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Disappointed by the Waterstone’s bashing.

The recent Waterstone’s bashing dismays me as a reader, writer & a bookseller. I make no secret of the fact that I work part-time for Waterstones, and I love my job. The opinions I offer here are merely my own thoughts and are in no way an official Waterstone’s “line” or response.

Over the last little while I have read comments online that are simply not true. I read damaging slurs from writers whose books I have placed on our bookshelves, and it saddens me to hear them complain about Waterstone’s as some Big Bad when Waterstone’s is supporting them.

I don’t understand why people are so keen to tear into a bookshop. Personally I see Amazon and the supermarkets as far more dangerous to publishing/authors etc than Waterstone’s. And I remember only too well a time before Waterstone’s was in my (at the time) local High Street. The only choice I had for book buying was to visit my local W H Smiths or take a train to London. I welcomed Waterstone’s to the area with such happiness because I was thrilled at the choices that opened up to me.

So what if Waterstones closes? Would a wealth of independent stores rise from their ashes? Erm, no, If even a huge chain can’t survive, I think not. And why this idealized notion of indie shops? People seem to assume they are chock full of literary treasures, unknowns, odd yet wonderful discoveries that Waterstone’s would not have found. Truthfully I have not seen a single other bookshop in this country with the range that my branch offers.

The “New Voices” campaign that W’s runs highlights its commitment to finding new talent. Many, many books are read by panels of bookseller volunteers. Booksellers! They are not told which to choose, which to vote for. They are invited to debate and review, and from that list a final batch is chosen. Picked by people who are passionate about reading, passionate about literature, so much so that they give up their free time to read, for pleasure, and pick the best. I was proud to take part in that last year.

Waterstones has also offered a bookseller bursary for the last two years. Any member of staff is able to enter a writing competition with a cash prize, a week (paid leave) at an Arvon course of their choice, and a trophy. If that doesn’t show commitment to new writing I’m not sure what does. And yes, I won this year, and am super grateful.

I have read that Waterstone’s only offers the chance to meet writers whose books they are pushing. I know for a fact that is not true. My branch has supported many local author events, usually at the request of the author. (We also give “face out” shelf space to local authors irrespective of who their publisher is.)

I’d also like to clear up the misconception that a book group would have its choice of read made for them. Nope. Our group chooses for itself which title it would like to read next. This month they have decided on “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath – hardly a new title we need to push.

I don’t think anyone would deny the huge importance of a customer being able to browse and make his or her own purchase decisions. That’s surely why it is vital to have dedicated bookshops on the high street rather than rely on Supermarkets and stationers, or online retailers. The browsing, selection, choosing and interaction with booksellers is part and parcel of what is on offer in W’s. That’s why it seems crucial that people love their local bookshops rather than destroy them.

The bookseller bashing continues too. I have read that once W’s employed smart book loving people but now it’s all changed. Really? In my branch the turn over of staff is low and the wealth of experience and knowledge is phenomenal. These are people who live and breath books, and they don’t do it for high wages!

I had a customer on Saturday ask me who was responsible for our hand written recommendations. I told him that the booksellers are. He asked if we were told what to recommend. Nope. He then asked how we chose which books to recommend. The answer is simple. When one of the booksellers reads a book that they love, and feels the urge to spread the word, they fill in a card. That is why we have such a varied and eclectic selection of books on display. Look beyond the 3 for 2’s on the ground floor and you will see – right next to them – display cases full of variety. It doesn’t matter if they are big name authors, unknown authors, indie publishers, whatever. What matters is that someone in our branch has read them and wanted to share.

I get a real buzz knowing that someone is being introduced to the work of a talented writer because they read a recommendation by me. I take it seriously, would never offer a halfhearted entreaty to buy.

The idea that more literary authors are being pushed aside to make way for popular frothier titles is odd. Which authors do you mean? Seriously, I’ll go and check if we have stopped stocking them.

Of course there is always a customer who blusters in asking for X by Y and who is disgusted to learn that we haven’t stocked said title for 7 years. The logic behind that will be that that title perhaps sat unsold on our shelves for several years, why would we then reorder it? But if it is in print we are happy to order it for you. Where’s the problem? Our stores are not tardis’s, we are limited by space.

What also needs to be understood though is that a proportion of customers come in because they want Katie Price’s book, or a true crime voyeuristic thrill, a misery memoir, a celebrity cook book. It’s disappointing but one has to be realistic. Not all our friends and neighbours are literary lovers. A bookshop has to be a business, has to be able to pay for sites, and stock and wages and so on. It would be madness not to stock the things that people ask for. Celebrity culture surrounds us, it has not been created by bookshops but by the media, the zeitgeist. It is snobbery to suggest that it’s wrong for people to read books that they enjoy. Waterstone’s caters for all tastes – it is a bookshop that sells books!

