Waterstones the bookstore chain has been in the news quite a lot this week. Last weekend the Observer newspaper ran a feature in its review section detailing the way that the store, and its head buyer Scott Pack, dominates the highstreet market for books in the UK. The feature writer, Tim Adams tells how he kept hearing Pack mentioned whenever the subject of books came up, how Pack and the Waterstones chain are changing not only the way books are sold in Britain, but the way they are written, edited, and published: “Publishers spoke to me darkly of how Waterstones these days made them pay ‘ludicrous figures’ on top of the usual discounts to be involved in promotions, and then, if a promotion failed, had their books returned to them. pack was, I was told, rejecting cover designs, telling editors their jobs.” Back in January 2005 we learned that Waterstones has a similar cavalier attitude towards its employees.
The reason for the media interest is that the record store group HMV, which owns Waterstones, is in the market to buy Ottakars, a smaller bookshop chain with a reputation for good service, small-scale stores, and an eclectic choice of books. Like Waterstones, Ottakars has promotions and “three for two” deals, but unlike Waterstones the promotions don’t seem to dominate the stores. In fact Ottakars reminds me of what Waterstones was like fifteen years ago, before it swallowed up its competitors. Waterstones used to be a pleasant place to browse and buy books, but not any more; efficient they may be, but Waterstones stores are not places in which to linger. The Society of Authors, the nearest thing British writers have to a trade union, and the publishers, want the deal to go to the Office for Fair Trading and I agree. Fewer bookshops can only be bad for everyone, except of course the owners of the last bookshop left standing.