March 29, 2019
Waterstones booksellers’ petition for a living wage attracts thousands of signatures
by Tom Clayton
This week, Alison Flood of The Guardian and others reported on the story that booksellers at Waterstones were campaigning for a living wage (in the UK, that’s £9 p/h; £10:55 p/h in London).
In a petition which has already attracted over 8,000 signatures, staff appealed to owner James Daunt that:
Paying all your Booksellers a starting Living Wage of £9, or £10.55 for the Greater London area, will have a positive impact on the lives of Booksellers, their performance in the role, and the success of the bookselling industry.
The petition was followed up by an open letter to Daunt from author Kerry Hudson, which has itself now gained signatures from over 2,000 writers including Sally Rooney, Michael Rosen, and Val McDermid:
Authors, publishers and everyone else in the industry is indebted to [booksellers’] support sharing and selling our books. It is in everyone’s interest that Booksellers across the country are, as stated in the petition, “healthy, well-read, intelligent and insightful, and who have the time, energy and commitment to keep bookshops alive and thriving.”
Waterstones had only last year reported an 80% increase in profits—pointing to “cost savings and a shift away from selling low margin academic course books into more profitable products like stationery and toys” as the reason for the company’s turnaround. This, along with the company’s recent acquisition of Foyles, suggested an organisation in rude health.
However, it seems all is not well on the ground—and hasn’t been for some time. In response to the petition, Daunt defended the wage structure, claiming Waterstones was “simply not profitable enough to wave the magic wand and shower gold all around.”
To retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job.
Those remarks were met with incredulity from staff both past and present, with Jim Taylor, an ex-employee who worked at the company for 10 years, writing for Wednesday’s Guardian that:
In his response to the living wage petition, Daunt made mention of rewarding employees with a “stimulating job,” and while I can certainly say that the variety of roles kept my work interesting, there was always one constant: low pay … to say—as Daunt has—that a stimulating job should be a reward in itself is not simply patronising, it is exploitative.
In an interview on Radio 4 show PM on Wednesday, Daunt again defended his stance, saying it would “not be especially difficult” to raise the wage for the lowest level of bookseller, but that the company would “feel obliged, indeed firmly believe, that we would then need to raise [the wages] of all our booksellers above that level. That then becomes extremely expensive.”
So with Daunt seemingly unmoved by both the petition and authors’ letter, the row over pay appears to have reached an impasse for now. What’s the way forward? As with so many issues in the books industry, firm answers are elusive; and boycotting Waterstones will only make matters worse for the lowest-paid. Whatever your feelings on the story, it is important to applaud those brave enough to speak up —an act that always requires impressive reserves of courage.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.