Why is there this horror that bookselling is a business? It’s the world we live in; even essentials like food are made businesses. Why is writing supposed to stand alone, above, beyond the reach and taint of money? And indie publishers – do they not wish to make a profit?

What do you do for employment? Do you earn money? Do you write and get paid for it ever? Is that ok? If you have a book out would you like to sell it? Would you turn down the opportunity to have your book in W’s?

Every day I go to my facebook page and wade through posts urging me to buy from this Indie publisher or that, buy this author’s latest book, or even buy a bundle offer (rather like a Waterstone’s 3 for 2, eh?) and so on. I have no problem with that whatsoever, and indeed if/when I have a book available for purchase I will happily try to sell it wherever I can. I’d be incredibly proud to have my book in Waterstones though. That would really be something. Truth be told, that’s my dream – to see my novel on sale in a bookshop. Let’s hope there are still some around.

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23 responses »

  1. I fear it will be increasingly tough for Waterstones and others to survive, when books can be found so cheaply online (and it's easier to search for the book you want).The good thing about a bookshop is the social aspect – bumping into people, drinking coffee – if available.

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  2. Sarah, I think from some of your comments you've been reading my blog. I certainly wasn't claiming that Waterstone's only invites big authors to read and that the book groups only read thise books with big markets behind them: I was asking the question whether they do or not, since this is the accusation that's in the air, and I felt that Gerry Johnson didn't really address it in his answer, as you have.I have heard loads of great comments about your branch of W, but I've also heard loads of complaints about other branches.I too would be incredibly proud to have my Salt books in Waterstone's but quite frankly I never see them there, and that's a very depressing experience for a published author. (I haven't been to your branch, but will make a point of coming if I'm in Brighton!) I'm not blaming the booksellers, either. In Deansgate I've found the booksellers really keen to stock my books and for me to do a reading, but I suspect they get overriden by central office, because when they did stock my short stories they only stayed on the local author shelf for a fortnight before the whole section got swept away, and to my knowledge there hasn't been one since, and my book hasn't been stocked. As for the reading: it's never happened in spite of the nice noises: I got an e-mail telling me it wasn't not possible after all as the reading room was needed to store Christmas stock.

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  3. PS. I know too that you champion the short story at Brighton, but most Ws they don't seem to have short story sections any more. Annie Clarkson recently went round the big chains here in Manc and found none. She wrote to the Head offices, but at the last count she hadn't had any replies.

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  4. I don't know why W's has been chosen for a particular bashing over other chains. While I do have criticisms of it as both a reader and an ex-employee (particularly their core stock system which caused no end of headaches, such as getting countless copies of a Geoff Hurst biography in a Scottish store, while Scottish books were hard to get hold of), I do wonder why the same hasn't been done to Borders, etc.

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  5. Yesterday I took my fifteen year old son into Reading. He had a triple chocolate muffin while I asked a Waterstones guy what he'd recommend for boy who doesn't like reading. Pushed chosen books under son's nose. He decided he liked two of them. Result.After explaining I was a local author, Waterstones brought in six copies of my non-ficton book and displayed them in their Newbury shop. Result.

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  6. The indie bookshop in Canterbury closed a couple of years ago. It had always been there, ever since I can remember, so it was a sad day when it went, leaving us with no real choice other than Waterstones.Funnily enough, I haven't missed it.We have two Waterstones stores in Canterbury (HUZZAH!!!) and another couple in easy reach that I like to visit (Bluewater and Westwood Cross). I buy a lot of books from them and I don't have any complaints about the store, the staff, the book choices or anything else.Take the bashing with a pinch of Salt.(And I know it's anal to comment on typos in blog posts, but you used the possessive form of tardis instead of the plural, and I almost choked on my lunch).Time for an "I Love Waterstones" Facebook group? There must be one already, surely.Cheers,Bob

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  7. 'Take the bashing with a pinch of Salt.'This is what I hate about the internet.I am assuming you are saying, Bob, that, as a Salt author I am bashing Waterstone's, and Sarah at that. Well, I am not. I am musing and asking questions, and bashing nobody – it seems on the internet you are always assumed to be bashing someone!But what else are you saying? Are you saying that it is only Salt authors who aren't stocked by W (your comment seems to imply that that they aren't and it's all sour grapes). So my question then is WHY are Salt not stocked by W? Are Salt authors the crappiest in the land? Are my books that bad? I need to know.

