The question everyone still wants answered is why? There you are, happily running a clutch of acclaimed, independent bookshops branded with your own name, making a decent profit, meeting interesting people, employing motivated staff, growing slowly at your own pace, which leaves you time for all the other important things in life, such as family and travel and reading and hobbies and fun, and you park all that on one side and take on a vast, broken business like Waterstones, with its millions of pounds of losses, its thousands of anxious employees and hundreds of muddled-up shops.
Why? James Daunt cocks his grey head thoughtfully. ‘Because if I didn’t, my world was going to change radically and with pretty severe implications for everyone in this industry including me.’
And yet, had Waterstones, Britain’s last national bookshop chain, closed in 2011 when it was, as Daunt puts it, ‘a business that had fallen off a cliff’, I would have thought it could only have benefited him. His eponymous business, six large, upmarket bookstores in swanky areas of London such as Marylebone, Chelsea, Hampstead and Holland Park, and a seventh, Owl Bookshop, in the more bohemian Kentish Town, would probably have doubled sales overnight. He could even have had a go at picking up a couple of prime Waterstones sites.
Instead, he helped push forward a deal for Russian investor Alexander Mamut to buy the whole broken chain, and agreed to head it, at a time when high-street bookselling was being shredded by Amazon, the online Godzilla.
Deep breath. ‘OK, so suddenly 300 Waterstones shops close, 4,000 booksellers lose their jobs, we are much busier but the publishing industry here goes through a really traumatic period and almost certainly publishes fewer books, and a lot of smaller publishers disappear altogether. And there’d never be bookshops back in places where there are currently bookshops – through historical accident we have Waterstones bookshops in prime locations; they would go to H&M or Next or whoever, and we’d never get back in.’
The result, he says, would be a return to the world we grew up in. ‘Just a very small number of very small, independent bookshops in secondary locations, with the economics of retailing now very much against the small independent. The reality is you have all the libraries closing down and then all the bookshops as well.’
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So, sensitive question: do Waterstones’ employees earn as much as Daunt’s staff yet? He clears his throat and speaks almost in a whisper.
‘No. And that’s one of the problems here. It is a people business, so much rests on what the booksellers in shops do, it is a skill and you get better at it the longer you do it, you have to give people a career structure. They want to drive cars and have mortgages and go on holidays and you can’t do that on a Waterstones’ salary.’
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‘I’m not interested in pulp,’ says Daunt. Meaning? ‘Romantic fiction, supermarket fodder.’ He wants some of that approach in Waterstones to hook smarter buyers, while acknowledging it has to stock what sells well. It sounds like a nightmare to manage.
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At the root of it, of course, is everyone’s relations with Amazon, the American online retailer that now ruthlessly undercuts British bookstores. Amazon demands and gets big discounts from publishers that have to maintain good relations with such a major seller.
Daunt says he has no complaints about the great deals that Amazon offers to customers, but he wants the tax burden on shop-owners reduced so the playing field is levelled. The government and local councils must do more to support high-street retailing.
‘It’s extremely important to communities, it provides good-quality employment and is burdened by rates that are wholly driven by the erroneous assumption that retail spending will continue to rise forever more – but that’s been ripped out by internet firms that exploit their competitor advantage, in particular, the lightness with which they are taxed.’
High streets are fine in the south-east, he says, but in the north they are emptying. ‘And they offer good-quality jobs which give people in communities self-respect.’
In their place we get logistics centre jobs, ‘which are not high quality at all, they are temporary jobs to match seasonal highs and lows, minimum wage, all the things Amazon does, and its one (in Dunfermline) got £10m from the Scottish government to set up something that rips jobs out of the high street and the buggers run everything out of Luxembourg to minimise tax, and it is not a company that supports our communities other than through giving good prices… ‘
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[E]book downloads already take nearly a third of the market and Waterstones will not spend a lot online to make its own website more competitive because, says Daunt, its losses mean it must ‘stick to its knitting’. So, given how radically the book market has changed, does he see yet more tech surprises coming?
‘Why don’t you ring Mr Bee-Zos?’ he teases, giving the Amazon founder an exaggerated first syllable, ‘though he might not tell you. Maybe the blinking Google Glasses will shove it through your eyeballs.’
He doesn’t care, as he believes ‘the pleasures of the physical book’ will keep customers hooked. Really? Surely competition for readers’ attention can only ramp up? That’s for certain, he agrees, but books will still be treasured.