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Tim Waterstone: 'If reading is going be all digital analytics in 50 years, so be it' - Thirty years ago, Tim Waterstone founded one of the UK's best-known booksellers, and is still in love with the idea of bookshops. So what is he doing starting a new ebooks venture?
"Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie" … Tim Waterstone
Tim Waterstone's house in Holland Park, west London, sits on the edge of a small cluster of book-industry landmarks. Round the corner is the HQ of Granta, the publisher and literary quarterly. Just as close is a sumptuous branch of Daunt Books, the six-shop bookselling company owned by James Daunt, now also managing director of the chain Waterstone founded in 1982, these days owned by the Russian tycoon Alexander Mamut. The nearest Waterstones is a 10-minute walk away in Notting Hill, an outlet its former owner would occasionally visit when it was managed by HMV – and, as he saw it, going to the dogs, at speed.
In an imaginary movie of his life, you can picture the scene: the principal character stealing a look at his life's work and wondering what on earth had happened. "What I hated, to the point that I couldn't sleep at night, was that I thought it was being badly run, and going backwards," he tells me, while shooing off one of his cats. "It was just agony to me. I felt HMV were screwing it up, and I couldn't stand it. Every time I walked to the tube station, past that shop, I could hardly bear to look in the window." He felt it had drifted too far from the simple business of selling books.
Waterstone – a calm, candid presence, some distance from anyone's idea of a big retail player – will soon turn 74. After three unsuccessful attempts to buy back the chain that bears his name, he assisted in its latest change of hands, and though his involvement now extends to little more than the occasional lunch, he says he is confident that it's back "in proper ownership, with a very, very good business plan".
Mamut, with whom he has worked on a bookselling venture in Moscow, is "a very cultured, literary figure. Most unusually for a Russian oligarch, I must say." He laughs. "But genuinely so." Waterstone can now concentrate on his fiction writing: two short novels are on the way, following four already published. (Of these, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, which drew on his experiences in the corporate world, got the most attention.) Then there is his life as a venture capitalist, which has led him to invest in wholefood shops, magazine publishing and cosmetics.
He is also about to return to bookselling as non-executive chairman of a new venture called Read Petite. This will be launched to the trade at next week's London Book Fair, and to the public in the autumn. An online outlet for short-form ebooks (fiction and non-fiction), its users will pay a monthly subscription – "a few pounds" – and have unlimited access to texts of around 9,000 words or under.
But this is no literary Spotify, offering hundreds of thousands of items with little quality control: Waterstone is insistent the service will be "curated" to ensure a high standard. Authors will have appeared in traditional print, and have been brought to Read Petite by a publisher. "The individual short story, or whatever it is, may not have been published, but the author will be an established, published writer," he says, drumming his fingers on the table to emphasis those last three words. "The whole point is to avoid a slush-pile of material. What we'll guarantee is quality writing."
Read Petite's name was inspired by Reet Petite, Jackie Wilson's 1957 rhythm and blues classic. One of its key players, former Bookseller editor Neill Denny, has come along to further explain what it is all about. The pair are particularly excited about the chance to serialize new fiction à la Charles Dickens, reintroducing readers to the long-forgotten art of the cliffhanger. They enthuse about how e-readers seem to have increased people's appetite for short-form writing. In the US, the New York Times has reported on a resurgence of the short story, benefiting new and established writers. We talk about such short-story masters as Somerset Maugham, Stephen King and Annie Proulx, and why the publishing industry has never quite managed to market the form.
"A lot of the best short fiction has never been properly exposed, because publishers don't find it commercially comfortable," says Waterstone. His bookselling business did have success with Graham Greene's short stories, but such successes were rare. "Even with a collection, how do you package it? It's difficult in print: traditionally, money was used up on production and distribution, and not enough was left for promotion. In the digital analytics world, production costs are virtually nil, and distribution costs don't exist, so you're left with a much cleaner sheet."
They plan to publish journalism, too. By the sound of it, they have not quite firmed up how deals with writers will work, but as Waterstone puts it, "if the site works, if the total subscriptions are high enough, it should leave a decent sum". Time, then, for a rude question. How much is Waterstone in for?
