The Englishman trying to save American bookstores from Amazon

From FT Magazine (June 2, 2021):

On a bright Tuesday in April, the car parks at Fosse Park, an out-of-town shopping centre south of Leicester, are packed. Recently eased lockdown rules have allowed shops to reopen, and many people are enjoying their freedom. Eager customers line up in the sunshine.

One of the visitors is Oana Bacos, a 26-year-old who works nearby. Today, Bacos is giving herself a treat in a newly opened outlet of bookshop Waterstones. She stands by the shelves, holding a paperback of Convenience Store Woman by the Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata. “The bookseller recommended this, and we had a nice chat about what she enjoys, what I enjoy and all the books we have in common,” she says. “I love being here and browsing. It’s so different from ­looking online.”

Before the pandemic, Bacos was a regular at the Waterstones in the centre of Leicester, one of 286 stores run by the UK’s largest book chain. Her presence in Fosse Park is an omen: more retailers are now moving out of town. “People are happy to return to shops but bookstores are special,” says the store’s manager, Louise Walker, who joined a chain in 1987 that was later taken over by Waterstones. “They are so pleased just to be here, they talk about it like a lifeline. They want to touch the books, even smell them.”

The future of this precious experience is far from assured in the age of Amazon, ebooks and the pervasive strain on physical retailers of all kinds. A great deal depends on the benign dictator of English-language bookstores, James Daunt.

The 57-year-old executive is well known in the UK for founding Daunt Books, a quirky but much-loved group of nine shops, 31 years ago. In 2011, as the might of Jeff Bezos’s juggernaut shook publishing, Daunt was called in to rescue Waterstones from threatened extinction. Now he is attempting to repeat the trick.

In 2019, the investment fund that owns Waterstones, Elliott Advisors, purchased the ailing Barnes & Noble and its 607 US bookstores for $638m and put Daunt in charge. Then the pandemic struck.

While many stores suffered during lockdown, book sales rose sharply as people sought diversion. “I’m optimistic that people have enjoyed reading books, and they’ll continue to do so,” says Daunt, sitting by a tome-piled table at his own chain’s first store in London’s upmarket Marylebone district. “The big question is, will they find it most pleasurable to buy them in places like this?”

Another pressing question is whether Daunt can conquer the larger and more diverse US market using a formula honed in the UK. The number of bookstores in America fell from 11,200 in 2004 to 6,200 in 2018, and some doubt whether anything can halt the decline.

“If his mission is to turn Barnes & Noble into a ­successful chain, it can’t be done,” says Mike Shatzkin, a veteran New York-based analyst. “It’s impossible. The best strategy for the owners is to take out cash as long as they can, and then sell the bones.”

Daunt knows that failing would hurt more than his reputation. It would jeopardise the distribution infrastructure that supports thousands of independent bookstores across the US, with knock-on effects in UK books. “If we go bust, our world is pretty much screwed. You end up with only Amazon and the publishers,” he says. “Amazon is the predator that has culled the weak in this business and left only the strongest. If we relax for a second, it will eat us.”

When Daunt arrived in New York to take charge of Barnes & Noble two years ago, he attended a party held by Madeline McIntosh, US chief executive of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher. Editors were eager to meet the new B&N boss, but McIntosh thought Daunt seemed distracted. “He kept on looking around at my bookshelves,” she recalls. “When he was leaving, he said, ‘I hope I can come back to browse. That’s what I’d really like to do.’ So he’s a book nerd, like us. That’s why we like him.”

This bookishness is not an act. But it is easily misread as softness, especially by Americans. Daunt is, in fact, distinctly determined, sometimes ruthlessly so. As he puts it, “Don’t assume good fortune. Do whatever is necessary to get through.” His first step at B&N was to halve the staff at its New York head office, and he later laid off 5,000 employees. “Behind his cool exterior, there’s an emotional intensity. He’s incredibly committed and driven,” says Tom Weldon, who heads Penguin Random House in the UK.

. . . .

The iron entered his soul when he set up his first bookshop in an Edwardian building on ­Marylebone High Street in 1990. He soon discovered that it was not an easy life. He had to sit on a lot of expensive stock, which took a long time to sell. He needed large spaces in desirable locations with high rents, and he required a lot of knowledgeable staff.

“I found,” Daunt says, “that the economics of a bookshop are ­terrible, like shit.” He spent his first four years ­fearing bankruptcy. Sometimes he did not pay ­creditors because he was short of cash. ­“If there were two men in suits in the queue, I knew the ­bailiffs had turned up,” he says.

. . . .

