July 7, 2017

Don’t be daunted by Amazon, says James Daunt


James Daunt. Via YouTube.

The age of Amazon undeniably marks the end of bookselling as we’ve long known it. As we’ve mentioned in the past, the online retailer’s recent forays into the world of soulless, algorithm-based brick-and-mortar stores likely mean the deaths of more independent bookstores, many of which are already struggling.

Now James Daunt, managing director of the British bookstore chain Waterstones, has a message of hope for the “doom and gloom” prophets: small bookstores can still survive, they just need to change how they do things.

As Shelf Awareness reported last week, Daunt delivered a keynote address at the Australian Booksellers Association’s annual conference in Melbourne recently, in which he explained his strategy for keeping his chain relevant despite Amazon’s encroachments and undercuttings. According to Daunt, what separates indies from Amazon is the in-store experience. “We as booksellers have a duty to create excitement about books. If we do so, we’ll continue to have customers come through the door.” Waterstones has recently turned down $35 million in promotional co-op from publishers, which Daunt says felt like “coming off heroin.” They now stock fewer total books but a broader range of titles, which means fewer books collecting dust in warehouses.

​Daunt’s how-to-beat-Amazon program also involves a heavy emphasis on enthusiastic, active, and well-paid booksellers. “It’s absolutely all about the booksellers,” he said. As for whether brick-and-mortal stores can survive despite their prices being undercut by Amazon, Daunt described a sense he believes people have that “a book bought from a bookshop is a better book…. When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it’s not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop.”

The James Daunt Method may already be getting applied outside of Waterstones. Kathryn Grantham just opened the Black Bird Bookstore in San Francisco, which features a slim, employee-curated selection of 250 titles, and WORD Bookstore owner Christine Onorati has been practicing “farm-to-table” bookselling for over ten years. Perhaps these stores, and others like them, will help us to survive the impending Amazonpocalypse.



Peter Kranitz is an intern at Melville House.