Written by Literature

Waterstones/Ottakers

The Competition Commission has provisionally cleared (PDF) the sale of Ottaker’s to HMV (owners of Waterstones), and I for one am pretty disappointed.
I used to love Waterstones – it was a great bookshop to browse at – but bookselling’s changed and it’s lost the sparkle now in places like Waterstones. I’m very lucky to work close to the flagship Waterstones in Piccadilly, but even that suffers from some of the sad things that have come from bookselling.
Once upon a time there was a great display of new books at the front of every Waterstones. You’d pore over shelves and display tables with the very latest books. All kinds of books would be displayed, not just the latest blockbuster titles. But today, we have the omnipresent 3 for 2 offers. These include titles that are largely “paid for” by publishers to be included in the promotions, and while some new titles are always included, the familiar Da Vinci Codes and whatever’s in the Richard & Judy or Daily Mail bookclub are more standard fare.
I’ve no problem with these offers, but by the time shelf-space has been allocated to the top 10 fiction and non-fiction titles, in hardback and paperback, the “offer of the week”, the 3 for 2s, the kids books section, the seasonal bit (Mother’s Day books or Get London Reading), and you have little or no room for new books. Only the likeliest titles feature.
Ottaker’s has many of the same problems, but they have a broader range of new titles to browse at. They do make a real effort to promote local books. They have books of the month that aren’t necessarily titles that will inevitably appear in the top ten lists. They have a crime novel of the month, and a science fiction novel of the month. They publish little magazines aimed at both these genres too. Some of their larger stores have Daleks in them! My local store regularly has signings for sports books by ex-Arsenal and Spurs players (I live in that hinterland between both teams – my allegiances should be clear even if I didn’t write at length about the superb performance on Tuesday night). And you get the feeling that their staff recommendations are genuine choices (I can’t prove it, but I suspect that in Waterstones, the staff recommendations, with their handwritten note cards, are selected from a list sent down from head office – you never see anything too unexpected on them).
I realise that as someone who pays at least one visit a week to a bookshop (and consequently has far too many titles awaiting reading at home), I’m very much out of the ordinary – the ordinary being someone who makes an annual pilgrimige to buy a couple of books at Christmas. But as a regular buyer, I’ve been forgotten by Waterstones. I still love the depth of range of backlist books that I can get in store, and I still regularly go there, but it’s just not as good as it was when I was at University in Bath popping in and out of both the academic store on campus, and the marvellous Milson Street store in town.
On Five Live this morning they had someone from the Competition Commission defending their decision. They mentioned the supermarkets as usual, which is fine if you somehow want to read a Dan Brown novel and haven’t got round to it yet (Is there anybody left? In the US they’ve only just released a paperback edition of the book, having finally seen demand for the hardback drying up). You’re also OK if you want to read the latest chick-lit title, American thriller, or whatever. But if it’s not in the top 30, it’s not going to be stocked. Then they mentioned Amazon. Amazon, is of course great, but it’s not the same thing. Amazon is great if you know a specific book that you want to buy, especially if it’s a current hardback release or a back-list title that could be difficult to come by or expensive in store. But it’s not really built for browsing. Amazon does its best of course, by giving you “other customers also bought this…” and customer lists. Even with their feature that allows you to look inside the book, it’s trying hard to let you virtually do the equivalent of picking up a book and flicking through it when you’re browsing in a bookshop. But it’s much harder to do. Personally, I tend to know already about a particular title when I go to Amazon, or I’m seeking other books by the same author. Online book sales are not the same as retail ones.
The other things mentioned by the CC spokesperson were Borders and WH Smiths. Borders, it’s true, is trying to grow its brand in the UK quite significantly. But it’s a US company, and even with it’s largest store in Oxford Street, it’s difficult for it to stock the same level of depth as the largest Waterstones. They have significant stocks of music and DVDs. Their magazine range, however, is very impressive. WH Smiths is a different kettle of fish altogether. Their book section, to me, is neither one thing nor another. It has a greater range than a supermarket, but not so great that I could ever be sure of finding a title I’d like in store. The CC spokesperson mentioned that they were trialling book-only branches, but you get the feeling that this is desperation on their part, rather than some clever strategy. It’s just about the only thing they haven’t tried so far.
The one other significant player on the high street – in London at least – is Blackwells. This is probably my favourite bookshop. It’s a shop which still has a really wide range of new and interesting titles on display. They have an exceptional science section – a byproduct of their raison d’etre really being the sale of academic books – and their political section is also very strong. When you go into Blackwells you just know that you’re going to come out with something unexpected.
I don’t hate Waterstones. I still like it a lot. But it’s not as good as it used to be, and in a fair fight, Ottakers is better. Most towns and cities don’t really have much choice aside from these two, with a few honorable exceptions in some of our university cities, and that choice is set to shrink substantially. There are small independent bookshops of course, and many of them are very fine. But they’re set to suffer to an even greater extent as our choice diminishes. I hope that no such merger actually takes place.