Remaking Waterstones.

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!


  1. You bet it works. And the staff are extremely helpful and pleasant. And in the major branches in London, at least, you can get excellent coffee and a croissant – or have lunch – and sit reading a book to your heart’s content. Why would I buy online – but you have that option too.

  2. J. W. Brewer says

    The chain itself (and the “big box” model which was in its day viewed as a dire threat to cutesy we-don’t-discount mom-and-pop bookstores) is not all that old. I could be all harrumpily nostalgic for the now-defunct department store ( – possibly real-life model for Are You Being Served, sez the article!) whose building was reappropriated for the flagship Waterstones location. I still have a suit I bought there back in the day, although getting the trousers buttoned is now trickier than it was when I was younger and slimmer.

  3. I used to spend at Waterstones half of my meager student stipend.

    It’s nice to hear that they still exist.

    There was one in Sydney which had very nice Celtic music. Listening to it brought almost as much pleasure as browsing through the bookshelves. Unfortunately I was too shy at the time and never asked from the staff what it was, so I would never listen to it again.

  4. And there are still five Daunt bookshops around London, strong on travel books I believe..

  5. I love a good travel bookstore, but I think all the ones I knew in NYC are out of business now.

  6. On the credit side, since 2008, NYC has played host to Idlewild Books, specializing in language and travel.

  7. Very nice, and extra points for using the great name Idlewild!

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    These folks apparently closed their brick-and-mortar NYC store (which admittedly I myself had not browsed in much recently since I both now live outside Manhattan and have less other reason to be in that particular neighborhood than I used to) only earlier this year, but still have an online presence for their antiquarian inventory. Getting a hundred-year-old Baedecker for the place you’re visiting is often much more fun than getting a boringly-up-to-date Lonely Planet guide or whatever.

  9. Idlewild Park has never changed its name. It is just west of JFK Airport, which however was not named directly after the park, but after the former golf course on whose land it stands.

    Similarly, the city near the Kennedy Space Center has always borne the historic name of Cape Canaveral, and although LBJ renamed the whole cape “Cape Kennedy” in 1963, the name “Cape Canaveral” returned in 1973 after the Florida Legislature intervened. Cañaveral is the third-oldest place name in the U.S. of European origin, after Florida and the Dry Tortugas (so named because they lacked fresh water). For an early exchange in the opposite direction, see Larry Trask on Pimlico.

  10. For Londoners or those London-bound, I chanced upon an excellent old-fashioned bookshop – bursting shelves, narrow staircase, shoulder-wide labyrinth of aisles – in a tiny street off the trendy Kind’s Road, opposite the oh-so-chic Duke of York’s Square.
    It’s John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. in Blacklands Terrace.
    The staff know their stock, and from what I saw, the customers know a *real* bookshop and treasure it.

  11. What’s with this stuff about books you wouldn’t want to browse: reference…?! Speak for yourself, Stephen Heyman.

  12. Indeed, reference books are the ones I mostly browse.

  13. AJP Christmas Crown says

    John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. in Blacklands Terrace.
    The staff know their stock, and from what I saw, the customers know a *real* bookshop and treasure it.

    John Sandoe (Books) Ltd is two blocks past Peter Jones if you walk down King’s Road from Sloane Square. I know someone very well-read, polyglot and super-smart who works there. Nowadays, it must be one of the best bookshops in the world, even though it’s quite small.

    I agree with JW about Simpson’s. RIP. It was a fantastic men’s department store and to see it full of books is just Wrong.

  14. From that last link:

    Owned by experienced bookseller Yoshiyuki Morioka, the store opened in May, stocking multiple copies of just one title, which changes weekly. Books to have featured in the shop include Finnish author Tove Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver, in which a young woman fakes a burglary of an elderly artist’s house to persuade her she cannot live alone, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales.

    “Before opening this bookstore in Ginza, I had been running another one in Kayabacho for 10 years. There, I had around 200 books as stock, and used to organise several book launches per year. During such events, a lot of people visited the store for the sake of a single book. As I experienced this for some time, I started to believe that perhaps with only one book, a bookstore could be managed,” said Morioka.

    I… don’t know what to say.

  15. AJP Romjul Crown says

    Oh, I think it’s a good idea. This isn’t a substitute for John Sandoe or Waterstones, it’s something luxuriously different, like the difference between reading “The Best Books of 2015” and a ten-page review in the LRB of something you’d never heard of.

  16. AJP Romjul Crown says

    … but it relies quite a lot on customers who are interested in the physical book, those who like to stroke it, as I heard one publisher say, rather than those who simply want the words and are satisfied with a Kindle production.

  17. It was a fantastic men’s department store and to see it full of books is just Wrong.
    Being full of books never did any place harm. I’ve never seen the appeal of shopping for clothes! 😉

  18. AJP Romjul Crown says

    I’m no fan of shopping for clothes, either. Simpson’s of Piccadilly was an example of London’s peculiar Deco-influenced modernism. Maholy-Nagy did the first display, in 1936. The building is still there, albeit with ‘Waterstones’, in the wrong typeface (‘Simpson’s of Piccadilly‘ was Art Deco), but the windows are now piled with dusty old books. There was nothing dusty about Simpsons.

  19. but the windows are now piled with dusty old books
    That link goes to a picture of Keith Richards signing a book at Waterstone’s? Is he a dusty old book piled in the window? 😉
    But now I understand your nostalgia, from your links it really seems like this was a special place.

  20. AJP Godtnytår Crown says

    Is he a dusty old book piled in the window?

    You must be the judge of that. Some of us moved on when punk was invented. 1975, I think it was.

  21. Speaking of punk, Shane MacGowan has new teeth and Johnny Rotten has signed a deal linking the Sex Pistols with Mastercard. Anarchy indeed.

  22. AJP Romjul Crown says

    You only have to look at Keef’s teeth flashing in the sun to see how long it’s been since he last sat in an outdoor khazi, but I was pleased about Shane. His old teeth were terrifying.

  23. Yes, they were. The women at our Christmas gathering, when the subject arose, refused to look at pictures of them and didn’t particularly like hearing about them.

  24. AJP Romjul Crown says

    I’m with the women. They made Alien look like the Muppets.

  25. Browsing a shelf of reference books is not the same as browsing through a single reference book.

  26. Shane MacGowan has new teeth
    Good for him, took him mighty long!
    I never was into Punk much, but I always liked the Pogues. Probaby because I never thought of their music as Punk, but as Folk on steroids.

  27. That’s part of the beauty of the Pogues — they were gloriously unclassifiable.

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