Stephen Heyman has a giddily enthusiastic puff piece at Slate about James Daunt, who has actually made Waterstones profitable while its US equivalent, Barnes & Noble, is (according to Heyman) in serious peril. One way he’s done this is the traditional new-broom staple of firing a bunch of people (boo!), but this stuff is interesting:
Once at Waterstones, Daunt tore up the business plan. His first target was the so-called planogram, a kind of map that tells chain booksellers which new books go where, ensuring that each store assigns exactly the same prominence to exactly the same titles. The very best locations in the store are actually sold to publishers. This includes the so-called best-seller list, whose rankings are determined not by the popularity of a given book but by how much a publisher is willing to invest to promote it. (A similar policy of “bookstore baksheesh,” as one editor dubbed it, seems to exist at B&N.) In 2011, Waterstones earned around £30 million just for this kind of advertising, Daunt said. Considering that the company was hemorrhaging money when Daunt took it over, forfeiting this revenue stream seemed crazy, and it also offended many publishers. “By giving control back to the booksellers, we were telling the publishers, ‘We know what sells better than you.’ That’s never a pleasant message,” said Daunt. “There was extreme nervousness. But we had the advantage of being bankrupt. Crucially for us, Penguin said, ‘Sounds mad. But what are the options? So we’ll support you.’ ”
By freeing up the placement of books, Daunt was able to optimize the selection for each store based on the type of customers coming in. What sold in working-class Gateshead wasn’t the same thing that sold in affluent Kensington. In some stores, he would discount. In others, he wouldn’t. […] He gave those booksellers who remained almost complete autonomy over how to arrange their stores—from the windows to the signage to the display tables—but controlled the stock with a dictatorial zeal. Out went books you wouldn’t want to browse: reference, technical guides, legal textbooks. That—along with the real estate freed up by eliminating publisher-sponsored placements—allowed Daunt to grow the total number of titles in stores by about a quarter. With more books to browse, sales increased. The number of unsold books that were returned to publishers fell from about 20 percent before Daunt took over to just 4 percent today.
I rolled my eyes at “A leaner staff and more autonomy resulted in everyone working harder, but Daunt says the staff is curiously happier as a result” (you betcha, boss!), but the survival of bookstores is a Good Thing, no question about it. Thanks, Paul!