Same as it ever was

Hat-tip to Fergus Barrowman for pointing me in the direction of this previous example of literary doom and gloom from 1980. I’m not sure that I really understand what it might mean for fiction to have a ‘crisis’, but it’s an interesting article nonetheless. I like this quote:

‘Indeed, the Present Crisis should be, in the end, not a cause for despair but celebration. New outlets must be developed if creative prose is to find its readers, let alone be supported by them.’
Bill Buford-Granta 1980

Of course the young editor, Robert McCrum went on to become one of the literary forces of his day and presided over one of Faber’s most fertile periods as a fiction publisher. You could also argue that those new outlets arrived. In the shape of Waterstone’s.

Off to Auckland today to talk about books etc. Back tomorrow.

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Amongst the Boxes. Still.

We’re still somewhat awash in boxes so a short post rounding up some of the more interesting things I’ve been looking at over the past few days.

First of all Stephen Page’s Guardian article about the necessity of bookshops especially with regard to the ‘discoverability’ of books. Stephen always has an interesting insight into the future of publishing and I’ve got some longer thoughts on the issues thrown up by this article which I’ll post later. The thing I think he captures well is the peril of an unstable transition period and what might happen to the wide range of books (indeed nearly all of them) that lie between the top ten and the ‘long tail’ without traditional bookshops.

In contrast perhaps, (though in fairness I don’t really think they are that far apart) I’ve also been much taken with this interview from Mike Shatzkin (hat-tip to Publishing Perspectives) who has been taking the temperature of the US book trade at BEA. Mike’s views on the need to experiment with price are I think hugely important. The received pricing structures that publishers continue to work with are hugely vulnerable to a smart player with insight innovating with an eye to the consumer. Much to think about there.

Lastly, I’ve been catching up with Start the Week, which is my Desert Island podcast. The writer Elif Batuman was my star of the show in this episode as she talked about her book, The Possessed (Ian Sansom’s Guardian review of The Possessed, here and her excellent LRB article about creative writing here). Anyone who can make an academic obsession with Russian novels sound as wonderful and exciting (or utterly insane as she also often does) deserves to be read (great cover too). Had to go out and get it. Will report back.

Subterranean recycling blues

A forced Bob Dylan pun seemed appropriate on his birthday. We’re moving offices on Friday and are therefore swimming in boxes and paper. Therefore, posting will be a bit light till the weekend.

Before I dive back in to the packing, a moment to rave about my new fave reading app. Flipboard is a kind of DIY magazine for the iPad with a stylish interface and a large selection of content channels to choose from (Granta, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Telegraph amongst others) plus you can access Twitter and Facebook  and personalise the experience. I’ve been messing with it for the past fortnight and its quickly slotting into ‘must use’ status alongside Reeder and Instapaper. I’ve also been doing some investigating into Readability which I like the look of and on which I’ll report later.

Continue reading

Waterstone’s and the Great Game

I’ve been thinking a lot more about how the Waterstone’s deal might play out and I’ll post some further thoughts on it over the coming days. The more I reflect the more I think the brand question is absolutely crucial. How it is answered must determine the size and shape of any future Waterstone’s because I’m not sure how I can see the reverse strategy working out well. Waterstone’s has been allowing its size to determine its strategy for over a decade and all it has achieved is a contorted business model unable to go forward or back. More stock and autonomy, are just not going to cut it on their own.

All the while of course, the deeper danger looms. A friend recently recounted a theory to me that booksellers are often by nature small c conservatives; the idea being that the urge to curate and preserve is very handy in creating a range-holding bookshop. As far as traditional bookshops go he might be right. If he is, how will this equip them to fight those who don’t look at the world from that perspective?

Contrast the Waterstone’s news with the latest game-changer from Amazon, summed up very neatly by Mike Shatzkin.
This would seem to me to be the very opposite of conservative; a bold Jacobin stroke that seeks to further rewrite all the rules regarding the publishing/bookselling ecosystem. Waterstones is hoping to preserve its existence within that ecosystem. Their ability to succeed will depend as much on Amazon’s failure to change the rules as their own ability to create a winning business model.

It remains to be seen how this will develop but my instinct tells me that while UK publishers will be willing Daunt to succeed at Waterstone’s, the smart money will be spent ensuring that there are many other ways to reach readers.

(Thinking about Amazon’s move reminded me of this clip from Independence Day)

Waterstone’s Bagged

Clearly, the talk of the moment is the Waterstone’s deal.  Reading the Bookseller articles and their attendant comments you get a clear sense of relief at the news from both the senior echelons of the UK trade and the booksellers at the till face. I think they have every reason to feel better but Waterstone’s is far from out of the woods.

There will be much talk of the Hub and which branches will survive. There will be discussion over the empowering of branches and whether the purple t-shirts will remain. These questions will of course, have a bearing on the survival of Waterstone’s as a business but for my money there are two main challenges that James Daunt will have to face:

1) How to operate in the digital space in a way that is compelling and at least in line with the market.

2) Defining the Waterstone’s ‘brand’ and who it serves. And when I say brand, I categorically do not mean ‘is the logo any good?’

The first is an existential challenge, the primary forces of which Waterstone’s does not control. Of course, to survive it must have some answer, some bold and  sure-footed approach that marks it as a leader and to which readers respond. I’m going to save talking about my views on that for a later post.

The second challenge is absolutely in Waterstone’s control but because it concerns the company’s very DNA, it may be even harder to address.

Over the past 15 years, Waterstone’s brand has been stretched as its size outstripped the reach of its original positioning and it has been increasingly unable to reconcile a coherent vision of itself with the business reality of being a 300 branch market leader.

At that size it cannot go back to the young pretender status it once held and was probably most comfortable with. But in this climate neither can it go forward as a corporate behemoth responding slowly and bureaucratically to what are absolutely existential threats.

It needs therefore to make some decisions. It needs to set aside the tactical questions of t-shirts and hubs and become absolutely and completely clear about its answer to the question ‘what will a chain of successful bookshops look like in the 2020 and who will shop there?’

The answer, if they get it right, is worth a gold-plated $53,000,000.

As an outsider unencumbered with Waterstone’s history but with an instinctive, entrepreneurial approach to bookselling,  James Daunt may just prove to be the right man at the right time with the right answer. To do so he will need to balance the measured conservatism of the Daunt experience with a radical strategy to revivify his new charge in a manner appropriate to the times. Clearly this will not be easy, but I wish him the very best of luck.

Captain Keeli and the decals

I was very much up for a bit of blogging tonight. I’ve had a thought in my mind for most of today, mulling around as we cleared out the office ahead of our move next week. But my oldest son needed a hand with this:

Tonight, for all sorts of reasons, this is more important. So the thought will have to keep till tomorrow.

Instead, a couple of quick but hearty congratulations, firstly to my old friends at Faber for their double win at the UK industry awards this week. So good to see their innovation and work recognised. The excellent Quercus were named Publisher of the Year. Second another major congratulations to all the winners at the New Zealand Post Book Awards last night, but particularly Margaret Mahy and David Elliot, the overall winners.

Now back to the lego.