The decline of a once fine bookseller

I see from this whole raft of articles in the papers that my former, estranged employer, Waterstone’s, is not only doing badly but being publicly chastised for poor decisions which took the business in unwise directions, effectively taking it from being a highly respected booksellers with good stock range and knowledgeable staff to being a bloody book supermarket with poor range apart from the same endlessly promoted few bestsellers (which are sold at a huge discount so gouging the company’s profits badly). Which is something I said years back and now I see a former head honcho of the company is saying similar things.

I think the rot really set in after the HMV merger, that’s when it became clear it was going to be run by people who had no knowledge of, or passion for, books and reading and who failed utterly to understand that while a bookshop may be a retail operation, its a very peculiar form of retail and trying to run it like a music store or supermarket simply doesn’t work, you end up with poor range that you give away large discounts on to entice in a type of customer who doesn’t read a lot and has no loyalty to you and will be just as happy buying the same bestseller from Tesco if its cheaper. Meantime due to centralised system and range cuts your best customers, those who are heavy readers, the ones who want a good range of books in all subjects and expert booksellers they can talk to about them, get fed up and stop using you. I recall one former colleague telling me about a visit to head office where at a meeting these non bookselling people deciding promotions were talking about units they could shift and product placement and it took them a while to realise they were talking about selecting books for the front of store. That was how they saw them, like selling tins of beans.

Depressing; when I first started there it was a nice place to work, the staff put up with crap wages because we loved books and we were trusted to run our sections and innovative in them, so the stores were all a little different, local content was included, small press folks got a look in, customers were happier and so were staff – sales were good and so was the company’s reputation. Of course changes in commerce – losing the Net Book Agreement, opening the floodgates to mass discounting and supermarkert muscling in, cherry picking only the top few dozen bestsellers, the growth in online ordering and Waterstone’s muddled policy in that field – inevitably meant it was all going to change, but allowing the changes to be made by idiots who knew nothing about bookselling and disregarding expert knowledge of loyal staff (leading to many leaving, or in my case being pushed out) meant they made a total arse of it. A shame.

Pottermania

No, I’m not talking about dear old Colonel Sherman T Potter from M*A*S*H* but the boy wizard. This morning on the way to work there were already some fans in glasses, lightning bolt and Hogwarts scarves queuing on the pavement outside The Bookstore That Shall Not Be Named (indeed the very branch Evil Boss moved to later on and made the staff there very happy too – not). Man, that is one thing I do not miss, having to do the midnight opening for Harry bloody Potter… To be fair the kids were okay – they were so excited and many were in costume, so that was kind of fun, but some of the older fans, notably the semi-drunk students were a pain in the bloody arse. As was being there to 1 or 2am and still expected to be back in at 8am next morning for the Saturday Potter onslaught (and no, we didn’t get paid overtime rates either, tight bastards). I also laughed out loud at the news that Childline ( a fine charity) needs extra counsellors on duty to deal with young fans if they are traumatised by the widely expected death of a major character. No, I’m not joking. Jeez, kid, get a fecking grip and clear the line for some kid who has a real problem and needs help!

Still, I was thinking, if Harry Potter was killed off it doesn’t have to be the end of the series – in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction death is rarely final, after all. So I was thinking we team up a deceased Harry Potter with the recently murdered Captain America to fight evil in the Afterlife. Harry Potter also starts dating X-Statix’s Dead Girl and when he and the Cap have saved the Afterlife they earn the right to be returned to the land of the living, where Captain America then adopts Harry as his son so at last he has a dad, while Doctor Strange completes Harry’s magical training and shows him how to grow a moustache. They might turn Iron Man into a frog while they’re at it. (sorry, that last bit will be meaningless to folks not up on current comics news)

Blogging anniversary

Bobbie Johnson wrote a feature in the Guardian at the weekend celebrating the tenth anniversary of blogging (ironically just as I was celebrating the fourth birthday of the Woolamaloo blog), running through various events, from the first blogs, to the appearance of Boing Boing, politicians joining the blogosphere, blogs from inside Iraq, regimes trying to censor blog and imprison their writers, the first high profile ‘doocing‘, the recent case in France with Petite Anglaise (who I’m glad to see won her case against her employers) and hey, what do you know, a mention of myself and a certain sandal-wearing Evil Boss at the Bookstore That Shall Not Be Named. Funny old world. The Guardian, along with the Scotsman, was one of the first print newspapers to pick up on that case, here it is a couple of years on still being mentioned there.

