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.