Amid this struggle, Daunt developed his distinctive style: ­recommending books that he and his staff had actually read and enjoyed, rather than publishers’ favourites, and displaying them artfully with their covers face out, sometimes with handwritten notes of recommendation. Most retail chains now grasp the importance of creating an enticing atmosphere in stores, but he mastered it early. He understood bookshops work best if they feel like clubs in which dedicated readers can consult expert curators.

Despite the scale of the operations over which he now presides, Daunt retains the manner of his early years. He gets around his London shops by bicycle. When we meet in Marylebone, he sports a plaster on his forehead, having hit himself by accident while pruning an apple tree at his home in Hampstead. (The family also has a second home in Suffolk.)

His spartan habits extend to holidays. The family bought “a wreck of a house” on the Scottish island of Jura four years ago but have yet to refurbish it, and instead stay with old friends on their annual visits. “It’s a big, wild island, a magical place,” Daunt says. If you walk up the west side, there are some wonderful beaches. You carry a tent or stay [overnight] in a bothy, but the most fun is to sleep in a cave.”

Daunt’s distinctive personality, his charm married to deliberate reticence, can puzzle some US executives. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is this because you’re James or because you’re British?’” says Jackie De Leo, B&N’s vice-president for bookstores. “I have to pull out what he really means. He doesn’t give you all the answers, but I think there’s a method there.”

Link to the rest at FT Magazine

17 thoughts on “The Englishman trying to save American bookstores from Amazon”

  1. “Amazon is the predator that has culled the weak in this business and left only the strongest”

    I thought that it was Barnes & Noble – and its other big box friends – that did most of the culling before Amazon came on the scene. I guess that history is easily forgotten.

    • Yes indeed.

      I remember with fondness the SFF meccas of my youth in KC, replete with Ace doubles and virtually every book that was released. Ah, the brown paper bags that hauled my loot home with each excursion — I can still smell them. (Thanks for driving me, mom. And for the funds.)

      Then I watched with fury as each chain bookstore destroyed the last, and ascended to ever narrower foci of the bestsellers-du-jour as curated by the NY Times (when it still deigned to do book reviews, and people read them).

      I’ve spent my life moving to smaller and smaller places, and finding fewer and fewer booksellers. I popped a cork on a bottle of champagne when I bought my first book online at Amazon, more or less as soon as they opened, and ebooks are the only reason we haven’t been found dead under the collapsed piles of our misspent youthful funds on the printed word.

  2. The only bookstore I miss was a SFF specialty shop (a trend here, apparently) called MOONSTONE BOOKCELLARS: they were, appropriately enough, in a cellar on Pennsylvania avenue, a few blocks from the White House. I still have a T-shirt with their logo though I long since outgrew it. Great memories of finding not only all the genre books in print at the time in the US but also a whole rack of UK paperbacks of current and classic material *not* in print the US.
    Died well before Amazon.

    The other bookstores, CROWN, DOUBLEDAY, BRENTANNOS, WALDEN, etc were meh. A handful of random SFF titles here and there, usually the same ones you could get anywhere. No backlist so if you ran into the fourth book of a new series that seemed promising you were out of luck. By then publisher consolidation was well on its way and mail order was over as a means of catching up.

    Those are the days I’m supposed to pine over?

    Don’t think so.

    And it’s not just trade books that online has transformed.
    Reference material. I still have two editions of VAN NOSTRANDS lying around. Used to be go-to for “fairly recent” scientific reference.

    Nowadays there’s a dozen sites offering to the minute reports and in-depth info. So much the challenge is time to assimilate even the general science material, to say nothing of the actual papers.

    Music? CDs and LPs are still around (I’m definitely buying VOYAGE on CD when it releases next month but its been years since the last one) but even discrete sales pale before the subscription services. In the mood for oldies? Light jazz? Classical? a few clicks will do ya. And Prime alone might be all you need.

    Video? We’re in a golden age and hardly anybody notices. Fantasy. Horror. Comedy. Drama, the good stuff not just cops, doctors and lawyers. WHEEL OF TIME is coming. LORD OF THE RINGS, second era. (No hopes for FOUNDATION, going by the trailers, but STARGATE is returning.)

    Even gaming is evolving. I recently tried streaming on my laptop, phone, and Fire Tablet. Works like a charm off 40Mbps low end cable broadband. The client app is even coming to TVs by next year. This in a market where digital downloads are already 85% of sales.

    In this world I’m supposed to drive for hours to wander a few thousand smelly books, hoping something catches my eye? (Given my tastes I’d be lucky to find a few hubdred!)

    Sorry folks.
    I *like* the online world.
    It’s the rest of the age that sucks rivets.

    • Not only that, but if something DID catch your eye, you would want to get out your phone and see what Amazon reviewers had written about it – only to be hectored by some geezer.