Wottakers

The Observer has an interesting bit on the attempted anschluss by my former employers on Ottakar’s as it enters the final week: the OFT should make a decision by the end of this week according to this article. It has been pretty hard to hear anyone defend this move outside of LiquidBricks – publishers large and small, authors new and bestselling, wholesalers, literary critics, reviewers and readers have all objected in the strongest terms. Personally I think it would be a very bad move for readers, authors and publishers in the UK and potentially disastrous in Scotland where any merged group would have a strangehold.

In the article my old employer protests that they are “not a one-size-fits-all retailer,Each of our bookshops has its own unique range profile and each branch also has space at the front of store to promote a choice of books picked by that branch.” Well, that is not the way I saw the company latterly – it is the way I saw it when first started there, but in my opinion range has suffered enormously at the hands of centralised buying and planning while the section management at local level by expert booksellers is something which has been almost extinguished. And no, that’s not just sour grapes, it is something I felt for a good long while and remarked upon many times. I’ve also had first hand knowledge from some smaller publishers who I always supported who have told me how much harder the company has made it for them.

I understand some centralisation for national promotions and buying strategies but over-centralisation turns a bookstore into a supermarket and destroys the idea of specialist, expert booksellers (which doesn’t exactly boost staff morale either) and makes the bookstore less attractive to heaby readers. Since those smaller publishers (some Scottish and some from elsewhere) all sold very well in the branch I worked in it is also short-sighted not to support them; it is a relatively small investment in time and resources at local level and it can pay dividends in both sales and enhancing the reputation of the business locally; not doing so can harm your reputation (you don’t want to see papers running stories saying you don’t support local writers). Ditto on the author events programmes – something Ottakars does very well but at LiquidBricks is a shadow of the programme it used to be.

A friend who no longer works for the company once told me she attended a meeting at head office to discuss children’s books for Book of the Month and other campaigns. She endured half an hour of talk of ‘units’ and ‘turnover’ and ‘market placement’ before commenting she thought she was there to talk about choosing the next lot of Children’s Books of the Month and to her horror they said ‘we are’. This is when she suspected that perhaps the love of good books was no longer central to the bookselling strategy… Personally it still makes me shiver to realise that to some professional marketing person a book is simply a ‘unit’ to be merchandised… However I also have to say the head buyer they singled out in the article, Scott Pack, I always found to be open to suggestions whenever I emailed any to him or his his team, so maybe not fair for them to try and pin so much blame on him in the article. Still, all said, I still think this takeover would be a very bad deal all round.

Takeover

I’ve remained pretty quiet on the story about my former employer’s making a bid for rival bookstore chain Ottakar’s recently. It is difficult for me to comment on because it could too easily be interpreted as sour grapes or the grinding of the axe (hey, I have no axe to grind, honest – my Viking mate Vegar is the axe man in our gang, I prefer a good sword myself).

Suffice to say I am not in favour of it – not because of my own experiences, but because I believe it can only be bad for readers, authors and publishers (and for many booksellers). Even if I still worked at They Who Shall Not Be Named – indeed even if it was more like the company I first joined years ago I would oppose it. No one bookchain should have such a stranglehold on the high street and on suppliers. It will harm large publishers as even higher discounts and fees for displays are demanded and will crush independent publishers who already struggle to get their books represented in the stores (a result of both business practises and the degrading of local buying – central purchasing and the erosion of expert local buyers in branches have meant it is harder and harder for local publisher to sell their books in local stores owned by chains (not just in my former employer’s chain I must add in fairness, others too).