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  8. PS And personally, Sarah, I'm not talking just about W. It was Stuart Jeffries who singled out W, I think unfairly, and my comments were made in answer to Gerry Johnson's reply, so inevitably focused on W. But I do also think that people feel more emotional about changes they perceive in W than the other chains, for the very reason that they have always previously associated W with great bookselling. Like you, I nearly died with joy when W first opened up in Manc!

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  9. AGM – hello. Yes, online retail is easy – and Waterstone's has its very own easy to use online site at http://www.waterstones.com/ – but what is lacking is not the book you are looking for but the book you didn't know you wanted! In book shops one can discover books that wouldn't necessarily have appealed, open them up, scan through, browse. And many customers ask bookseller's advice and recommendations. It's the coolest part of the job.Elizabeth – yes I did read your blog. In fact this post began in response to you, but it exceeded the word limit allowed for comments and I decided it would make a worthy blog topic here. I have also read posts and comments at The Bookseller, The Guardian and other places. I can't comment on other branches but in my own the short story display is *mine*, however there is also space on the shelves at the end of fiction for Short Story Anthologies, and of course authors short stories are shelved A-Z under the authors names. We do stock your short story collection, and we will be stocking your novel as soon as it arrives. (The order was placed last week.) Oh, and one thing that may well sound snitty but I don't mean it to be – my name is Sara – no aitch. Sar rhymes with car not air.Kirsty – it does seem rather odd that W's is the Big Bad doesn't it. (Strokes chin!)Fia – Yay! That sounds more like it : ) I like your "results," thanks for sharing.Bob – I'm still chortling at your reprimand. What on earth is the plural of Tardis's then? Tardi? Can you tell I'm not a Who watcher? Glad you enjoy your local Waterstone's and if only you would come back to Facebook you could start your very own group. "Anal typo commenter's who love Waterstone's unite" anyone?

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  10. Hi Elizabeth,I'm afraid you've read more into my words than I intended. My comments weren't intended to imply that you were bashing Waterstones at all.Just for the record, and to avoid any misunderstanding, I have nothing against you, or Salt Publishing, or Salt's authors. If anything I wrote comes across as suggesting otherwise, then I apologise.I wish you the best of luck with your collection of shorts, and with your novel, too.Sara,Strictly speaking it's TARDIS, not tardis, as it's an acronym (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Usual rules apply, so the plural would be TARDISes. Easy, innit.Cheers,Bob

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  11. Sara, I am so thrilled to hear that you are stocking my books and I should like to thank you very much.And I do apologise for mis-spelling your name.Bob, thank you for your good wishes.

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  12. pI take an interest in my nearest branch of Waterstone's, the only bookshop in Bracknell. There are good knowledgeable people working there (one of whom is ex-Hammick's, them Ottokar's as the companies got taken over). I see many tempting books about cars and trains, and some by by current blogger friends. But I don't think there is much interest in short stories here — after all, if people came and ordered the books, then they would be kept in stock (I assume). I take particular interest in one blogger whose book came out in paperback just before the original Friday Project went bankrupt — that weekend, there were three copies on the shelf and I bought two. I assume the book became non-returnable when TFP closed, and surprise surprise the third copy is still on the shelf a couple of years later. One has to assume there is no market for that author in Bracknell and they are hardly likely to stock her subsequent books.As I have said many in various people's comment boxes, the Brighton branch is really special, and I suspect that Sara hand-sells a lot of short story books every Saturday (and the presence of her display probably encourages sales on other days as well). As they used to say about some restaurants in the Red Michelin Guide: "tree stars, worth the journey"; I have visited twice for book signings and intend to go again.

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  13. I second Pierre's call to have star ratings for Waterstones stores. Brighton Waterstones has been nothing but supportive to this writer…they stock my book, las time I looked it had a 'recommended read' sticker on it, I've been invited to do a reading, and I tell you – I went to two idependent bookshops locally, they both refused to stock Glass Bubble. It was a complete reversal of everything I'd been told would happen!Im sure there are bookshops and bookshops. And Waterstones and Waterstones. There is, however, only one Sara Crowley.

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  14. Well, I second that last point of Vanessa's. Three cheers for Sara Crowley!

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  15. O crikey! It's kind of you Pierre, Vanessa and Elizabeth, but erm… *blushing.*What I will say though is that Brighton has many fantastic booksellers and lots of us have our own particular favoured genre be it graphic novels, surrealism, politics etc. I have customers who are disappointed when they see me instead of Eddie (who is the amazing guy who runs fiction.) In the words of one "He knows what I want when I don't know myself." It's that passion, experience and knowledge that mean bookshops are so much more than merely places to purchase the latest copy of xyz.

