"I mark this day with a white stone." - Lewis Carroll
On a special day in the town where Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) lived and wrote his famous fairy tale, where would an author dream of sharing her book? Where would an author want to show off her carefully selected outfit while browsing through hundreds of other books thoughtfully and tastefully displayed to complement her book event? Where would an author expect to discover savvy booksellers while savoring the scent of freshly brewed coffee? Where would an author get the chance to connect with another talented author, a Victorian historian, a Carrollian expert, a celebrated screenwriter, enthusiastic book fans...oh, and not to mention a rabbit and a dormouse? Where else in the world but the wonderland that is Waterstones book shop in Oxford?
The name's James. James Daunt.
When I interviewed the charismatic Chief Executive of Waterstones in November of last year (see here), he had recently taken over the job of reorganizing the troubled chain. We spent a fair amount of time talking about the difficulty for books to continue to compete with alternative forms of entertainment and for book shops such as Waterstones to remain vibrant and successful in a publishing age of disruptive innovation led by the new game changers on the endcap, Amazon and Apple. "There is a clear dynamic within Amazon to dominate its markets," commented Daunt.
Since that interview, this mover and shaker in the world of books has proved to be a bit of a game changer himself. He changed the book chain's name (Waterstone's became Waterstones). He changed the cornerstone of the book chain's sales strategy by doing away with its renowned discount (three books for the price of two).
Do you know that expression, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"? James does. Unlike Barnes and Noble, which chose to take on Jeff Bezos with their multi-million-dollar investment in the Nook, James felt his chain had neither the time nor expertise for that. He recently announced a tie-up with Amazon in which Waterstones will stock Amazon's Kindle plus offer free Wi-Fi so that customers can buy or download books in-store. Daunt prefers to focus his efforts on improving the book shop experience for his customers -- a special day out that would be memorable for both authors and readers. To ensure that is the case, James Daunt is spending his multi-millions on sprucing up more than 100 of Waterstones book shops with enhancements that include dedicated Kindle areas as well as Waterstones' own brand of café and cakes. Ladies and gentlemen, coming soon to a Waterstones near you: Café W.
Now, once the digital enemy has been let inside the wonderland that is Waterstones, which of the two strong brands will dominate? Will Jeff be able to steal away James' precious customers despite all those stimulating store improvements and knowledgeable, helpful Waterstones staff, once those patrons are linked up to Amazon? That depends a lot on us, the book customers. Will we continue to support the places of recreation which we all grew up loving? Will we seek out Waterstones special events and a chance to live a little, show off our finery, schmooze with new friends, meet talented people, sample a café, nibble a cake and at the end of it all, take home our personally signed copies for our deeply cherished bookshelf? Alternatively, will we prefer to stay indoors and browse the Internet, save several pennies, shop around in comfy pyjamas, click on a mouse, download a file or wait a few days for the physical purchase to arrive in its functional little brown box?
Ever the optimist and always the romantic, I can't help thinking that now Jeff and James are metaphorically under the covers together, meaning they must have schmoozed and figured out that jointly they represent the perfect world for writers and lovers of books. Jeff has bragged about the fact that his best-selling authors smile when his company is their publisher. Amazon authors are ecstatic about the number of customers Amazon can deliver without a lot of hard promotion work on the author's part.
But authors, like customers, are complicated people. Of course, we like to sell lots of books and make lots of money. But I don't know an author who doesn't cherish a book signing in a lovely store to present her hard work to the enthusiastic people who come to meet her. A day so special she would want to "mark it with a water stone"; indeed, a day so special she would also need to mark it with a Huff post.
C. M. Rubin, Gaynor Arnold, Gabriella Rubin
Photos courtesy of Henmead Enterprises, Inc.
C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, "The Global Search for Education" and "How Will We Read?" She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland.