Smith have drifted the same way. Until a few years ago Waterstone's and Smith's were the two biggest customers for the books I published... In those days any enlightened person who ran a local branch was allowed to order good local books. But that kind of independence has gone. I haven't sold a book through Smith's anywhere for two years. It all seems to be dictated by accountants at head office these days."

Roger feels emboldened to say things like this because in a month or two he, alas, is leaving bookselling and semi-retiring to his beloved Jersey to continue publishing books on the Channel Islands. Other people, however, are still coming into bookselling, and the crazy thing is that a lot of them are ex-Waterstone's people, who went into Waterstone's in the first place because they were mad about books and are now coming out because Waterstone's isn't. I can think of at least three places less than 50 miles from me which have recently sprouted small bookshops under the management of ex-Waterstone's people.

"People like me were always suspect at Waterstone's," one of them told me. "They suspected us of loving books and not being very good at business. Well, those of us who got out and started our own bookshops are still going strong so we must be doing something right. The trick is to find the right catchment area, ideally, a town which is too small for Waterstone's to want to conquer but large enough for a small business to thrive. Don't make Waterstone's feel threatened, that's the secret. They could easily crush you if you do."

Gosh, I do hope this article hasn't made Waterstone's feel fearfully threatened! But before they come and crush me, let me urge all readers who are thinking of ordering a book to go to their local independent bookshop to get it. It'll be quicker and nicer, and the book will taste a lot fresher.

Comments