  3. Meanwhile, the real problem that led to the success of the chain stores in the first place is going entirely ignored: The oligopoly rents charged by the publishers Because They Could.

    If publishers had not overpriced their books so egregiously starting in the late 1970s (not at all by coincidence, at about the time media conglomerates started buying controlling interests in NYC-based commercial publishers… and not just the Big Howevermanytherearethisweek), there wouldn’t have been room for discount chains to become profitable enough to themselves survive. (<sarcasm> Perhaps someone should look at the history of Barnes & Noble itself… naaaaah, history and how it affects corporate structure and weltanschauung are completely irrelevant to any analysis of corporate failures. Nobody would have learned anything about either General Motors or Chrysler. </sarcasm>) In biological systems, this is the problem faced by predators all the time — if they’re too good at their roles, they encourage/force adaptations in their prey population that may ultimately harm the predators. One might well wonder whether conglomerate pulishing looks a great deal like what happens to an ecosystem when introducing a predator from outside of it… naaaah, businesscreatures can’t learn anything from science, that’s not a part of the MBA curriculum so of course it can’t matter to Business Efficiency. (Actually, those who paid attention in Organismic Biology would recognize that this less about “predator behavior” than about “tolerated parasite behavior.” It costs energy to get rid of parasites, so the well-adapted parasite makes sure that it either provides enough benefit to its host to become a symbiote, or that it takes less from the host than the additional energy the host would expend in removing the parasite. Which should really disturb those who look at precisely who could/still can afford to make a career in publishing…)

    This is all related to the relatively-accepted (and relatively well-understood, if all-too-seldom considered) concept of an “entry barrier” in an oligopolistic/monopolistic system. One of those barrier is an obvious one: Is there room for another entrant to profit? Commercial publishing’s overpricing of books once the Manufacturing Clause of the 1909 Copyright Act was eliminated in the 1976 Act made that room. Had the publishers recognized that the old “the appropriate list price for a trade book is ten times the per-copy print cost” meme established in the 1950s didn’t apply when they were outsourcing their printing jobs to printers also seeking a profit themselves (instead of being in-house, heavily unionized employees of the publishers), we wouldn’t have been seeing $24 trade casebound editions as the “default” price at the time the Big Brazilian River began its inexorable flow to the ocean of price-sensitive consumers who could suddenly do what NYC department stores never wanted anyone to do: Comparison shop for a better deal.*

    And if you don’t make comparison shopping apt enough to pay the great mass of consumers for the time they spend comparison shopping, the comparison-shopping services don’t come into being in the first place.

    * There’s a century and a half of history in here, involving ugly racial and ethnic discrimination, codebreaking, etc. “Greatest city in the world” my fungal toenail.

    • “…the well-adapted parasite makes sure that it either provides enough benefit to its host to become a symbiote, or that it takes less from the host than the additional energy the host would expend in removing the parasite.”

      Pretty much describes WalMart, Amazon, and most of the giant tech companies that are routinely bad-mouthed by pundits and activists…to no effect. Particularly Kindle Unlimited.

      (My go-to reply to folks who decry the lock-in of DRM: consumers don’t care. Those who care can go to the trouble of removing it but for most consumers the infinite downloads outweigh lock-in, be it ebooks, music, or games.)

      Smart predators/parasites know their place, which gives the lie to the “what if/when” Amazon bad mouthers.

      It never pays to give your customer base a reason to look for an alternative. It’s not just the corporate publishers who forgot that basic rule of successful businesses. (Cable companies fought ala carte services successfully for decades, right up to the point they priced into viability “over-the-top” services that are now eating away their video delivery business.)

      • I haven’t even seen a good DRM dust-up for a few years. All those nine-year-olds who could crack DRM must be in college by now.

      • The problem I have with DRM is that it’s so ineptly implemented that it ends up discriminating against those with disabilities and/or children… not to mention that it enables the publisher discrimination against libraries. But that starts to get into some real icky political grounds…

        • Oh, DRM is mostly elephant repellent and honest content producers know it. Its minuses far exceed its one plus (preventing napsterization–casual piracy by tbe technologically illiterate). But they don’t exceed consumers’ threshold of tolerance. The price+convenience equation is acceptable for the vast majority so DRM is a non-issue for them.

          On the library side, I still see libraries as willing victims of the predatory corporate publishers (and Overdrive) for their unwillingness to stand up for themselves and vote their wallets. They collectively control enough of tbe BPH revenues that they could easily negotiate reasonable ebook terms by tying them to pbook purchases. The one time they came even vaguely close to standing up, they made MacMillan backtrack. They could do much better if they had the courage to act.

