Waterstone’s: WestEnders episode 3,000
Gerry Johnson, new m.d. of Waterstone’s, is quoted in the Telegraph saying he was surprised by the ferocity of the reaction from authors and publishers to the chain’s bid for Ottakar’s. It is unusual, he said. Get with the program Gerry! The relationship between the two has long been more EastEnders than The Apprentice.
While Waterstone’s took shedloads of books publishers couldn’t place elsewhere (and sold a lot), the chain was Frank Butcher to publishers’ Pat. Trouble is a lot didn’t sell in the quantities managers hoped, and so the chain was forced to reorganise its buying strategy to something more efficient and profitable – or centralised. Result: Frank grew restless, leaving poor Pat feeling betrayed. How will she ever believe Frank’s platitudes?
The chain is on a charm offensive (though hopefully this will not involve turning up at the Society of Authors dressed only in a bow tie). Johnson and Fox love reading we’re told. No doubt publishers and authors are happy both prefer a paperback to a PlayStation, but it will take more to revitalise this relationship. In my role as matchmaker, I suggest answers to the following will help:
1. How will Waterstone’s 22 per cent market share (far, far higher for certain categories) affect terms?
2. Will Waterstone’s do anything to reverse the (real or perceived) shift from backlist to frontlist and away from literary to massmarket?
3. Given Amazon has a 10-year lead on the chain, can Waterstone’s really compete against the internet megalith?
4. Who is the Waterstone’s customer? (Sales and marketing people complain to me that they don’t know anymore).
The interview with Fox does little to address these questions. He reiterates Waterstone’s claim that it sells 200,000 titles a month and that most sales are not bestsellers. Without seeing their data, how can I question that? I would say that among the large publishers I have yet to find one whose experience reflects it. Instead they complain their backlist is dying and midlist is dead because they can’t get it in store, at least not in sufficient quantities to make an impact on consumers stuck at the front of shops in the BOGOF section.
This contradiction is in part because Waterstone’s talks about the macrocosm, but publishers the microcosm (their little slice of the market). I do have a sense that nationally the chain is taking books from a bigger range of publishers – including tiny operations like Snow Books and White Ladder Press. Expanding their range of indies means less room for major publishers.
Large publishers have cut their lists, but still publish too many Me Toos. This autumn 60 celebrity titles will flood the market, all hoping to get in the top 10. As any “fule kno” 60 into 10 don’t go. It puts a lot of power into the hands retailers, who will choose the ones they think will make the most money – and that must include the best terms. Let’s face it, one G-list celeb is pretty much the same as the next, so how else do you differentiate them to the buyers at head office?
If large publishers were more original in their publishing, they might find more of their books chosen for promotions.
It is a big if, I know, because it depends on buyers having imagination, balls and knowing exactly who forms their customer base. That leaves the most important question publishers and authors will want Gerry Johnson to answer: who is the Waterstone’s customer? Watersone’s remains adamant it is heavy book buyers and it has expanded (as opposed to abandoned) that base. I don’t hear the same sense of certainty from publishers. Addressing that contradiction should be top of Johnson’s priorities when he starts the job, not least because it will make for better publicity.
As for its plans to take on Amazon, “Bring it on,” will be the cry of publishers increasingly uneasy at the internet retailer’s hold on cyber market, especially in backlist, sales. Valid big brand competition will be welcomed, especially if it revitalises Waterstone’s reputation as a range bookseller. But that doesn’t come cheap, so how the chain plans to raise the money to pay for it will be taxing many publishers, large and small.