However, I am not going to go on about it except to point out a few spots where more has been said about it, such as this very emotive piece over on the Overgrown Path and some words from Ariel, which includes a link to the OFT where you can send your thoughts for consideration on the ancshluss; and it will be like annexing another country – I recall when they ‘merged’ with Dillons but promised they would run alongside the company, yet not long after the ones which did not get closed were all re-branded and Dillons vanished. I really don’t want to see this happen to Ottakar’s too.

Do we really want one uber-bookchain feeding us an ever-diminishing range of promoted titles at the expense of variety, diveristy and range depth? With independent bookstores finding it ever more difficult and new authors struggling to be picked because publishers must come up with books they can sell in big numbers to recoup the amount they give away in fees and discounts to chains our literary world is about to get smaller and that is a bad thing. The Telegraph also posted an interesting piece on the subject here, which I found via Cheryl’s excllent weblog on Emerald City. I thought Alan Giles’ comment that publisher weren’t forced to do business with They WHo Shall Not Be Named was hilarious – who, especially given this attempt to take an enormous chunk of the British high street booksales, are they supposed to sell their books to? This attitude is exactly why this merger should not be allowed by the OFT – it will harm the booktrade, deny readers choice and put even more pressure on the remaining independent sellers and publishers.

My Interstellar Journey to the Forbidden Planet

I was invited down to London yesterday for a friendly chat at Forbidden Planet International after they had contacted me last week. FP are wanting to improve their graphic novels and SF books side of the business and wanted someone who could promote good books, select them and who was enthusiastic for the genre (there are plenty of folks at FP who, like me, are seriously into the books, comics, RPGs etc which they sell; they retail them but they are also fans). They had heard of me though all that had happened and liked what they saw – the kind words of support from you all has really helped here and again I thank you all.

I will be based in the Edinburgh branch and start on Monday 14th – so a nice Valentine’s present for me as Matthew remarked – with interaction with other crew and perhaps some branch visits etc as required. Obviously I am happy to be going back to work again – it is a great weight off me. I am even more delighted to be going to a better job (and better pay, thank you) where my enthusiasm, knowledge and skills have been actively sought and encouraged.

I am also over the moon to remain in the book trade and to be in a position where I can continue to promote good writing and exciting new authors. I’ll be doing online work and hopefully working with the store staff on in-shop material too. We have ideas to begin with but it is the kind of new post that is going to mutate as it goes along and I’m sure both FP and myself will be coming up with new directions and ideas for me to perform. Frankly I’m looking forward to that aspect of the post – it will be a lot of work but I’m sure if I can promote good SF in a mainstream store I can really do it here. The fact that the post is likely to grow and change as we think on new areas I can contribute to is great and I’m pleased that I’m still going to be a part of the SF community as a fan, a reviewer and a bookseller.

And no, I didn’t meet Leslie Neilsen or Robbie the Robot on the journey (and I was on the look out for Monster from the ID) and if I am honest it was inter-city rather than interstellar, but that’s artistic license for you :-). I did have a trip into deepest, darkest Essex to visit the warehouse. There were so many piles of Spike figures from Buffy that it would have had female fans of James Masters (and some of the boys too I guess) exploding from the groin outwards. There was an incredible Spider-Man which was basically a life-size decoration – I know one mate who would love it as an alternative garden ornament (beats the hell out gnomes, but harder to take on airplane rides a la Amelie).

I’m appealing

Okay, that’s a matter of opinion, I grant you! But I refer not to my own (obviously wonderful) personal charm but to the fact that the union and I have drafted and sent in our appeal letter after I received my official notification of dismissal. Looks as if the appeal will be before the end of the month, quite possibly on the 25th of January. Which is, by coincidence, Burns Night, and also the night our SF Book Group was due to meet. If the appeal fails then the next step would be an industrial tribunal.