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  16. Good booksellers are the heart of any bookshop. You and your colleagus clearly do a great job, Sara.I was a good bookseller when I worked as one because I am passionate about books.In Ireland booksellers pay is really bad so many people who would adore it as a career move on to more lucrative jobs. Or in my case, more un-lucrative as a writer.We have a chain here called Eason's. It seems to be packed to the rafters with indifferent staff. But I'm sure there are branches where the staff are good.Keep on keeping on, Sara. You are clearly an excellent bookseller.

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  17. Absolutely – re passionate booksellers guiding people to books. I'm in London at the mo for my various things including my launch and a reading, and I'm popping into shops to ask them bout my book – every W I have been in so far has ordered the book on the spot (unlike Borders, Blackwells and foyles), and I'm going to blog about it all when I get time – my own little survey to find out the truth behind all the accusations, and so far I'm being wonderfully reassured re W (well, for novels, anyway: none of them so far has a short story section, or has had by short story book in stock).

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  18. Huge apologies re all the typos I keep making – you know what I mean, I hope : 'MY short stories', eg.

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  19. I really do love Waterstones! The choice is great and unlike most chains the branches do vary: for instance, in my city each branch has a section devoted to Scottish writers and one branch has a HUGE children's section with areas for kids and parents to lounge around – this area was designed by my chum who is insanely knowledgable about children's books and who is also highly regarded by many authors.Weirdly, I've realised have a rather disproportionate number of chums who work for W's – both the booksellers and those at regional management level are incredibly passionate about good books. They just seem to be cool people (present company included!).I think that sometimes the bashing comes about because W's also stock a lot of popular and celebrity titles, which is just snobbery really. Realistically, those sales are largely supporting the book industry, just as pop does (did?) the music industry.

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  20. There are lots of great things about Waterstone's. Most of the staff arepassionate about books, whatever anyone says, and most of the head office people I've met were bright, interesting people. But (and I'm afraid it's a big but), there is a serious problem with Waterstone's: the senior management. Waterstone's is a subsidiary of HMV Media and is run by retailers who know very litle about books and have a fairly unpleasant macho management style. Over the last few years, they have behaved appallingly to a number of people and I can't forgive them for that.You have had a positive experience because, as a a part-timer working in a fantastic branch with great staff and a brilliant manager, you have been shielded from a lot of the crap. If only the rest of Waterstone's was like Brighton. I understand your point. I have friends who work for W and they are fed-up with all of the negative publicity. They work their arses off trying to run well-stocked, attractive bookshops and find it frustrating that Waterstone's gets so much flack when working for Borders and Amazon would be even worse.I can't comment for all the bashers, but I suspect that we bash because we care about Waterstone's. We want it to survive, but believe that it deserves a better management team at the top. I've worked for several incarnations of Waterstone's, plus Ottakar's and I can honestly say that the Waterstone's of Gerry Johnson isn't a patch on the others. Managers have far less autonomy and the bullying management style of some divsional and regional managers is both illegal and unethical.The shops are still, largely, great places, thanks to the passion of the booksellers. But that doesn't mean that we should turn a blind eye to the many problems at the top.

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  21. I would love to walk into a Waterstone's, or a Blackwell's, or a…well, any of the bookstores that aren't here. We have, locally, the equivalent of WHSmith but with such unenthused staff who cannot direct let alone "sell" me a book. One bookseller has notices on the shelves: "we are not a library", ie, do not stand and read, buy it and move on. I would love to run a bookstore where you could come in, sit down, get a cuppa, put your feet up and immerse yourself in a good book enough to not want to leave it behind. I would read to kids in a fun corner and…well, I'll have to dream.

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  22. I really enjoyed this post. I think you are right. There is so much romanticization of indie book shops. Don't get me wrong, there are some great ones. But bookselling is a business. The big shops have brought greater selection to many places.Anyway, great post. You said things that need to be said in the debate over the future of books.

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  23. Hello, Sarah – and the very best of luck with your novel (talent never seems to be quite enough in this game!). You've sparked some really stimulating debate here, which has really widened my knowledge: thank you. In France we have Fnac (bit like Virgin Megastore – oh, and we have that, too!) + quite a few independents … just. Back to W's: it really does depend on the management, both at local and HO levels – all retail businesses are alike in that respect with much depending on local demographic as well as how the place's run. Used to haunt the stores in Bath, Bury St Edmunds & Shrewsbury – quite a few variations, there.

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