Waterstones 'Absolutely Vital to the Literary Ecosystem'

Yesterday's reports that Waterstones owner Alexander Mamut has hired N.M. Rothschild & Sons to make a strategic review of the bookselling chain, including a possible sale, has caused much concern in the British book world. The Bookseller spoke with a range of people in the book business; among their comments:

Bookseller and historian Tamsin Rosewell: "Businesses get bought and sold all the time but what makes this different is that this is the only chain within our entire industry and its presence [in downtowns] is so important. I hate to use this phrase but they are product champions. They have brought the idea of browsing in a bookshop and spending time there, they have been instrumental to this. The importance of Waterstones in the industry cannot be denied."

Oneworld publisher Juliet Mabey: "Waterstones is Oneworld's biggest single customer by far, and the possibility of a sale is likely to generate frissons of anxiety in all publishers who have watched its impressive turnaround under the brilliantly confident, steady hand of [managing director] James Daunt. It is a truly stellar achievement, and the envy of publishers in the U.S. Waterstones is absolutely vital to the literary ecosystem in the U.K., and we would all be hard hit if the progress made were to suffer a reversal under new ownership. I have a deep-seated belief that bookshops do much better in the hands of book people, and I think this has already been demonstrated over the past six years, so a potential sale to a private equity firm outside the industry, particularly one bent on a fast turnaround, is a cause for concern. However, I would be far less anxious about such a prospect if I knew James Daunt might continue at the helm if it is sold."

Gordon Wise, an agent at Curtis Brown: "The capitalisation that they've had over the last few years has been fantastic--but it's coming from one person [Alexander Mamut], there's a risk factor there. Would they rather be in the context of a broader based retail environment or is it good for them to have a line of credit that allows them to do things that others wouldn't otherwise do?...

"There are so many good things Waterstones has been doing. For certain lists, it is very important as a platform for helping to make books. Without Waterstones where would you be with The Essex Serpent at the moment? When Breath Becomes Air? Joanna Cannon's The Trouble with Goats and Sheep? These are all projects that Waterstones' commitment has really helped to drive and help set trends within the industry as a whole. If you haven't got someone doing that talking up in the way they have, and guarantee of physical availability, that's a real loss."

Financial analyst Nick Bubb: "Consumers won't notice the sale talk and the only risk is that staff get demotivated by the uncertainty. But I'm sure James will make clear that the best way for everybody in the business to do well out of a change of ownership is to focus on delivering as good a Christmas as possible and thus maximise the value of Waterstones."

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