Saturday, November 14, 2009

Waterstone's Response

Gerry Johnson, managing director of Waterstone's, responds to Stuart Jeffries' Tuesday Guardian article, and insists that Waterstone's is still passionate about books, and intent on making sure that 'writers get to write the books they want, and readers can enjoy the books they want to read'.

This is a most heartwarming thing to read, and I am very glad indeed if the worries of publishers and writers turn out to be unfounded (in relation to Waterstone's at any rate). However, Johnson needs to make a better argument to reassure me.

He says that Waterstone's buyers picked out Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Sadie Jones's The Outcast 'before they received any media or awards attention.' Well, The White Tiger comes from independent Atlantic, so this is good. But Sadie Jones's debut is well known to have been 'hotly tipped', so the odds are that its powerful publisher, Harper, awarded it a fair-sized marketing budget which must have included buying attention from bookshops.

He refutes Jeffries' statement that Waterstone's is a place where 'you're invited to buy as much as possible and then shove off' with the vague statement that the stores are 'hugely inviting'. Hm, maybe W has changed since I last went there, but the alternative possibility is that Johnson believes that the sight of rows and rows of the latest bestseller face out like slabs of marg is inviting, in which case he rather undermines his own point: such a sight can be inviting only to the reader happy to be marketed the latest commodity. (I suppose it's also an inviting sight to the marketer.)

In addition, he says, the shops 'give people the opportunity to meet writers they love'. Now that's an interesting statement. Which writers is he talking about? People can only love the writers they know about, of course, and they are more likely to know about the ones the bookshops are pushing. So which writers is W pushing (and inviting to read)? And that phrase 'the writers they love' has too much of the ring of crowd-pleasing and the lowest common denominator for comfort.

Similarly with the 'countless reading groups' he says W runs: to be convinced that they are any more than cynical marketing exercises we would need to know that these reading groups read books other than those with front-table budgets behind them.

Jeffries weakened his argument with his choice of vocabulary, I think, when he made a plea for bookshops to be more like 'old-fashioned reading lounges'. But Johnson's rebuff is very telling. 'Our customers' needs are different to those of shoppers a century ago', he says. 'Our industry must look to the future and adapt to changes in demand, taste and technology.' Again, he fails to define. We must work out those customer 'needs', 'demand' and 'taste' from the context: that customers don't want to hang around browsing any more, and are thus no longer interested in exploring and making their own choices, but in simply purchasing those books on ready display, or those they know about before they set foot in a bookstore, and which, mostly, they know of only because of big marketing budgets. Above all, this statement appears to prove Jeffries' main point that bookshops have relinquished their role of 'creat[ing] demand for books worth reading', and now respond solely to a commercial imperative. And as for that word 'industry': well, I know we use it for the creative businesses all the time, especially in the media, but one wonders if in the context it's especially telling.
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