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Waterstone's is sold at last

23 May 2011

Other news stories had to be shelved with the news yesterday that Waterstone's has been bought by Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut's A&NN Group. Although this negotiation has been a bit long drawn-out, the news has been well-received and is in contrast to the situation in the United States, where Borders continues to teeter on the brink. The troubled HMV group has only raised £53m in the sale, considerably less than they had originally hoped for.

To everyone's surprise, Mamut has announced that he intends to install James Daunt as MD. Daunt, not widely known outside London, runs the chain of seven Daunt bookshops, which are regarded as models of their kind. Wide-ranging stock is complemented by knowledgeable booksellers operating in an independent way. Daunt is generally regarded as a 'good thing' but will need to bring all his versatility to bear to cope with this job, not least because a solution that works well in upmarket and well-heeled London bookshops will not necessarily be so successful in Waterstone's 300 bookshops, which are in a range of settings.

Daunt himself says: 'The intention is to keep the shops open and make them vibrant, prosperous places. In an ideal world one would not be closing shops. It may be that some prove irredeemable - the real question is: is there room on our high streets for 300 stores and I believe there is. I believe that Waterstone's should be an integral part of the community and part of the cultural life of the nation. I wouldn't be taking this on if I didn't think it was a worthwhile thing to be doing, and though it is by no means an easy task, I am very excited.'

Tom Holland, author and President of the Society of Authors, said the buy was 'fabulous' news for authors. 'Waterstone's is absolutely vital for authors and the survival of literary culture in this country. If the book vanishes from the high street into cyberspace, if it is exclusively the preserve of independent bookshops which cannot get space in shopping malls or airports, that is very threatening for the future of publishing in this country. The ability to go into shops and browse fosters the habit of reading and makes a statement about the centrality of publishing and books to the culture and the retail economy of this country.'

Many will see this sale as offering a real chance for the survival of bookshops in the UK, following the model of a chain of serious bookstores generously stocked and run in an independent manner by good professional booksellers.

Jonny Geller of literacy agency Curtis BrownSee Curtis Brown listing said that: 'The staff there will be revitalised and re-energised', but that Waterstone's would have to change. 'It's going to have to embrace the online selling market but it has to do it in its own way, to show an alternative to Amazon.'

But the problems Waterstone's has faced remain, of course. The Ancient Mariner, commenting on the story in the Bookseller Online, may yet have it right:

'The new management will quickly have to put in place exciting, integrated and credible strategies for e-books and internet selling, as they are all but too late to make up the vast ground lost over many years to Amazon, Apple, Google, Tesco and Sainsburys, as well confronting the time drift of book readers to new media. All this in a long retail recession while trying to understand and attract customers in hundreds of locations with different socio-economic and demographic profiles who are today familiar with a promiscuous approach to media, often for no charge.'