James Daunt is a bookseller with a penchant for stories (Anna Karenina is one of his favourites), who is also an inveterate risk taker. In 2011, he watched a Russian oligarch named Alexander Mamut make an insane bid for commercial suicide. And then he volunteered to join him.
Mamut’s crazy venture (“Nobody invests in bookshops to make money,” says Daunt) was his bid for Waterstones, then an ailing chain, burdened with several million pounds of debt. Daunt’s reckless career move was to join Mamut as his CEO, a job widely seen as a poisoned chalice. Many Waterstones-watchers predicted various dire scenarios.
Sometimes, however, stories have happy endings. And this month, Daunt was able to announce that, finally, Waterstones is about to break even.
The news that, for the first time in a long time, Waterstones is beginning to show signs of modest growth (new shops; new optimism; new markets) is symbolic of a sea-change in the world of books. Whisper it discreetly, but the book is showing signs of making a modest comeback, with British bookselling exhibiting the symptoms of an unfamiliar, fragile optimism.
During the first decade of the new century, this sector cornered the market in gloomy predictions that the end of the world was nigh. The digital revolution, plus Amazon, plus the credit crunch, seemed to add up to a literary apocalypse. There were moments, some CEOs in book publishing now concede, when they could hardly see a commercial way forward. A mood of panic quickly spread, with many dire predictions.
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To demonstrate the resilience of the traditional book in the midst of a changing market, Daunt took the Observer on a tour of his latest shop opening, Waterstones/Hatchards in St Pancras Station, London. “What we have to do,” he says, “is adapt to new market conditions. It’s no longer enough just to stock a lot of new titles.”
Bookselling today is about bright lighting, friendly staff, cleverly designed bookcases that display new hardbacks – yes, hardbacks – to best advantage, an espresso coffee machine behind the checkout counter and finally – how can we put this ? – many unbookish things such as novelty items, jigsaws, games, children’s toys, Paddington bears, greetings cards and upmarket stationery.
“We’ve been through a fairly tumultuous period,” says Daunt, “but it does seem to be settling at last.” At times, he has seemed to be fighting a war on three fronts: the global recession; the surge in e-reading; and the threat of online selling (Amazon). “Occasionally,” he says, “we thought that people were in flight from the physical book. But now I think the book is back.”
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Daunt’s “stabilisation” programme has involved fundamentally rethinking Waterstones. Gone, for instance, is the old tyranny of central buying, the process whereby Bath, Bolton and Blackpool would be instructed by head office which books to order. “We used to be top-down,” says Daunt. “Now it’s all about what’s right for the individual shop and its local market.” Lately, in Waterstones redux, bookshops and their managers have become much more autonomous – independent states within a federal system.
And then there’s the new Waterstones vibe. The chain still has 287 outlets (roughly the same as when Daunt took over) but they have been comprehensively revamped. They are brighter, lighter, and more welcoming. “We are now selling a lot of things that are not books,” says Daunt.
This is not the end of civilisation, but a sign of the times. Reading habits are changing worldwide. The consumer’s use of leisure time is no longer dominated by book-reading. That, says Daunt, means “we have to rethink what a good bookshop should be”.