Saturday, 4 May 2013

Publishing is Booming But It’s Still Gloom on the High Street

The recent news that publishing is growing despite the introduction of digital seems to have lifted the spirits of many in the industry. Why is this such a shock? The only thing the introduction of digital has reinforced has been the fact that people love reading and are prepared to take on more convenient ways to do this via eBooks and online shopping. The cold chill that should be sweeping through James Daunt, Alexander Mamut and book shop owners everywhere is ‘if publishing is flourishing, why are bookshops struggling?’.

Go into your local Waterstones on any given day including Saturday and take a look around. Look into the recess of the store where Costa Coffee is rammed with customers, look around the book aisles and see if there are any people browsing and then look at the till point. Chances are there won’t be a queue of people waiting to be served unless they have a coffee and croissant in their hands. Now see if there is an in-store event. Is the store engaging with the local community by bringing in local authors? Are the staff reaching out to offer their ‘expertise’? Is there any form of engagement between the store and the customers?

Rather than herding people into the back of the store to drink coffee and disassociate with the books why not open this experience out to the store encourage people to break the confines of the ‘coffee shop’ and enter the ‘book shop’. Why not bring in local schools and community groups to engage with books and authors? Why not have in-store events where authors can engage with your customers?

The answer for Waterstones is because Mr. Daunt doesn’t do this in his boutique stores in the ‘select’ areas where Daunt book shops are successful. Well, here’s a newsflash Mr Daunt, Waterstones and Daunt Book Shops are chalk and cheese and what applies to one in no way applies to another. Every week I speak to the frontline troops at many different Waterstones stores and it’s clear that while they know they are engaged in a battle, the communications hitting the front line are confused, open to being misinterpreted, leaving morale at an all time low.

From store managers to shop assistants they wonder what is going to happen next as footfall dwindles and stock remains stubbornly on the shelves. James Daunt will within the next 12 months be able to declare an increase in bottom line profits and he may even then think about returning to manage his own empire, Daunt Book Shops. Leaving him to walk away as the ‘saviour’ of our last remaining high street book chain but this will only be achieved through the closure of the university stores and many other high street stores such as those in Leicester where trading has been particularly difficult or there had been duplication of stores in towns from the legacy of Waterstones acquisition of Dillons and Ottakars book shops. Any positive figures will not be achieved through organic growth but the shedding of ‘dead wood’.

It’s amazing that Waterstones past strength of buying out its rivals may well be part of its current downfall and one wonders if the high street may not have been a healthier place with more competition and not less. Offline retail needs offline competition to stimulate growth. Waterstones needs to reengage with its community, its customers and its suppliers to survive and currently under its present leadership it looks as though this isn’t going to happen.

By excluding local authors and independent publishers, all Waterstones will achieve is make us more creative and determined to find new ways to sell our books without its participation. Independent publishers are opening pop-up shops and taking to selling directly to customers. As technology marches on and book stores remain stubbornly in the 20th century we are taking to the streets with our stock, credit card readers and the ability to sell books at a lower price thanks not to having to give away a large wholesale discount to a store that does nothing but act as a very poor shop window.

Are we prepared for life without Waterstones? The answer is we have been for a long while because they have not been prepared to accept anything but the the large cartel of five publishers who dominate the industry. Independent publishers have had to be adaptable to survive and what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. As an independent publisher I want to trade and work with Waterstones. I am a fan and an advocate for the store even in the face of its downward spiral and lack of association with anyone but the big five. However, as things stand I don’t foresee a rosy future for Waterstones as a High Street presence.