February 28, 2014

“We are committed to the idea that book shops matter”: James Daunt criticises and defends Waterstones


James Daunt

James Daunt: still committed

The managing director of Waterstones, James Daunt, spoke yesterday to attendees at the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) conference, and addressed some of the biggest questions being thrown at the national bookshop right now.

Daunt took part in a question and answer session, and as expected, much of the focus was on the relationship between digital sales and physical shops. With an attitude that feels refreshingly honest, Daunt directly addressed the issue of Waterstones’ website, which has flagged behind competition and is often criticized for how out-dated the service it offers is. As the Bookseller reports, Daunt called the website “pathetic”, recognizing that it needs to be made “engaging and intelligent”. Much to everyone’s relief, he revealed it would be undergoing an overhaul this summer: “We will have a new platform from July which will give us something more adaptable.”

Daunt was also prepared to be critical of the chain’s previous management:

“it had failed to invest “when the sun shone”, and that what investment had been made was done in a “crass” way, leaving the business with a poor infrastructure.”

But Waterstones still needs to iron out those infrastructure issues, especially when it comes to logistics. He noted that ,“We have, as part of many structural challenges within Waterstones, a distribution system which is passable at best.” but also acknowledged that it is “unacceptable” to make a customer wait two or three weeks for a book. He was honest in demonstrating that Waterstones knows where it’s currently going wrong: “you shouldn’t be able to order online and get a book at a dramatically faster speed than walking into a store”.

Daunt’s words will, I’m sure, allay some fears in the industry. Of course, just noticing what’s wrong isn’t the same as fixing it, but his criticisms of Waterstones show that the company is prepared to be self-critical, and hasn’t buried its head in the sand. What’s more, it’s not just sitting back or – worse still – winding down. Daunt’s frustrated about stuff, and that means he cares, and that means he will hopefully does something about it.

As for defending the role of the high street bookshop– or rather, reassuring listeners of its longevity, he was talking to indie publishers after all – Daunt stressed Waterstones’ two strengths against Amazon: it specializes in books, and every one of its store is a showroom for them. The reason Waterstones is still relevant comes “back to discoverability” and Waterstones should be “as relevant to Amazon as it is to publishers”.

But that’s an odd way of looking at things. Physical spaces are important to showcase books, and they contribute to both print and digital, bricks-and-mortar and online sales, it’s true. But saying that Waterstones can be “relevant” to Amazon, sounds a lot like saying Waterstones can help its competitor to do better (Daunt was heavily criticized when Waterstones began selling Kindles in its stores in 2012). Amazon doesn’t do mutual beneficence. Waterstones shouldn’t be there to help Amazon by offering free advertising of books to be bought on Amazon, in the way of showrooming. Let Amazon pay its own rent.

Daunt, however, knows that there’s something else that will keep the customer and challenge Amazon’s slashing of prices: stores need to be “outstanding”, it’s only by being so that customers will pay more. That understanding, that quality matters and that building real book communities is important, will be vital for Waterstones in competing against Amazon.

“We are committed to the idea that book shops matter,” said Daunt, announcing that in the future he wanted to have smaller bookshops but more of them. Shops in “inappropriate” locations would be closed, adding that “clearly we won’t make money selling books in Wrexham.” It’s sad to think that areas without strong literary communities will lose their local Waterstones: a smaller demand usually means that that shop is a lifeline for a dedicated few. And won’t that just mean handing over more customers to Amazon?