Boyd Tonkin: A velvet revolution on the shelves

The Week In Books

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:46

What happens when a palace coup unseats a failing dictatorship? Yesterday's heresy becomes today's orthodoxy. Truths once whispered in fear behind the rulers' backs are broadcast from street-corner loudspeakers. The new regime proclaims as common sense critiques of the old guard that would once have led to dire punishment.

So it is with Waterstone's, Britain's monopoly high-street bookseller – and the only specialist chain left standing after Borders' pre-Christmas collapse. For several years, its management style resembled Stalinist Albania without the rugged scenery. Lumbering top brass from the ministry (or rather, the HMV parent group) showed little grasp of the book trade, let alone literature. They enforced top-down, one-size-fits-all techniques of stock control and blanket promotion. Staff were forbidden to talk to the outside world (ie the media). Official comminiqués denied the glaring evidence of shrinking choice in the stores, abject dependence on a few privileged suppliers, the suppression of independence and autonomy. Last year's attempt to install a national distribution "hub" broke down in utter confusion. Meanwhile, propaganda pretended that happy workers and shoppers were striding into a sunlit future.

Now a revolution of sorts has at last taken place. Dominic Myers, the chain's new managing director, admits that his company has suffered from "stifling homogeneity". The "hub" itself has inflicted a "lack of availability"; ie robbed consumers of choice. Tell us something we don't know. Myers wants to foster more diversity, more individuality, more sensitivity to local needs. "Range" (the depth of the overall book stock) will have more of a role in the offer that Waterstone's makes to its customers, and "campaign" (discounted celebrities, three-for-two sell-offs and the like) less. In a gesture that old-style Kremlinologists would relish, an ousted dissident – Tim Watson, now product director – has returned after a spell of exile.

This is all good news - if it happens soon. To be fair, even during the dark days of rigid central planning, the stores employed plenty of keen and clued-up staff. Now they deserve the freedom to breathe and to move. With around 300 locations, and no plans as yet for any drastic reduction in their numbers, Waterstone's also has a chance to put its rival-free status as a retail network to good use in recruitment.

When Tim Waterstone first built his brand in the mid-1980s, much of its popularity stemmed not from the retro polished-wood styling but from the people. In the depths of recession, with interesting graduate jobs at a premium, the chain hired a dynamic workforce who made visits to its shops a treat.

That buzz continued for a while as the economy perked up. Quite possibly, David Mitchell – the most original British novelist of the past decade – would have grasped how to blend high literary ambition with captivating readability if he had spent a formative period herding goats instead of selling books at Waterstone's. But I like to think that his stint behind the till helped.

Plus ça change. A "rejuvenated" chain (to use Myers's concept) should have no trouble in finding and keeping qualified staff over the next few years of austerity. Of course, it has to do much more than wait for the fruit to drop into its lap. "Non-book" activities, which Myers wishes to expand, ought to mean more regular events, and active outreach, rather than yet another batch of pricey coffee shops. The expansion of e-books – whatever slice of the market they finally occupy – should make bricks-and-mortar outlets think even harder about the added value of a real, rather than a virtual, trip to browse and to buy. Yet the ultimate challenge will probably turn on ownership rather than in-store presentation. To be blunt, Waterstone's needs to be liberated at some stage from the corporate stranglehold of HMV. After this inner-party putsch, who will now advocate a total breakaway from the evil empire?

P.S.Coverage of books and reading on the BBC's terrestrial TV channels remains as grudging and erratic as ever: a historic failure that saps the loyalty of even strong supporters of the licence fee. Radios 3 and 4, of course, still shine as writer-friendly jewels in the broadcasting crown, while the BBC's digital domain does open its door to authors rather wider than before. Today (with repeats on Saturday and Sunday), Razia Iqbal (left) talks to Ian McEwan to launch a series of literary interviews on the BBC News Channel. Her other subjects in Talking Books will include Andrea Levy, Philip Pullman, Victoria Hislop, PD James and Hanif Kureishi. Do the math, BBC bosses. Tally their huge readerships; then look at the tiny UK support for the esoteric Winter Olympics disciplines that hogged our screens. Which ought you to shunt into a digital siding?

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