I’m glad to say the regulars of the Book Group still want to meet – obviously outside of my former bookshop – so we’re still planning to get together to discuss Susannah Clarke’s remarkable debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (great review here by Andy Sawyer on TAO). Again I’ve had terrific support from them and it is rewarding to know they want to continue the Book Group.

At the end of the week I was on a phone interview for a radio show in Eire and then was interviewed by a journalist from Italy and also a journalist from Germany. As if this were not enough I’m informed by a person I worked with many times over my years in the book trade that the story also made the lofty heights of the Dundee Courier! Quite a number of fellow bloggers have been continuing to mention the events on their own blogs – again I simply haven’t had time to go through everyone’s and post the links here (I have managed to read through them though – thank you all again for sending them).

I have now had comments on the blog and direct emails from every continent on our little wired planet with the exception of Antarctica (the penguins will be preparing for the Antarctic winter so will have little time for emailing) and the story has gone through a number of languages – it really is quite remarkable.

United we stand…

And since I’m posting links, here is an extremely relevant link, being the web site for my union, the RBA. I’ve been a member for many years now and have often advocated membership to folk who ask – the more members then the stronger the union and the more it can ensure the welfare of the staff (plus previous generations of our family were miners and would never forgive me for not advocating unions).

It also means you have someone in your corner should you find yourself in an employment dispute – how prophetic that I felt this given the circumstances I found myself in! I’ve certainly had good support right from the get-go – I felt so freaked out when I was first suspended and sent home and I can honestly say I felt some relief once I had been in touch with the RBA, so you’ll forgive me for quite shamelessly plugging them here. The genially smiling Dave who is on the main page is the man who kindly accompanied me and supported me through my recent hearing and was a steady prop to me on a stressful day.

Latest links

I’ve been receiving comments and direct emails from a quite incredible number of people from around the world. Some of the most recent have come from Italy, Israel, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, China, all over the USA, Canada and Belgium (Michiel told me that a Belgian paper De Standaard not only published the story they ran a Dilbert cartoon next to it! Priceless – obviously they got the joking tone, unlike the company).

I was writing yesterday about the way in which I have always loved the connections you can make via the web. Distance and geographical borders are no impediment – communications flow as fast as Einstein’s rules will allow around the world. It looks as if even language is no longer the barrier it once was – barriers can be surmounted when we really feel we have to, physically and spiritually. It’s stimulating and humbling at the same time.

I’ve always enjoyed being part of the online community and the SF community, but never as much as now, despite the worries and travails which come with all that has happened. We may not think about it every day, but we should pause and consider from time to time just how marvellous it is that we can reach out to one another across distance and time. If it makes me feel like this I wonder how valuable it feels to those who are infirm or disabled or housebound? Those in more isolated areas?

Here are just a few of the latest links:

Fohla Online (Brazilian newspaper).

Nu.nl from the Netherlands.

Diverse Books.

The Blogger’s Rights Blog.

And closer to home here in Bonnie Scotland (and it is actually nice today – cold, crisp, clear, sunny and calm after the gales and storms. Not superstitious, but I do hope that this is a good omen!) from Scotland’s other quality broadsheet, The Herald, which has some very interesting angles on it on blogging, privacy, freedom and companies – worth reading for any bloggers actually (thanks to Bob for the link).

This link isn’t about me (good, some folk will say!), although it came to me via a nice letter of support (and some nice suggestions) from Jason, who is a presenter, journalist and musician. He is trying something very interesting in terms of making music and downloads which he hopes will benefit the victims of the recent tsunami, which has been another instance of the web and blogs being used to effect good.

