Two years ago at The Bookseller’s FutureBook conference, Osprey Group chief executive Rebecca Smart outlined that change was a necessary part of the publishing business and that no one should underestimate how tough this process would be. “Change is hard,” she said.
The news emanating out of Waterstones confirms this. A rump of bookshop managers have left, either because they do not agree with the change that m.d. James Daunt has embarked on, or do not want to put themselves through it. Yet while some of the Waterstones documentation has disappointed staff in its tone and approach, it’s clearly designed to reach a positive outcome. Daunt wants staff who understand the business, are committed to customers and who acknowledge that flexibility is essential. He also wants them to challenge the “status quo constructively”.
It would be easy to turn this into a “yet another” Waterstones-bashing story. But that would be to ignore the wider context. Though bookshops have been at the brunt end of the shift in the market, they are rarely talked about in terms of how they can adjust to it. The media view of bookshops is already that they are covered in dust—we don’t need to overlay them with aspic.
Booksellers must find ways to emphasise their uniqueness: the smart ones offer an experience at the heart of which is the content and the theatre. But they must do this in an environment that is unsparingly tough, with customers who have a myriad of choices not just about who they buy from, but what format they use.
Almost everything about the book business is up for adjustment. Even the mighty Man Booker this week nominated on its longlist a book that was first published digitally. And even if it is the print version the judges will deliberate on, the move shows that digital will inveigle its way into every corner.
We cannot afford to flinch from this.
Change can also be positive. In The Bookseller this week, we look at some of the new people publishers are bringing into their businesses, from consumer insight directors to pricing analysts. As Pan Macmillan’s James Long acknowledges, there is not a single approach to this, but the common factor is people who are committed to the book business. I’d add to that: being committed to the business also means being committed to change.