Tim Waterstone and the Honest Trade

Last week Edinburgh Napier MSc Publishing students had the privilege of a visit from Tim Waterstone, Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier and founder of the bookstore chain that changed the face of bookselling in the UK. Our doors were extended to Alumni and members of SYP Scotland, making for an eclectic mix of faces, conversation and industry debate.

“The book market was waiting for change”

Founded in 1982, Waterstone’s (yes, it originally had an apostrophe!) was a major game changer in the UK, filling a niche where the industry had become complacent and self-pitying. Tim explained how, with as much nerve as nous, he had convinced publishers to change the way they interacted with booksellers in order to grow one of the most successful and well known chains in Britain.

With someone of Tim’s experience to hand, most of the audience were concerned with his opinions of the future, especially in the wake of his interview with The Telegraph, in which he suggests ebooks may go into decline. The digital revolution is still a hotly debated topic in the publishing world and, though many agree that digital is here to stay (whether we like it or not), the road to turning it into a successful medium is as yet unclear for many. The core messages that the discussions prompted centred around being cautious with the information we receive. Tim believes it is important for publishers to work with what they know rather than trying to predict the future. Whilst there are undoubtedly enormous changes ahead, no one really knows what they will be. Some genres, such as encyclopedias and academic writing are clearly thriving in the digital realm as it is appropriate for their constantly updating content. Others, such as trade fiction, struggle in places. When it comes to illustrated books and children’s picture books, print clearly dominates the market.

The end of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 (by which retail prices on publications were fixed), allows for a competitive price market – something that Waterstones didn’t have to worry about in its infancy. Excellent customer service and a range and variety of quality publications were the key to the chain’s success and growth, rather than undercutting prices as commonly seen today. The development of book stores into glorified coffee shops and lowering prices has kept many in business, but “companies try to do too many things”, spreading their resources too thinly.

As for the future of bookselling, the dependence on ecommerce and the continuing decline of high street stores may be starting to create a gap in the bricks-and-mortar market. As rents start to drop, real-world business models begin to look more profitable – so there is hope yet, not only for chains, but independent stores too. With Amazon currently dominating ebook and paperback sales, Tim was careful to point out that though they do provide an excellent service for consumers, publishers are starting to look back towards traditional booksellers as a means of distribution. High street stores allow for browsing and impulse buys (making up around 70% of sales), largely encouraged by direct interaction with a product. So, came the inevitable question from the audience, how can we improve the relationship between publishers and traditional booksellers?

“The wall has fallen down!”

The more publishers and booksellers can do to work together, the better. Tim advised that publishers need to do all they can to support independent booksellers if they want to maintain variety in their sales channels.

Queries came from: editors, who were encouraged to increase the physical quality of their books to make them collectable; publishers, who were encouraged to work more closely with booksellers and not to believe everything they read; students, who are entering the industry at an exciting time and should bring new ideas to the table, especially for digital content; authors, who were informed that Britain was the best place to be a potential author and that an agent is a really handy way of avoiding the slush pile.

As Tim spoke and discussed issues with various individuals, what became clear was the fact that this was a person who had dedicated his entire life to a love of books and literature and, while he may have left Waterstones behind, his passion for books will last forever.

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