Busy day

Very busy – right from the off as I had a reporter and photographer literally on my doorstep first thing this morning. A little later as I was finding out what an odd experience it is to look at or read about yourself in the papers (and it is odd) and I had several more calls. A very nice lady from my MSP’s office called to say someone from the BBC had tried to reach me via them and she put us in touch. A little later another call and then as I was preparing to head out to the BBC’s new Edinburgh studio (down by the Parliament, across from the Scotsman’s new home) yet another, both from other BBC radio stations and programmes, so I ended up doing three short interviews in a row at the Edinburgh studio for BBC Scotland’s Newsdrive, BBC Radio 1′s Newsbeat and Radio Five Live’s Drivetime. The irony is the last time I was in a BBC Edinburgh studio was to discuss literature and I had been asked in as an expert bookseller from a well-known company. Fate, it seems, never tires of playing silly buggers with all of us…

As if this were not odd enough for me, I decided to walk back since the foul weather had abated. I got as far as the Cowgate when a woman in a car passed by looking at me. She pulled in, got out and crossed over towards me. I noticed the Real Radio logo on the car – it turned out she had been trying to get in touch with me earlier, but of course I had been out at the Beeb. She recognised me as she passed from the morning papers and so there was another quick radio interview, just like that. Isn’t life strange – but would we have it any other way?

Back home and a few more calls and an enormous amount of emails and new comments on the blog, including some more media enquiries. I’m still trying to read through the latest batch of emails and comments. They are incredibly diverse – a spectrum of folk across the online world, from lecturers to booksellers, mountain climbers to lawyers, from China to Texas, Norway to Australia. The inter-connected ‘global village’ – a cross section (one person, Eric I think it was, even quoted a suitable piece from de Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in his comment – my all-time favourite film – plus one of my favourite poets, Edwin Morgan, does a killer Scots translation of the play!). If there are any anthropologists reading this, I imagine there’s a potentially interesting paper in both the differences and unities among bloggers and other online dwellers and events like this would be a good place to start the study. Cyber anthropology, anyone?

I would dearly like to be able to respond individually to each person who has taken the time and trouble to contact me, but there are too many to keep up with right now – it really is overwhelming in all senses, but also quite wonderful. Rest assured that I thank you all very much (and for the person who asked what sort of fashion victim I was with beard and bandana I’d have thought it was obvious I was a buccaneer you cheeky scamp – as my cutlass was out of shot and the parrot had been eaten by the cats I understand your confusion, nameless one, arrrrrr).

The fact that so many diverse people from around the world have taken time in their lives to offer sympathy and support even although they have never met me is uplifting; it is also a nice illustration of the way in which technology allows many of us to connect with others. I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the web (even back pre-web when it was just a mostly text-based internet many of us enjoyed online discussion groups). I’ve connected with a number of folk through the web over the years, some of whom have become very dear friends and who I would never have met otherwise. It’s also been nice to hear from some folk who found that they enjoyed the Woolamaloo in general, never having heard of it before recent events (a point I’ve tried to make – this was just one among tens of thousands of blogs).

Common themes emerging seem to be about the possible erosion of the freedom of speech and expression (considering what it cost for us to have freedom of speech this is most understandable, as is the desire to protect what was so dearly bought) and the intrusion of the corporate world into the personal; how far should a company have influence into the personal life of staff? Where do you draw the line? How much of your life is your life?

Quite a few folk have commented on how they have experienced similar problems with other companies. Two folk here in the storm-lashed UK have told me that they lost their jobs over their blogs, so the news articles aren’t quite right on the claim some made that I was the first to be ‘dooced’ (as the term now is) in the UK – JGRAM has his blog on his upsetting experience here. Another contributor going by the wonderful moniker of Dykenee Crossroads (superb!) told me she lost her job in September 2003 because of work mentions on her blog. I suspect that there will be further problems in the future, which is probably one of the reasons the media have become so interested. The public reaction and the inter-connection and support of bloggers and other web users shows that it is something of a Pandora’s Box for employee and the employer and both have to be careful. It can be scary, but I still say there’s a lot to be said for being a Virtual Citizen.

More links

The online version of today’s Guardian article, with related blogging articles.

The Scotsman article (I’m indebted to one contributor who drew my attention to the adverts beneath it – have a look!) and also the Edinburgh Evening News – BTW the Scotsman group generally requires you to register to use all of the facilities, but it is free (and useful) – go to www.scotsman.com to register.

BBC online article.

I’ll need to try and post some more links as time allows (job searches and application forms to fill in, talk to bank etc).

