Waterstone’s book stores:The beginning of the end, or a new dawn

Posted: May 20, 2011 in Comment, Paper books are not dying, Uncategorized

When Tim Waterstone was made redundant from WH Smith in the UK, he launched  Waterstone’s, by opening the first books store in Old Brompton Road, London, using his 6,000 pounds redundancy money.

The year? … 1982. It was a time of opportunity in the UK. England was just coming out of a recession with Margaret Thatcher at the helm. The Romantic music era was in full flow with Duran Duran topping the charts, whilst America was still clinging on to the old favourites. It would be another 16 years before Amazon.co.uk would come along in 1998 to sow the seeds to spoil Waterstone’s party.

In the preceding years, 1993 to be exact, it was with some irony that WH Smith, bought Watersone’s for 47 million pounds. Tim must have been laughing all the way to the bank, to think that the 6,000 pounds W H Smith’s had paid him originally had proved to be so fruitful.

Amazon. com, meanwhile had previously soldiered on through the dot-com bubble bursting and lawsuits from the book chains in America, aware of the peril Amazon posed to the future of their revenue. It was surprising then that in 1998, the same year that Amazon opened for business in the UK, that an investment vehicle together with Tim Waterstone bought out Waterstone’s from WH Smith 300 million, to become part of HMV. It was now WH Smiths turn to be laughing all the way to the bank.

Tim Waterstone left HMV in 2001 and in 2006 failed in an attempt to buy back the company he founded. With hindsight, he may be pleased he failed.

With the rise of Amazon’s fortunes in the UK and supermarkets taking a large slice of the book market, together with the economic crisis, Waterstone’s has suffered declining sales. At his stage, I doubt Amazon kindle in the UK opening for business in 2010 has made significant inroads in to Waterstone’s sales and is at the moment more like a flea on a cows back. I say this because my own book reached a rank of 800 out of 450,000 books with sales of only 5 per day on average. So, unless those above me are selling in the millions, the figures now are likely to be insignificant in the overall scheme of things. None the less, it is early days and as we have seen from the growth of eBooks in America, this situation is likely to change.

So where does that leave Waterstone’s today? If today’s press is correct then HMV have unloaded all 296 stores together with 4,500 staff to Russian Billionaire, Alexander Mamut, for 53 million, taking a hit of 247 million. I doubt HMV will be laughing as they bank the cheque. Clearly Mr. Marmut can see some value in keeping the book chain alive that eludes me. But as a successful entrepeneur, I bow to his better judgement. Still I suppose the pundits could say, that at 53 million it is on the face of it a bargain at just under 2 x earnings, but when you add the 176 million of debt and if that is cleared down., it raises the stakes to a less that attractive 8 times earnings.

It has also been announced, that James Daunt, a former merchant banker and more importantly the founder of Daunt’s bookstores, has been brought in by the Russian cell phone magnet to run the business. It reminds me of Roman Abromavich when he brought Chelsea football club and hired the best in the world to manage the team. Let’s hope Mr. Marmut will be as philanthropic with his purse as Roman in squandering his money, in failing in his ambitions to win the European cup.

 As for James Daunt, he has quite a task on his hands. If he is to follow his own business model, then it will need deep pockets to tackle the back office IT that is the dinosaur of the much-loved central buying process and deep discounting model, in favour of his own preference for well-trained knowledgeable stall, a depth of product and an end to discounting. Waterstone had already started to give some degree of local purchasing power to managers, together with allowing independents shelf space. With some luck, this will continue.

As for the future … who knows, maybe you will be able to buy a cell phone with your books, or alternatively maybe some receiver will be appointed to run the company somewhere down the line and they will be able to sell the leases and net 6,000 pounds. Now that would be ironic.

Stop press. News just in.

John Malone’s, Liberty Media have bid $1.02 billion for Barnes and Noble amid the companies declining paper book sales. I am really beginning to think there is life in the paper book chains yet, that the money men can see and I can’t. There is clearly more chance of value in Barnes and Noble, as opposed to Waterstone’s, with their success in introducing Nook, which is driving the focus of the company forward. To say I am bewildered by this sudden frenzy of activity, is to say the least, an understatement.

  1. dannym says:

    I have to say that my feelings are in turmoil over all this. On the one hand I love my Kindle and I am a staunch believer in POD and the freedom that this gives to struggling authors who couldn’t get their work out any other way. Also, I love books and book shops with a passion, I can’t imagine (truly can’t imagine) life without them. My daughter worked in Waterstones for a brief period a couple of years ago and was very impressed by the dedication of the staff who were all book lovers which I think is unusual in a big chain of shops. I don’t believe that W H Smiths staff are passionate about their work but of course I could be wrong but the Waterstones people that my daughter met all were and many of them were struggling writers. I really hope that this is one of those occasions when we can have it all because for once in my life I really do want three cherries.


  2. declanconner says:

    Hi Dannym. I am with you. I really hope they will still be around for a long time. It is hard to know if it is the economic crisis, or the rise of Amazon. kindle and supermarkets gaining market share. I truly hope it is the former.


  3. dannym says:

    Listening to an interview on the radio with the owner of a small bookshop she was very upbeat. She said that the supermarkets are not really a threat because they don’t sell that many books and she couldn’t sell the ones that they retail anyway. She was a very with it business woman and was retailing both in hard copy and on line and as I say she made much of the fact that there was room for everyone. I found that very heartening.


    • declanconner says:

      I think that whatever happens, the small owners of book stores will survive. Not least because they have personal contact with readers and can support their needs, rather than chasing the next best seller at a discounted price. They can also add other products to diversify and respond to changes much quicker than chain stores.

      As for competing with eBook prices, I also think that as many can supply books at 2 for 5 pounds etc from named authors, (pre pulped paperbacks from publishers,) or can operate book exchanges, it levels out the playing field. I know I would rather be a small book store owner than a chain right now, although I still recognize that it must be difficult for them.


  4. […] Excellent analysis over at Declan Conner’s blog. […]


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