"That's too rude for me to answer," he says, smiling.
It comes as no great surprise that Waterstone owns a Kindle. The last book he read on it, recently, was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. When he first used one, though, he felt a sharp pang of fear. "I think I went through a crisis: [was it] the end of Waterstone's, and the end of the book trade? I was incredibly depressed. I pretended I wasn't, but inside I was churning: 'Maybe I should die now.'" He laughs.
He now thinks that, for the time being, ebooks and print can coexist. Nonetheless, the high streets on which so many shops still bear his name are in unprecedented crisis. For the moment, Waterstones (it lost its apostrophe in 2012, apparently to make online business easier) may be safe, but plenty of equally renowned names have gone under, and the future of the town and city center is clouded in doubt.
Talking about this, Waterstone sounds by turn ambivalent, uneasy and open about the idea that no one knows where things are headed – but also somewhat optimistic. Town-center rents, he explains, are finally coming down. His own chain is getting back to the idea that the shops "should be a theater. It should be a lovely place to be on a Sunday afternoon. The physical browsing process is enormously pleasant. It's an important part of our national culture, those bookshops."
A pause. "But the arithmetic does get more and more difficult, and online retailing gets more and more seductive. And all of us get more and more used to it, from grocery supply to buying books off Amazon. Yet I go to the Westfield shopping center down the road, and it's turned out to be an absolute goldmine, heaving with people all year round. Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do."
Among the high street's casualties, of course, is HMV, which bought Waterstone's from WH Smith (who had acquired it in 1993), at the end of the 1990s. Waterstone himself was HMV's chairman from then until 2001, and it was during that period that his nightmare began. So how did he feel watching HMV go under?
"I brought Waterstone's into HMV in 1998," he reminds me. "HMV stores at that time were extraordinarily successful, and very well run. I used them a lot: I thought they were a tremendous public service. I think some terrible decisions were made by the HMV management in the following decade. They blinded themselves to what was happening. Too slow to react, too slow to face the truth. The issue of downloading – they were always reactive rather than proactive in trying to find a way through. They should have led. I'm sad, really sad, as a consumer. But I've got children of 18 and 19, and they've got no interest in HMV whatsoever. All their music is downloaded. The switch has been so precipitate in that market."
Bookselling remains more balanced. Amazon – about which Waterstone has mixed opinions, recognizing their role in growing UK book sales, but decrying their "absolutely outrageous" tax manoeuvring – claims to be selling more ebooks than printed titles. As a whole, though, the market is still dominated by print: at the last count, ebooks made up 9% of the total. While the number of e-reader users grew by 150% through 2012, that rate of growth is predicted to slow. In other words, the digital analytics reading revolution goes on – but more gradually than you might imagine.
"Robert McCrum, former literary editor of the Observer, rang me about a year ago," Waterstone recalls. "He said, 'Tim, I'm doing yet another piece on "Whither the book?" For God's sake give me something new.' I said, 'I've done this so often.' He said, 'Well, have a go.' While I was talking, I walked to the other side of the house, where my daughter's bedroom is. She's 19, at Oxford, reading English. I walked in, and I could hardly move for books. And she couldn't be more technically savvy … so I rang her and asked, 'Why have you got so many physical books?' She said, 'I like having a Biro in my hand, scribbling notes down the side.' So I see the two forms sitting side by side."
But what if people only have a finite book budget? If they spend x pounds on ebooks, won't that mean x pounds not spent at a traditional shop? And in that sense, might even new ventures such as his contribute to the eventual demise of a lot of what he holds dear?
"That's behaviorally too complex a question, because none of us really know what happens," reckons Waterstone. "I am certain that if more people acquire the habit of reading, the more they'll stick with it and the more they'll read. And if that's going be entirely digital analytics in 50 years time, so be it.
"They'll be reading," he says, glancing at two shelves of novels behind him. "And that's a great thing."
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With over 10 years experience working solely in the Data & Analytics sector our consultants are able to offer detailed insights into the industry.
Visit our Blogs & News portal or check out the related posts below.
This is Harnham’s weekly news digest, the place to come for a quick breakdown of the week’s top news stories from the world of Data & Analytics. Express Pharma: The five biggest data challenges for life sciences Life Sciences has grown exponentially over the past 12 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the world, Life Science companies were in a race against time to create a life-changing vaccine and help us all back on the road to recovery. In 2019, the Life Science market was valued at around $7.5bn. After this year’s influx of activity, the market is estimated to grow by over double in the next decade, reaching $18bn by 2030. However, despite the positive growth the industry has had, this doesn’t mean Life Sciences will be free of challenges. In fact, with such a spike in the amount of data held by so many Life Science companies as they tried to work on a vaccine, data storage is now one of the main concerns for anyone working within the field. In this article by Express Pharma, Vimal Venkatram, Country Manager for Snowflake India, highlights the five key data hurdles Life Sciences will continue to have to overcome in the following decade. These include data performance, data exchange and collaboration, data quality, data management and scaling, and regulatory compliance. Read the full story here. Harnham: How can organisations tap into the huge pool of neurodiverse data talent? For many companies, the past year has led to an increased focus on diversity and inclusion within businesses – a fantastic step forward. However, when we think of diversity, we usually assume people are talking about gender, ethnicity, sexuality and perhaps even physical disability. One area that is regularly missed from discussion is that of neurodiversity. An umbrella term coined by sociologist, Judy Singer, neurodiversity can cover a wide range of neurological conditions such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, ADD and dyspraxia. Our head of internal recruitment, Charlie Waterman, explores why neurodiverse talent shouldn’t be overlooked, and how Data & Analytics specifically can do more to tap into and harness this incredible pool of talent.` Exploring how employers can create a smooth recruitment process, successful onboarding programmes and retention schemes, this article highlights how all of this can be tailored to be accessible for anyone with an invisible disability. To read more on this topic, click here. Computer Weekly: What has a year of homeworking meant for the DPO? Employers in a significant number of industries across the world have had to uproot from the office to working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of these employers, it appears that remote working, or a hybrid model of working, will become the norm post-pandemic. But what has this sudden shift meant for the likes of Data Protection Officers (DPOs)? Most of these professionals have had to get to grips with managing and handling sensitive data from the comfort of their own living room. According to data from IBM, 70 per cent of DPOs believe that the shift to remote working will increase the likelihood of data breaches. So how can DPOs enjoy the benefits and perks of working from home, without the stress of poorly managed or breached data? In this article by Computer Weekly, steps are outlined on how DPOs can work closely with IT teams to minimise any data risk that could happen. This includes: Not allowing DPOs access to everything if it’s not necessaryDiscouraging local storage of dataRegularly reviewing security standards To read the full article, visit the website here. Solutions Review: The three best Data Engineering books on our reading lists There’s no better feeling than getting stuck into a really good book. Not only can it be a great way to escape the stresses of everyday life, but by continuously absorbing new information, your knowledge on a specific subject can grow immensely. Any branch of Data & Analytics, but especially Data Engineering, requires employees to always be thinking one step ahead, staying on top of new trends and keeping up to date with specific coding languages. While everyone learns in very different ways, reading is a brilliant education tool. Whether you’re a visual learner, an auditory learner or a reading learner, books and audiobooks could be the key to expanding your knowledge. Solutions Review provides Data Engineers with three of the best books on the market at the moment to help you keep on top of your professional development. Data Driven Science and Engineering by Brunton and KutzData Engineering with Python by Crickard An introduction to agile Data Engineering by using data vault 2.0 by Graziano To read more about each of these books, click here. We've loved seeing all the news from Data & Analytics in the past week, it’s a market full of exciting and dynamic opportunities. To learn more about our work in this space, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
16. April 2021
Ensuring that our workplaces are thriving with a diverse range of talent is, rightly, a topic that many organisations are focussing on. Yet, for the most part, this dialogue is centred around gender, ethnicity, sexuality and perhaps even physical disability. It is fairly uncommon therefore to see close attention given to exploring the challenges surrounding neurodiversity in organisations around the globe. Generally speaking, the term neurodiversity encompasses autism, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. To hear a range of diverse viewpoints and perspectives is to contribute to an inclusive society and organisation. Leaving neurodiversity aside is no longer acceptable. Our research in the US highlights how 26 per cent of US adults have some form of disability, yet disabled individuals only account for 3.5 per cent of those working in Data & Analytics. As the global skills shortage worsens, it stands to reason that businesses will want to access this previously untapped talent pool. We know that in the UK, 56 per cent of organisations continue to experience skills shortages and in the US, two-thirds of employers hiring for full-time, permanent employees say they can’t find qualified talent to fill open jobs. An often-overlooked area of diversity is the impact a disability can have on an individual’s professional career. It’s no secret that all organisations would like to construct the best team – but are you doing enough to consider underrepresented talent? Creating a smooth recruitment and interview process One of the first barriers that neurodiverse candidates may encounter when seeking to enter an organisation is the recruitment and interview process. For these individuals, undergoing testing in this way puts pressure on communication skills, a tool that often allows us to better understand, connect and empathise with one another. When it comes to the recruitment process, the traditional in-person interview process — which assesses communication skills and personality fit — can be difficult to negotiate for neurodiverse candidates. In fact, this can be said to have been heightened by the pandemic too. The switch to virtual interviewing has added a new challenge to how neurodiverse candidates are able to participate in the process as miscommunication and interruptions come into the picture. For employers, tapping into the pool of data professionals with these invisible disabilities requires them to take the stress out of the interview and assessment process. It is critical to consider someone’s potential ability to do the job and the core skills that they have linking directly to the role on offer. Onboard a successful neurodiverse candidate efficiently Regardless of the size of an organisation, from global corporation to growing SME, they all share the same need to onboard new hires successfully and with limited disruption. It is this process that begins the relationship between an employee and an employer and although there will have been interactions through the recruitment process, it is the initial welcome into the organisation that will set the tone for the relationship moving forward. For neurodiverse employees this can be a daunting prospect; meeting new people while also familiarising themselves with a new environment and routine requires ongoing support and help from the employer. There are a number of ways that organisations can make this easier, from in-person or virtual meetings with smaller groups of the team to scheduled one-to-one chats with colleagues, the first few steps can be made more comfortable by promoting an inclusive culture. However, as there are such wide-ranging differences between neurodiverse conditions and individual requirements, employers need to implement policies that are tailored and highly individualised. Creating such policies and programmes can be complex and time-consuming, but it is critical to include your team in this. Ultimately it will boost your bottom line and the array of perspectives and views that are shared within the organisation. Retaining neurodiverse employees Neurodiverse candidates are capable, intelligent and have creative-thinking minds. To ensure their tenure within an organisation is lengthy and successful, we need to support these professionals and equip them with the tools and support they need to thrive. A standardised approach will not satisfy every need, and so it is important that every person in your organisation is accommodated as far as possible. The importance of this could not be clearer, as the BIMA Tech Inclusion & Diversity Report details how neurodivergent employees are more likely to be impacted by poor mental health (84 per cent against 49 per cent for neurotypical workers). This suggests that beyond attracting neurodiverse talent into the organisation, employers need to focus on the quality of the experience within the team. For example, take the time to book in regular meetings between the employee and their line manager. This will ensure that projects run smoothly, and any concerns or questions can be raised in a controlled environment. Listen to your team and their lived experiences to make informed and accurate plans to facilitate their growth within the team. After all, each employee brings a set of unique skills to a company. As more organisations realise the benefits of hiring neurodivergent candidates into their teams, employers have to act quickly to make routes into the business as accessible as possible. Ultimately, hiring neurodiverse people makes complete business sense. We know that diverse teams perform better, so now is the time to step up and tap into the huge pool of neurodiverse data talent. If you’re in the world of Data & Analytics and looking to take a step up or find the next member of your team, we can help. Take a look at our latest opportunities or get in touch with one of our expert consultants to find out more.
15. April 2021
£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits
This large Travel/Hotel brand has had extensive investment and they are looking for a Data Scientist to deliver actionable insights using statistical analysis.
£55000 - £60000 per annum + bonus and benefits
A market leader in the hospitality & leisure space are looking for a Data Scientist for their Hertfordshire office.
£35000 - £70000 per annum + bonus and benefits
A high-growth Food/Tech company are looking for multiple Supply Chain Analysts.