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.