More Waterstone’s

There’s a whole section about Waterstone’s on The Bookseller’s excellent website, so rather than paraphrase their commentators and news pieces, I’ll just link to it here:

Waterstone’s at The Bookseller

One thing that did intrigue me was Neill Denny’s comment in his article that, for the publishing industry, Waterstone’s is simply “too big to fail.” Now, we’ve heard that phrase before in another, less welcome context, but if Waterstone’s counts for 25% of book sales directly, and indirectly acts as a “browsing showroom” for customers who may go on to buy their books from Amazon or the supermarkets, then the publishing industry would be in irreparable crisis if the chain was to fold. Everyone has a vested interest in the company doing well, from the booksellers in danger of losing their jobs, to the publishers and agents and, of course, the writers themselves. What hasn’t been touched upon though is the extent to which this is Waterstones’ own fault. By demolishing its high street rivals, the company may have put itself in the position of unrivaled dominance, but it has also put the industry into a position of great vulnerability. It reminds me in a way of John Nash’s game-theory insight about the positioning of American nuclear weapons during the Cold War. You can place your entire arsenal as close to the Soviet border as possible, but you’re actually taking the risk that all of your strategic assets could wiped out or compromised in one fell swoop. If the banking crisis of 2008 has taught us anything (evidently not), it’s that a disproportionately balanced economy makes you a hostage to fortune. The weight can’t be spread if the most important part of that economy collapses.

All this might sound a little too grandiose for the tribulations of a 300-store bookshop chain. But publishing contributes far more to our culture than just a bottom line or an economic dividend. The real lesson that must be learned from this is not how to “rescue” Waterstone’s, but how to balance bookselling in this country so that no one company has such a disproportionate, and in many ways such a malign, influence on the industry as a whole.

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