I’m worried about the book trade, and getting more so.
Not because eBooks seem to be taking over – well, not entirely because of that. Eventually I suppose I’ll succumb, join the Star Trek age and buy an e-reader, and anyway, as long as people buy good books, in the long run it doesn’t really matter what form they take. I do worry that schemes like Kindle self-publishing mean that there’s more second-rate stuff than ever flooding the market, but hey, it keeps some people happy, and at least it doesn’t involve chopping down trees.
No; what’s really worrying me is what’s happening at Waterstone’s, the UK’s last remaining big bookshop chain. Less than a year ago I joined in all the hurrahs and celebrations when a real bookseller became CEO, and, for a while at least, it looked as if he was moving back towards a common sense approach: fewer silly discounts which made publishing untenable for all but the big houses, more autonomy for individual shops, the way the chain used to be when it started out.
Then a few months ago it all seemed to start unravelling. First, for some reason no one could quite get their heads around, that apparently sensible, good-guy CEO decided to get into bed with the enemy. Bookshop after bookshop, including the lovely little indie that used to flourish right here in my home town, has cited Amazon’s discounting policy as a reason for its demise. Then the way they approach eBooks, making it impossible to buy from them for any e-reader but their own Kindle, doesn’t affect bookshops directly but it doesn’t make for variety and choice in bookselling in general.
But Waterstone’s announced that they were going to be selling Kindles in their shops, and providing a means of buying Kindle eBooks in-store. What was that about?
Then last week it got worse. A new head office directive was announced. What happened to autonomy for individual shops, asked a lot of people who had been monitoring the situation? And they asked a lot more specific questions too – because the directive effectively banned hand-selling by authors. With very few exceptions, in-store author events were to be cancelled forthwith.
When I was in publishing, the best promotional tool we had was the authors themselves. (This was before Facebook and Twitter took over the world and became necessities of life for, apparently, everyone except me and one of Josh Getzler’s clients, and it still works.) Our authors used to set up opportunities to spend a day in a specific bookshop, chatting to customers and persuading them that they really, really wanted to sample their books. Bookshop managers loved them; their sales totals for the day would rocket. There were few occasions when the author’s sales didn’t reach double figures; usually they topped two dozen, and a few wonderful times they hit sixty-plus.
There’s a skill to it. The author has to be personable, have something interesting to say, and know how to get into conversation with a complete stranger without being pushy. Not everyone can do it. But when it works, it can work spectacularly well.
And the bookshop can’t lose. The author doesn’t need any special attention other than, maybe, a small table display of his/her books, an occasional cup of tea when someone’s making one anyway, and access to the staff’s comfort facilities. Usually s/he is happy simply to hang around in the crime section (or whatever is appropriate) and wait until a customer or seven (or eighteen or seventy) shows an interest. The sale-or-return system has a built-in convention that if the stock is ordered for a specific event, any surplus can be returned immediately afterwards. And if it’s done right, books fly out of the door. What’s not to like?
So now I’m beginning to wonder what dark and mysterious game-plan Waterstone’s have in mind for the future. First they form an alliance with arguably their biggest competitor. Then they ban one of their most effective promotional tactics.
Will someone please explain where this is going?