There’s been a lot of coverage of Mr Daunt setting up unbranded branches of Waterstones. Much of the coverage and comment has been negative accusing him of trying to hoodwink people into believing the shops are actually independently owned. Is this fair? Surely it’s OK for a big company to trade under different names in different markets (VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat for example).
Independent bookshops have a brand image. It’s one that has grown over the years from the expertise, passion and commitment of their owners. To run a small independent bookshop today you have to love what you do. You’re not going to do it for the riches. And this has led to local people (and other book lovers) to develop a love for their bookshop. People hunt out the bookshop in towns they visit. It’s a good job there is this love. Without it bookshops would have folded under the onslaught from Amazon, supermarket best seller racks and Waterstones.
Daunt is trying to get the kudos of being an independent with the cost benefits associated with large purchasing power and the ability to operate business structures that are tax efficient. He can run a team of social media folk to promote the business and no doubt use these folk to promote the unbranded stores. All the other overheads can be shared – including staff who may be expected to work in a number of shops in an area. In competitive terms size matters and Daunt is benefitting from this. Importantly he can also prop up unprofitable stores to compete with smaller rivals. The financial security of having a multi-million dollar parent company owned by a Russian businessman helps.
If he choses to use these business and financial powers to compete directly with established small independent bookshops he should be able to put them out of business. Indeed if he can’t he ought to be sacked.
So yes it does matter who owns your bookshop. Waterstones have the power to dominate bookselling if they chose to use it. If instead of setting up in areas where (they claim) there are no true independents they move into areas where there are then the small booksellers are toast. Your book buying choices will be, effectively, Amazon (and its offshoots) or Waterstones. On the high street there will be a monopoly; and if Waterstones pull out there’ll be no high street bookshops. So don’t be taken in by a branding exercise. If you share the passion of the struggling independent bookshop owners of the country then do support them. When they’re gone they’re gone and you’ll be relying on the largesse of Daunt and his Russian backers to provide physical bookshops.