The special one
16.11.12 | Philip Jones
The strapline to our feature interview with James Daunt in this week's issue is "Waterstones special". As a moniker goes it's about right. Since the 1980s Waterstones has had a special relationship with the publishers it serves, the booksellers it employs and the readers it sells to.
Its more recent history has not been kind to it. As Daunt says much of the chain is now "tired-looking", many of its booksellers jaundiced by years of under-investment and poor leadership at the top. The arrival of Daunt—"100% book man"—18 months ago following the acquisition of the business by Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut, was supposed to change all this, arrest the internal decline and address the external challenges. Depending on who you ask, Daunt is either half-way there, or nowhere near. But if there was too much optimism at the beginning, there is now too much pessimism.
As Daunt makes clear the legacy was grim—£40m of books not even displayed, no digital strategy, an estate in decline. In a more benign environment to imagine all this could be resolved overnight looked fanciful. The economic recession, and the shift to digital made what was already a difficult task look all but impossible. That Daunt took it on at all was admirable.
One can imagine that now Waterstones is privately owned, there has been a temptation to administer the cure behind closed doors. But Waterstones is a public business. Publishers, booksellers, authors, even readers love to gossip about "their" Waterstones. We all have a stake.
The 18-month report card is mixed. Daunt's vision is emerging and early results from refurbished stores back him. But the adjustment has not been without pain: publishers have had to take a leap over terms, with many now fretting over orders. Staff have had to absorb changes unfiltered by the usual corporate soft-soaping.
Yet if Daunt can embed a "sense of belief", then what made Waterstones "special" once can return. Waterstones did "discoverability" before we even knew to call it that.
There has been a temptation to over-complicate Daunt, to imagine that there is a cunning plan lurking beneath the obvious one, but the reality is that he likes bookshops and believes they are important. He relishes the theatre of the shopfloor, and he thinks customers do too--enough to want to buy in that environment. If he is right, we all win.