February 28, 2020

Waterstones’ 6.2% pay rise still means many booksellers do not earn a living wage


Waterstones Bookshop by AP Monblat, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last year we wrote about booksellers petitioning Waterstones, the UK’s biggest book chain, to pay them a living wage.

It has just be announced that as of April 1, 2020, Waterstones booksellers will be given a 6.2% pay rise. Hurray! You might think. The booksellers have won! Sadly they have not, as this pay rise still does not equate to a living wage for a large proportion of staff.

Well, what the heck is a living wage anyway, you might ask? In the UK, as of April 2020 the minimum wage to be played to all workers, as deemed by the government, is £8.72 for anyone 25 and over, £8.20 if you’re aged 21 to 24 and £6.45 if you’re 18-20. All well and good, but these calculated wages are based on a target to reach 60% of median earnings by 2020.

The real Living Wage is based on what people actually need to get by on and the cost of living, you know … to live.  That is currently calculated to be £9.30 in the UK and £10.75 in London. Even with the 6.2% pay increase, Waterstones’ booksellers are not being paid this living wage, which is a recommendation rather than a government requirement. Who needs food anyway?

The petition calling for the living wage to be met was signed by 9,300 people and delivered to Waterstones’ head office last year, by April Newton and four other booksellers. All five booksellers have now resigned. Newton told the Guardian last August:

“I decided I was no longer willing to tolerate the low pay and difficult working conditions.

“I absolutely loved working in a bookshop. If the pay, working environment and prospects for career progression had been good, I would have stayed and tried to make a career out of bookselling or in the publishing industry … But living in London on the pay I received was taking a huge toll on my health and happiness, and I saw no sign of things improving if I stayed with the company.”

Bookseller Kimi Wright, who also delivered the petition, added:

“In the meeting, I told James my whole reason for doing this is I want to continue to be a bookseller, I want to be able to get to the end of the month without having to turn to family to cover a last-minute bill … I showed him that the sole of my shoe was starting to wear through … I’ve done everything in my power to make things better. If sitting in a boardroom with the managing director for several hours trying to get our point across doesn’t, nothing’s going to.”

As we reported at the time, James Daunt staunchly defended and continues to defend his decisions. Undoubtably, Daunt has helped turned Waterstones’ fortunes around: when he first joined the company, it was haemorrhaging money with 2016 the first time Waterstones had made a profit since the 2008 financial crisis. It is hugely important for all book lovers and book professionals that the company stays afloat, and it seems to be doing well: not only did Waterstones’ profits rise by 39% last year, with a pretax profit of £26.5 million, Waterstones recently bought Barnes & Noble in a deal costing $683m (£537m). The highest paid director of Elliott Advisors UK, the company that now owns Waterstones, was paid £11.9m last year, according to Yahoo Finance UK. So unsurprisingly, emotions surrounding poor pay for booksellers are raw, with many expressing their support, demanding action, on Twitter.

Kate Skipper, Waterstones chief operating officer sent a letter to staff on the financial landscape of the company, thanking staff for their work as shared by Retail Gazette:

“As we approach the end of our financial year, it seems a good opportunity to pause to reflect and to say thank you.

“In a year of economic and political turmoil, accompanied by a barrage of catastrophic retail headlines, it is worth taking a moment to celebrate that our like-for-like sales continue to grow and our bookshops continue to improve. To fight against the retail tide so successfully is only achieved with effort and bookselling talent.”

“To take another step forward towards our goal to deliver rewarding bookselling careers is pleasing, particularly in such a hostile economic environment and we do so with thanks to you all.”

Certainly pay rises are welcome. But if booksellers cannot afford to live and therefore abandon their passion for more viable jobs, the whole book industry will suffer.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.