October 8, 2018

‘Are the right titles always embargoed? Not always.’ says Waterstones MD… after breaking embargoes.


We’ve written about Waterstones a fair amount of late, partly because… well… there aren’t any other British bookshop chains to write about. But also because they’ve been experiencing a period of flux and change, resulting in mixed feelings from the book trade. 

Shortly after announcing the purchase of independent bookshop chain Foyles, Waterstones’ MD James Daunt put out a statement emphasising the want of the company to champion individuality and traditional bookselling values. But just a few days later, Daunt also told The Bookseller he was considering moving to a firm sale model for Waterstones. There is an argument for this being a good thing for publishers: whatever Waterstones orders they keep, meaning they cannot return unsold books. But couldn’t this mean that they will simply order less and more cautiously? Speaking to Daunt, The Booksellers’ Katherine Chowdrey reported:

‘In the interests of “liberating space” in store for the books that are selling, he further said Waterstones would be making improvements through better systems and training, which may mean ordering fewer titles initially. It will also stop carrying certain ranges of books it has carried historically, for example “withdrawing steadily” from stocking more technical titles in favour of expanding children’s sections, fiction, narrative non-fiction and illustrated books.

Waterstones will also be working to expand its offering of related product (RP), i.e. children’s toys and stationery, that has been increasing as a proportion of its sales by 1 percentage point a year. The aim is to bolster revenue derived from RP from 13% of Waterstones’ sales to 18%, at which point Daunt promised the bookseller would stop.’

That sounds like more toys, less books to me. And the ‘fewer titles initially’ bit along with ‘stop carrying certain ranges of books it has carried historically’ rings alarm bells. It does not sound like good news for independent publishers.

Now Waterstones have created another storm by breaking embargoes.

Last week was Super Thursday. That doesn’t mean we all acquire awesome powers for the day and dress in snazzy costumes. It’s the day when publishers launch their biggest hitters for the year – those books vying for Christmas top-spots. This year in the UK, 544 new hardbacks were published from huge names including Sir David Attenborough, Tim Peake, Gary Barlow, Martina Cole, and David WalliamsCharlotte Eyre at The Bookseller reported that last year, the period spanning from Super Thursday up until Christmas Eve saw 62.8 million books sold, netting £551.9m ($716.46). A lot of these big books are embargoed, meaning they are not to be sold before an agreed date (and in some cases, even a specific time). This is often to do with exclusivity granted to newspapers and magazines who want to feature books before anyone has seen then. It’s also to build buzz and attention and meet certain contractual obligations. But whoops! Waterstones have come under fire for apparently throwing caution to the wind and ignoring those pesky Super Thursday embargoes. Eyre reports that independent booksellers have been raising their concerns after Waterstones in Camberley, Surrey, tweeted about new books from Jacqueline Wilson, Ian Rankin and Bernard Cornwell on Tuesday. Wrong day folks.

In response, Daunt told Eyre:

 ‘Embargoes on key titles are agreed with publishers and both welcomed and respected by Waterstones. Excitement around the launch date is enhanced and we sell more books. For most books, however, customers asking for a book should be sold it. Otherwise we simply send the customer to Amazon. This is as true, of course, for independent booksellers as for Waterstones.

‘Are the right titles always embargoed? Not always. Too many generally, for the Amazon reason, and sometimes one or two might have benefited from the ‘woomph’ of a launch. Overall, however, we think the balance is right and very much better thought through than was the case a few years ago.”

Oh well, that’s alright then! If a customer asks nicely and desperately enough, that apparently warrants breaking an embargo. It sounds more and more as though Waterstones are making up their own rules, often to the detriment of independent bookshops and publishers… and who is going to stop them?

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.