Readersforum's Blog

December 30, 2011

Shelf life in hard times: The book folk who wrote glorious chapters in 2011

From digital wizards to library champions…

By Liz Thomson

James Daunt

Think long-term. That’s one of the mantras of the man who left JP Morgan to launch a business that combined his twin passions, travel and reading. It was 1990, Britain was in a recession but, within five years, Daunt Books had turned over its first million. Now, 21 years later, with five much-admired shops doing nicely, James Daunt has accepted the challenge of turning around Waterstone’s, bought for £53m from HMV by a Russian billionaire who was a regular at Daunts Holland Park.

It’s assumed that Alexander Mamut is also thinking long-term, for there’s much for Daunt to do as new MD at the beleaguered 330-store chain. In private hands, Waterstone’s is no longer required to issue trading statements so evidence about Christmas performance will be anecdotal. With Ottakar’s gone (bought by HMV and absorbed into Waterstone’s before it went into freefall) and Borders bankrupt, Waterstone’s is Britain’s only dedicated bookselling chain.

So much rests on Daunt’s shoulders. In 2012, we can expect to see him launch a full digital offer, including an e-reader – probably a version of the Nook, a success for Barnes & Noble in the US. It’s also likely we’ll see store closures, though Daunt will aim to minimise them. But there are too many branches, many in locales that don’t work. However, the reinvention of Waterstone’s has already begun: gone are three-for-twos, the crass advertising, the one-size-fits-all promotions. Homogeneity is out, individuality in, as trust and autonomy are returned to branch managers. If all goes well, by this time next year, Waterstone’s should be as exciting and intoxicating as it was in its 1980s heyday.

Faber & Faber

While it’s no longer possible to love the House of Eliot unconditionally – the music, film and drama lists are all much diminished – Faber is still a beacon among publishers, as much for what it has become (the flagship of the independent publishing community) as for what it publishes. Stephen Page, who took the helm a decade ago, has charted a careful course in difficult weather, not rushing headlong into digital but awaiting the right device, the right partner, the right project – see Touch Press. He has chosen well.

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