Quick Links

Your ever-so handy, cut-out and keep list of links pertinent to the current shenanigans, very kindly compiled and listed by Olly – much thanks, mate.

The story goes national

Had the unusual experience this afternoon of modeling in Princes Street near my former bookshop for two broadsheet newspapers, the Scotsman and the Guardian, both of whom had contacted me independently after coming across the story (which is thanks to the many people who have been discussing it – Great Zarquon I’ve had emails from Canada, America, South America, Europe, Australia and even from China), so if you are in the UK you know which papers to look in and if you are outside then the links above will take you to the online versions of both.

They requested photographs, hence my modeling in a very windy Princes Street this afternoon, much to the bemusement and amusement of passers-by (well, we always aim to entertain here too) and curious looks from a few former colleagues through the window. I had prepared a cover story just in case – since so many magazines have been criticised for contributing to eating disorders through the use of painfully thin models, this was a reaction. Ladies and gentlemen, the new fashion model for Beer Drinker’s Monthly, sponsored by the Caledonian Brewery (I wish). The pull-out centrefold is, alas, just to fit in my tummy and my big mouth. I am a trifle worried about how many chins will be visible, but soldiered on nonetheless

The power of communication

Word of mouth has long been a method of communication which many people like – it’s personal and direct. In the Information Age we have electronic word of mouth: a message, if it strikes the right chord, may ripple outwards, forwarded on and on. That certainly seems to be the case here as other people around the planet, from around the UK, Europe, America, Canada, Australia and others have been commenting (mostly in a supportive way, thank you).

My blog was something I ran for fun, for therapeutic value and because I enjoyed the fact I entertained some friends with it and made new friends via it. Small-scale and mostly read by friends and friends of friends and the occasional person who would come across it somehow – just another (darkly humorous) blog among many tens of thousands around the globe. Now it is being discussed for good or ill by a large number of people around the world – other bloggers, fellow booksellers (in and out of my former company), publishers, fellow reviewers and writers and even journalists.

Neil Gaiman has just discussed it on his journal – very nice to see he remembers me and the enjoyable events we’ve held together in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh (the very first one in our windowless basement, full to capacity, just after Neverwhere came out, years back when I still had hair. For the second one in a nice, Georgian restaurant I had to make up the fliers myself – another piece of promotion I undertook myself for a company event to make sure it went well and readers knew of it).

Jo Best has written a fine article on the online journal Silicon.Com here and Tim Richardson of online IT journal The Register has posted another article here. Martin Waller has written a short article on the City desk of the Times (thanks to Olly for the direct link and also for pointing out Jo Best’s article is also here on CNET). I’ve had some more enquiries this afternoon and will keep you all posted. I’d like to add, for the benefit of anyone who thinks I am just trying to extract some sort of vengeance that this could all have been avoided easily and that I am mostly being approached by journalists who have read of this on another blog or Boing Boing or in one case I was told the reporter heard of it via a writer who brought it to his attention, so I’m not muck-raking or mud-slinging here – people seem to want to know about what has happened.

It is good to see how many people, many of whom I have never met or heard from before, are offering me their best wishes and sharing their outrage. Right now I’m getting ready for a trip to the Job Centre for my interview, searching every site I can online for work and desperately hoping to sort something out before I hit a financial black hole (oddly enough I really didn’t plan out my finances, such as they are – bookselling, like retail, not being a big pay industry – around losing a job after eleven years at the start of the New Year. Bizarre Kafka-esque black comedy notions are running through my head and the timing, being suspended right before Xmas, adds an almost Dickensian flavour to the proceedings.

When I think on what may happen if I don’t get work quickly I feel physically sick with worry – the many offers of support so many of you have extended to me, along with the help and love of friends and family who have been wonderful throughout keeps picking me up when the black waves of despair break upon my shores. The late, great Douglas Adams once said you should always know where your towel is – if I may extend the earlier metaphor, my friends and loved ones have picked me up and towelled me down.