Sunday, 23 May 2010

Local Authors Welcome?

Our beloved independent bookstores -- those dusty old treasure caverns of hidden gems -- are  pulling down the shutters faster than china shops during the Pamplona bull run.

Like the corner grocer's when a giant Tesco or Wal-Mart opens in town, they just can't compete with the chain gang in the high street and online.

These were places often owned and staffed by characters who might well have stepped straight from the pages of Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road. Cardigans and comfortable carpet slippers were sometimes the uniform, infinite patience was a virtue, literary nous was the order of the day.  And so was the welcome ... to dithering all-day browsers wondering how best to spend a little pocket money -- and especially to local authors.

But the 'chains' (how evocative is that term!) and online juggernauts put an end to these old curiosity shops. They replaced them with look-alike stores in towns and cities, with look-alike showcases of the month's hot-selling items (often alongside party balloons and colouring books), and with look-alike staff in snazzy, name-tagged shirts and with all the literary knowledge of a vending machine. They aren't paid to know any books other than cheque books.

So, between Hanff's 1970 publication of 84 Charing Cross Road and the superb film version starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft in 1987 comes along Mr Timothy Waterstone with an old fashioned idea. I have no doubt he was influenced by Hanff's touching tale of trust, respect, sharing and love in wartime when he opened -- during a dire book retail recession -- the very first Waterstone's bookshop ... in Charing Cross Road itself back in '82.

Five new Waterstone's soon followed. He let store staff choose the books to sell. The media loved it. In 1989 the LA Times devoted a feature to Waterstone's entitled: "The Americanisation of the British Book Trade." What they meant was that ol' Tim Waterstone had learned the value of independence in the comfy Greenwich Village book shops he haunted in off-duty hours from WH Smith. I'd lurked in those very shops myself in the eighties. I knew what he felt.

Times and proprietors change. Waterstone's soon got big: So big that Mr Waterstone's mission was forgotten and that the chain bearing his evocative name (think what water does to stone, given time -- it leaves a lasting impression) steam-rolled over the very independent retailers Waterstone himself sought to emulate. Borders, Books etc, Ottakar's, Dillons and thousands of independent book shops have disappeared from our high streets over recent years, leaving Waterstone's the last specialist book chain standing.

And profits started to drop like unsold paperbacks down the bucket tube into a disposal skip.

As the Daily Telegraph said this week: "The problem was simple – Waterstone's was firing at the wrong target. The chain was attempting to compete with the likes of Amazon, Tesco and WH Smith by offering similar titles and promotions. In doing this, it became centrally-run and process-driven, treating books like commodities.

"While Waterstone's was busy becoming A N Other retailer, local communities across the UK were missing their local bookshops and the regionally-tailored, customer-friendly, mildly eccentric services and books they offered."

In other words, books sold at Waterstone's were the no-risk blockbusters, hyped to hell and high heaven by head office. Sod the local reader. Sod the local author.

But now, maybe things are looking up. Maybe some guy in a tie recalled old Mr Waterstone's mission ... Waterstone's is turning back the clock.

From here in, Waterstone's managers and staff in 315 plush stores will be encouraged to revert to the cardigan-and-carpet-slipper days of choosing books to fit their local readers rather than foisting upon them only the internationally bankable.

Simon Fox, chief executive of Waterstone's has been making a raft of changes. In recent years, almost all book titles sold were chosen centrally. This was particularly the case when it came to '3-for-2' book promotions at Waterstone's.

Now, the system has changed. Power has – to a significant degree – been devolved back to the stores. Of all the books that Waterstone's sells, around a third are "front", or promoted, titles. At "new" Waterstone's one third of these titles are now to be hand-picked by store staff who know their local readers. Of the remaining books, around 40% will be carefully chosen by staff.

So why am I blogging at length about this? Three reasons:

1) the reader will now be heard when he speaks his mind to his local Waterstone's staff.

2) the local author will no longer be a most unwelcome guest when he offers his own not-necessarily-yet-blockbuster to the Waterstone's down the road.

3) consider buying your local Waterstone's boss a speckled bow tie for auld lang syne. He really now can 'manage' at last. A bit like in the good old days.

Take advantage of this chance, readers and authors. Let's see if we can get our local bookstores back. Tell them what you want. Tell them what you have to offer.

Any BeWrite Books author or reader whose local Waterstone's is following new policy can tell them this -- yes, we do accept sale-or-return orders for our books, yes, we will offer deep discount to retailers, yes our authors deserve your shelf space and yes, our readers deserve their availability ... especially those who are also your neighbours.

Best. Neil

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