Waterstones m.d. James Daunt yesterday (2nd March) emphasised the necessity of giving power to individual store managers in bookshop chains, calling the "crushing" consistency exemplified by chain stores like W H Smith "god awful".
Daunt's comments were made during the Monocle Media Summit at the Hyatt Regency London, a celebration that print is "alive and kicking" on the magazine's 10th anniversary, hosting a range of international figures including editor of the FT Weekend, Alec Russell, La Repubblica designer Francesco Franchi, and Christoph Amend, editor of Zeit Magazin.
Daunt said yesterday it was "absolutely" necessary to devolve power to the individuals running the chain's shops - the alternative being to crush shops' independent, entrepreneurial spirit. His assessment follows renewed attention in the wider press over Waterstones' unbranded shops in Rye, Southwold and Harpenden. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s "Today" programme earlier this week, Daunt defended the opening of the shops saying "part the reason we did it is to convince our own booksellers that they have the autonomy that they do have".
"If you run a chain - I have 280 shops - how do you bring that individuality into each of those individual places?" he asked Monocle's audience. "The answer is you absolutely have to devolve power to the individuals in the shops, to the managers, in particular, and to the teams, and get them to curate, to merchandise. You must help to do that in an attractive way. But you must not impose uniformity or you kill that spirit. As indeed with - and because I can be rude about them - W H Smith and that god awful uniformity, that crushing consistency they have; we need to do the exact opposite."
The event struck an optimistic note as Daunt, fresh from turning around Waterstones, which recently made a profit for the first time in five years, remarked the biggest surprise for Waterstones had been to see growth in children's books by 25% - stemming mainly from YA. "They are the future readers - and they are apparently also the people on SnapChat and doing all the social media," he said.
Sophie Thompson, publishing director at Thames and Hudson, praised the enduring quality of books as artefacts with longevity, and as beautiful physical objects in themselves. She spoke about the change in consumer appetites in favour of high-quality, tactile book design - such as the hardback, embossed Penguin Classics - and how this feeds into current trends celebrating handmade and "retro" products, feeding the market for special editions.
"We're seeing that trend being improved by special editions - you see not only that wonderful, tactile, beautifully conceived and made book, you get something extra with it," she said. "You get a print, you get a beautiful box set, you get something else which is about permanence. I think a lot of what we've seen in the media is about ephemerality and that's the difference. We know some of the oldest books have survived from the Gutenberg Press and you can still see them 500-600 years later."
Addressing the state of the industry also in print journalism, Olivier Royant, editor in chief of Paris Match, said: "We dig up pieces from 15 years ago saying magazines and newspapers will be dead - we are not dead, or in the hospice either!"
Russell, editor of the FT Weekend, concured: "If you are producing an unashamedly classy product, you keep your subscribers, you keep your customers," he said.
As for bookshops competing with online retailers, Daunt emphasised the importance of curation, and in enhancing the overall retail experience, to justify to customers why it is worth paying a few extra quid for their books recognising itself but one channel for discovery of many.
Daunt said: "I think it is about all these different channels of which we are just one. What we are primarily concerned with is how do we justify ours and how do we improve our channel within this plethora?"
He added: "Our job is to convince people you will have missed out on the experience of walking out of the shop with a book, which I think in itself is something worth paying at least the £3-5 you have saved. Then again, it is these areas of discoverability, and how do you justify yourself ...it is about curating and this overall experience that is so important."