          • “DRM is mostly elephant repellent”

            True enough, and I certainly think most content purchasers don’t really care (I suspect that the proportion of Amazon’s customers who actually have de-DRMed copies of all their e-books is very small – in fact I’m the only one I know of, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone like Karen has such a collection). The only time DRM ever really bothered me was when it got in the way of ripping my DVDs.

            Where DRM matters is when it is used to control physical products that customers think they own and want to adapt or repair (or just research to discover the built in security failures). People like Apple and John Deere have expended a lot of capital trying to suppress this idea and HP3 have tried to brick printers using other peoples ink cartridges.

            • And the use of DRM to control the use of hardware has crossed the line and spawned the “right to repair” movement.


              John Deere, Apple, et al, are on notice.
              Consumers know what they will or won’t tolerate.)

              One of the more interesting policies re:DRM is Microsoft’s XBOX family of gaming consoles for the past two generations. Because of online gameplay they have a justifiable need to maintain a secure environment for games but for years they have offered an app on their digital storefront ($20) to activate a “developer mode” that allows users to reboot the system and run anything. This mode can’t see the XBOX file system or connect to the XBOX network but it can go online. It can also run some Windows apps, including retro gaming emulators. And, yes, pirated games. The Official MS line is “you bought the box, you can do whatever you want with it”. The corollary is that they see it as their job to protect the integrity of their network but not the hardware. Interestingly, after they adopted this policy, hardware hacking dropped massively.
              It also insulates them from “right to repair” even though their repair prices are not at all consumer friendly. (It’s cheaper to buy a new box than to repair an old one.)

              Dunno if “right to repair” has crossed the pond but it is bound to.
              Some “parasites” have forgotten their place.

                • Thanks.
                  So it’s a start.
                  But focusing on “white goods” and a 10 year span looks almost like window dressing. Traditionally those products last even longer if properly maintained.

                  The same is true of consumer electronics, with the exception of batteries. Sealed-battery devices come with hardwired expiration dates and they usually remain useful otherwise when the batteries die.

                  Right to repair isn’t really about product life but about planned obsolescence and post sale product control. (Proprietary inkjet printer cartridges, for example.)

                  Recently Sony came up with a new wrinkle: they purposefully reduced the effectiveness of the PS5 cooling system by drastically reducing the heat sink size and quality to “reduce cost”. As a result, the system runs measurably hotter. Not enough to cause failures but running hot degrades the semiconductors. Fanboys are in for a shock a few years down the line. (PS3s and PS4s come with a soldered battery needed for system authentication. So does the PS5. When the batteries die, the system still works but won’t play any game. Digital or on disk. Other systems don’t work that way.) Sony is, by their own hype, a “believer in generations”. Planned obsolescence by another name. Many older consoles that use hardwired authentucation are still working after 20 years.

                  Planned obsolescence is an ongoing war without end. Laws and regulations can help but in tbe end it comes down to consumers voting their wallets.

  4. Yes, just a start and not a particularly good one, but at least it means the ball has begun to roll. You’re right about 10 years being short for white goods: my washing machine, tumble dryer, fridge and freezer all date back to the kitchen remodel in 2008 and are still going strong (with no repairs and only trivial maintenance – save for a new handle on the fridge due to coming into conflict with younger grandson, known as Fin the Destroyer).

    On the other hand one of my “ten year life sealed unit non replaceable battery” smoke alarms just suffered a battery failure after five years and ended up in the hazardous waste, and they are too cheap to bother chasing the supplier for the early failure. So I guess my wallet was voting for planned obsolescence in this case (though I did pay extra for quality manufactures for the aforementioned white goods). At least I’ve moved onto ink tank printers and no longer pay HP a fortune for cartridges, but I have several tablets sitting around which work fine save that the Android version is old enough to raise security scares and the makers gave up on issuing updates. Were I real a gamer – and not a PC dabbler – Sony’s antics would keep me well away from the Playstation: at least Google’s software is upfront about Chromebook AUE dates, but I still won’t be buying one.

    • Sometimes it makes sense to vote for “disposable” tech.
      My last two laptops have both been dirt cheap “lets see how long tbey last” at $169 and $229. The last one is still doing its job after 3+ years and I’m not sweating its support by Windows 11. If it gets it fine, if not, I’ll ride it until it is absolutely necessary. At which point I’ll look for a similar year-old deal. Paying top dollar for the latest and greatest isn’t always wise. (I’m not designing rockets on it.)

      (Of course, paying full freight for some times can be satisfying beyond pure economic value. 😀 )

      Anyway, regardless of its actual real world value, the right to repair movement is a nice reminder to the predators out there to mind their place.
      They *can* be replaced.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.