Monday, February 20, 2006

Waterstone's tries to make friends

Waterstone's new Managing Director, Gerry Johnson, is reportedly upset that some people are not happy with the company, and has embarked on a 'charm offensive'. See Publishing News for details (link from

Presumably as a part of that charm offensive, Johnson is interviewed, sort of, by Nicholas Clee for the Times. Clee says that Waterstone's made a huge change of tack in 1999 when the firm chose Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes as its book of the month. But he doesn't say why.

Was this because Marian Keyes is (I understand) a huge seller, and the choice meant that the company was going to support big sellers rather than give its imprimatur to obscure literary names? Or was it a turning point because Keyes's publisher got Last Chance Saloon made book of the month by the simple expedient of handing over £10,000 in cash?

As a recent commenter reminded us, a 2001 article in the Spectator explained how the 'book of the month' type marketing schemes work. But the Clee/Johnson interview says not a word about it.

Was this because Clee didn't have the wit to ask? Seems unlikely. Or was it because Johnson said that that kind of question was off limits? If the latter, I think Clee should have said thanks, but run your own charm campaign.

Well, 2001 is now quite a long time ago, and I for one would like to know how Waterstone's and W.H. Smith currently operate their bung system. Is it a case of 'we'll plug anything for a fee'; or is that they approach publishers and say, We like this book and if you pay us we'll push it; or is February's pile nearest the door open for auction? Or what? I think we should be told, and I think it's about time some professional journalist found out.


Anonymous said...

Joey Fishkin, editor of "Yale Review of Books", wrote a strongly worded letter for the Fall 1998 issue (Vol 1 number 3) in which the promotional payments paid to US corporate bookstores was exposed.

Waterstone's were merely copying the worst business practice of the US corporate book chains : it is the modern way of doing business. It is common within the supermarkets. Perhaps Tim Waterstone would care to comment on the leverage charged for foyer promotional space,even before his final departure !!!

I would hope that the ongoing (Wottakar's) Competition Commission inquiry will exert moral and public pressure on all parties to sit round the table and work out a reasonable long term solution which can ensure survival of the terrestial bookshops - be they corporate or independent. The corporate booktrade is probably no more corrupt and evil than any other modern-day retail.

The sad truth is that *all* terrestial book retailers will see diminishing returns, unless or until, we see some strength on the high street : it is for that reason that I would be greatly in favour of Wottakar's. Whoever wins the day *must* speak to the independents and work with us to counter the manner in which too many publishers are prepared to offer such differential supply terms to both Amazon and the supermarkets.

Clive Keeble

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael

Yes, it is a pity that I did not write about co-operative promotions. I could not find the space. I know it's important; but I felt that I could not tackle the issue properly in a piece that had a lot of ground to cover in 1,500 words.

I think you're being disingenuous when you say that I don't explain why the choice of Marian Keyes was significant. Of course, it was because she was a mass market, romantic author. The publishers' contribution was not significant: publishers have always contributed to Waterstone's promotions.

The reason people make a fuss about co-op promotions now is that they cost more, and are more visible. The principle is not new. The bookseller chooses the books; it goes to the publisher; the publisher pays.

It has been suggested that Waterstone's and co promote books only because publishers will pay for them. At the same time, one reads that Scott Pack is making the choices that determine what will be on the bestseller lists.

The latter assertion is a caricature, but is closer to the truth than the one about publishers simply having to get out their cheque books to buy space. Waterstone's, Ottakars, Borders and co choose the books they want to promote. These books tend to be the ones they think their customers will want, and they tend to be ones that publishers are prepared to back. I've heard of no instance of a publisher's buying space that a bookseller would not have given without financial incentive.


Nicholas Clee