“Like any good retailer, he is really just interested in what people want”, one of his supporters claims. Really? Has he listened to what customers are saying in Waterstones, as I have done on over thirty separate occasions so far this year? Has he visited the High Street and appreciated the frustrations – and genuine fear – in the stores. The chain has reinstated strict Head Office control of discounts. One store manager described a visit from a regional manager as “like a school ofsted” another told me they were “told off” for having books displayed in “the wrong place”. Daunt says “We shouldn’t dictate” to the stores. What does he mean by that, I wonder?
Despite assurances there would be no more store closures,
It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
Betjeman regretted writing the poem, intended as a protest against 850 factories being built in
Daunt has now made a deal with amazon, and introduced a misguided events policy, stopping successful signings that gave sales a significant boost, and attracted customers into stores for an experience they cannot get online – face to face meetings with favourite authors. In a move reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Daunt seems to be overseeing a desperate rush to commit suicide.
Daunt is a public school educated
The real problem Waterstones faces is that it is not supported by sales. If Mamut withdrew his £53 million sponsorship, the chain would fold overnight.
However much we bleat about mistaken policies from the top – and I have done my share - the reality is that readers are not buying print books on a scale that makes physical bookshops viable. James Daunt apparently hastening the demise of physical bookshops as we know them is a demonstration of his business acumen. As with politicians, we get the bookshop MDs we deserve.
Ray Bradbury was writing in a different era when he said: “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture; just get people to stop reading them.”
Perhaps the end of the physical bookshops is irrelevant. E-books are encouraging more people to read. Maybe the sea change doesn't matter. But let’s at least be clear and open about what is taking place, so that no one is surprised when Waterstones change from a bookshop to a kindle store.
And if we don’t want that to happen, we have to react before it is too late. Daunt is impotent to halt the flood of e-books, and has made a sound business decision to swim with the amazon tide. Only readers can buck the trend. Stop buying books in charity shops. Buy a book in a bookshop today. Buy another one tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Consider books when working out what you can afford to spend this month. Sacrifice one bottle of wine, one packet of cigarettes, one hairdo, to buy a book. And buy a book for a friend, while you still can.
Or are we all saving up to buy kindles for Christmas?