Waterstones? Yes, I’m still watching…

Back in July, with the help of generous folk willing to spare their time surveying display tables, and analysing the promotional emails to loyalty card holders, I looked at the gender balance in the books Waterstones was promoting. As the last national chain bookseller in the UK, the picture they present to readers of what’s available and who’s writing it really matters.

You can read that post here.

Since then? The monthly ‘Books To Read’ email to loyalty card holders – Aug/Sep/Oct – has featured a total of twenty four books, sixteen by men and eight by women, so a two to one ratio. Books of the Month? Four by men, two by women, so once again, a two to one ratio. Backlist promotions? Two men to, er none. No women at all.

Well, that’s only a three month sample, so let’s really, really hope things improve over the rest of the year. Though I’m not hopeful unless and until the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections are restored to these emails. Those always used to help redress the balance but are currently suspended as part of a website/online presence redesign.

Other promotional emails? Two flagged up the latest half price offers on new titles, highlighting a total of eight titles by men and five by women plus a book by/with/about the pop group One Direction. One highlighted the Booker Prize shortlist – with four men and two women. Anne Rice got an email all to herself, flagging up her new novel for pre-order.

One flagged up Super Thursday when the publishing trade pushes its hoped-for Christmas bestsellers and featured nine books by men against three by women. Those by women were two focused on romance and relationships and one children’s book. Of the twelve in total, four were autobiographies, two of sportsmen, one comedian, one rock star, so that’s quite a skew in itself.

Add those numbers up and the overall ratio remains two to one in favour of men over women.

Any good news? Well, I was in my local branch and saw this display featuring five new SF&F titles by women writers, so that was cheering.

five women SFF

Mind you, Cheryl Morgan was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and saw their SF&F table which featured one, count her, one female writer out of twenty two titles – at least until Margaret Atwood had done her signing and doubled the total. Sigh.

The thing is though, Waterstones can’t be held solely responsible. Not if they’re picking titles to tie in with the festival’s programme as is standard practise for such events. The Lit Fest had what sounds like an excellent panel on dystopias (do read Cheryl Morgan’s report here) with Jane Rogers, Ken Macleod and Christopher Priest (so maintaining that two to one ratio…). However the Celebration of Sci Fi and Fantasy event featured Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Mitch Benn and David Barnett alongside Sarah Pinborough. Fine writers all and interesting, entertaining talkers as I can personally attest. But that’s really not going to do much to counter the prevailing – and incorrect – idea that SF&F writers are predominately men. Especially if neither Jane nor Sarah’s books were actually offered for sale.

Of course, that’s not just an issue for bookshops and literature festivals. In our local Cineworld cinema this past weekend, I picked up a leaflet and saw they’re now promoting forthcoming films as ‘girls’ night out’, ‘boys’ night out’, ‘date night’, ‘fun for the family’ selections rather than by genre. Yes, SF is firmly tagged for the boys. Sigh.

Here’s something else that’s new. When it comes to local bookselling, Waterstones are now the only game in town as far as West Oxfordshire is concerned. Redesign in our local WHSmith has seen their selection of paperbacks drop from two hundred titles to seventy five while Sainsbury’s locally seem to be getting out of books in any meaningful fashion. They’ve reorganised their layout and are now carrying a total of twenty paperbacks, compared to the seventy five they used to offer.

I’ve been saying for a while that one way for bookstores to compete with the supermarkets would be to offer a more diverse range of titles. If the supermarkets are getting out of bookselling now, what are the chances of that happening? While we wait to see, I’ll be very interested in reports of any other supermarkets cutting back on their range of books, if you’d care to take a look while you’re buying your groceries?

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

5 thoughts on “Waterstones? Yes, I’m still watching…

  1. Rant about Waterstones’ inept marketing:
    Is the Waterstones email still relevant, these days? I do receive them. I quickly scan them. Then I delete them. I have yet to receive an email of theirs that pleased me: the email seems a one-size-fits-all message, showing me a number of books I’d never be interested in. They might highlight some author tours taking place around the country, but not include any of the events taking place at the shop local to me.

    By comparison, the Goodreads newsletter has been much more effective. It sends me “new books by authors you’ve read” emails – which have triggered purchases several times. (I think it only includes authors whose books I rated at 3 stars and above, but I can’t be certain). I do get other newsletters from them which are less effective, but at least their virtual author chats / talks are open and accessible to me.

    I don’t understand why Waterstones newsletters are not highly personalised – if they have my card details and purchase history, they should be able to promote books that have something in common with those I already bought (authors, ideally, but also genres). If they know I buy most of my books in one city, it would make sense to put all the events taking place at the local branch into a newsletter.

