On the road to recovery

<p>Managing director Gerry Johnson was in bullish form at Waterstone's supplier conference last Friday, following the announcement the previous day of the chain retailer's 4% growth in sales over Christmas. Addressing around 200 publishers (and myself) at Bafta in London, Johnson said that Waterstone's &quot;Give Some Inspiration&quot; Christmas marketing campaign &quot;moved market share up&quot; on the &quot;big&quot; books. &quot;There were no gimmicks,&quot; he said. &quot;We started with the key titles at half price and didn't move them up or down. We allowed branches to have more space to work on their title picks.&quot;<br />
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The accuracy or otherwise of like-for-likes is the subject of much debate among analysts generally, but the overall narrative over the past 18 months is a clear one: that Waterstone's was in considerable trouble but now it is recovering. Waterstone's has its detractors, but this is good news for everyone interested in selling books in the UK.<br />
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Johnson pointed to a successful Christmas events programme, with signings by Russell Brand, Bill Clinton and Lewis Hamilton. &quot;The effect was PR for Waterstone's [and] huge PR for books generally,&quot; he said. The Waterstone's m.d. said there had never been a better time for readers. &quot;The diversity of writing is as strong as it has ever been. There's better access to books, [which is] tougher for us, but good for the industry as a whole. From our perspective consumers are benefiting from a strong specialist on the high street.&quot; However, Johnson did warn of an increasing polarisation in sales. &quot;The big books get ever bigger and it's harder to keep the mid-range running,&quot; he admitted.<br />
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The chain's future is equally interesting. A key part is 2008's&nbsp; &quot;writer's year&quot;, putting writers and stories centre-stage. Certainly this addresses the complaint that Waterstone's was almost becoming too professional as a retailer and had lost some of that enthusiasm for, and championing of, books that had once made the company so special. Johnson said the challenge for Waterstone's in 2008 was to build on its position as a &quot;multi-channel book specialist&quot;. He said the business needed to further integrate its website with the book chain &quot;so they are not seen as two businesses&quot;. Waterstone's online team spoke of its intention to &quot;overhaul&quot; the website in 2008 with a move to further enhance content, include more author videos, and start selling e-books for the first time. With 1% of Waterstone's 4% sales growth coming from online sales, the retailer said it intended to &quot;reflect and expand on the high street promotional campaign&quot;.<br />
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The big uncertainty is the new (slightly delayed) consolidation centre. If successful, the principal benefits are clear: cutting returns by moving books between stores and reducing admin. Publishers are understood to want a slice of any cost savings, despite Waterstone's offer of firm sale on backlist. But that's all to come. <br />
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As this week's Leader column in <i>The Bookseller</i> says: &quot;Waterstone's can be a bit of an easy target because of its ubiquity and openness, but publishers are unanimous that a strong Waterstone's is vital for a strong book trade. Its Christmas success, and plans for 2008, must be warmly applauded.&quot; That's right isn't it?</p>