    The local Waterstones even run a monthly book club – but, of course, it’s a book club reading worthy lit fic. If they offered a “genre book club” (maybe monthly, but about two weeks after the main one), I’d probably want to be a part of that.

    Basically, Waterstones have failed entirely to use what they should already know about me, and that makes their advertising and newsletters irrelevant.

    When it comes to gender balances, I suspect the publishing industry is much more sexist than readers themselves. Oh, sorry, was I supposed to say “conservative”? Whether using initials for female authors (JK Rowling) or expanding the names of male authors to make sure that no one might think they might be female (Patrick Rothfuss instead of Pat Rothfuss), publishers and their marketing people don’t seem to trust the market to be gender-blind. I’m sure there are some mental cavemen (and -women) somewhere who take an author’s sex into account, but I have yet to meet one of those specimens.

    The problem is, they think books are like shampoo. But books are not like shampoo. Unfortunately, Marketing people all learn the same tricks, and while it sadly works very well for shampoo (http://youtu.be/3JDmb_f3E2c), books aren’t the same sort of impulse buys. When a reader selects a book, they take much more time to make a decision. The cover gets considered, the back cover is read, the blurbs judged… Book sellers (and publishers) should go into a bookshop and compare the behaviour there with the behaviour in a supermarket. I would be hugely surprised if book buyers make buying decisions as quickly as we select a shampoo. Which should really be good news – no, excellent news – for marketers and equality alike. For marketers: where else are people going to carefully consider and absorb your texts? On a shampoo bottle, all we absorb is “shampoo. Some scent. For some type of hair. For a gender. Oh, look, price!” (Most people probably don’t even get as far as comparing the per millilitre price rather than the absolute price). For a book, if the title and cover appeal, and the first sentence of the back cover does not repel, then the target audience will probably take in EVERY WORD on the back. And that should be excellent news for gender equality, too, because suddenly, the author’s name is just two words out of 300 we read before deciding whether to buy a book. Okay, so some dinosaurs / sexists might stop reading after those two words, but the third bit of good news is this: sexist dinosaurs are more likely to spend all their time in front of the TV, and their reading time absorbing sports pages / gossip magazines, the gamergate Twitter hashtag, and maybe The Daily Mail. Of the people who read books, I’m fairly sure that the majority are NOT sexist dinosaurs.

    Which means that inequalities in publishing are perpetuated not because the market forces it, but because marketing people have been blinkered with prejudices that are meant to sell shampoo and diet products and cars…

    1. You make very interesting points. Yes, the influence of marketing in publishing is an issue. I was talking to a journalist pal about this very subject today; discussing the way that acquisitions of books to publish are now at least as influenced by what the marketing department thinks will sell as an editor’s passion for the submission that’s on their desk.

      The lack of Waterstones doing anything meaningful by way of targeted promotion off the back of loyalty card purchase data? Compared to say, Sainsbury, Boots and Tesco, who very evidently pay close attention to what I’m buying in their shops? It’s all of a piece with the lack of interest in and awareness of digital and internet-related opportunities in sales and promotion prevailing in the book trade for so long. For so long that so much power was ceded to Amazon that we’re all paying for that now…

      1. One of the problems I saw back when I worked for one of the Big Five of NYC was the incursion of non-book people into publishing, particularly in marketing and sales. People whose marketing/sales careers started with books understand that they are not fungible products, but often outsiders fell into the “shampoo” trap Robert notes.

        The irksome part is that for some types of books, it’s true. The typical “beach book” is intended to sell by its cover design, not the author’s name, and it’s expected to sell X copies regardless of quality and then go OP forever. One is as good as another.

        (Or, as an editor friend once put it, “Sometimes you just need a Scotsman theme Romance novel to fill the publishing slot, and you’ll take whatever half-decent manuscript comes in because it won’t make a difference to sales.”)


        Re Waterstone’s emails: I wonder how many of the promos are paid for by publishers, similar to co-op for table placement in stores? That would put the blame back on the publishers, not Waterstones.

        1. Yes indeed, many thanks for those further, interesting thoughts.

          The market has definitely been skewed by the rise of what were often called ‘non-books’ when I worked in bookselling 20 years ago – by which I mean the likes of the One Direction tome, ghostwritten fiction from some telly star and puff-piece ‘celebiographies’ around Christmas. These used to be uncommon, now they’re a constant presence.

          Every year publishers make massive losses on these and the industry says their day is done – but back they come next year because the few that do succeed, written by/for genuinely interesting people with actual talent, bring in such massive sales they offset the duds.

          Which is fine for the publishers and even the humiliated celebs have a couple of hundred thousand by way of an advance to soften the blow – while midlist authors see their advances stagnate or shrink…

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