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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.
We recently spoke to Sarah Nooravi, an Analytics professional with a specialism in Marketing who was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Analytics. Sarah found herself working in Analytics after being attracted to the culture, creativity and the opportunity to be challenged. Having spent the first four years of her career working within the Marketing space, she has seen a real transition in the way that Analytics and Data Science has informed Marketing decisioning. “I started my career in a Marketing agency within the entertainment industry, at the time it was doing things that most of the entertainment industry hadn’t considered doing yet”. At the start of her career she’d meet entertainment giants with advertising budgets of millions of dollars who were, at the time, making mostly gut decisions with how to approach campaigns. “It was common that I’d hear, ‘I think our audience is females over the age of 35 with a particular interest and we should just target them’” she expands. However, agencies quickly recognised the need for something more Data-driven. Entertainment businesses were going too narrow and were misunderstanding their audiences. The next step was to embed into these businesses the insights from a greater variety of sources, including social media, and to introduce more testing. That translated into a better media buying strategy that could be continuously optimised. It was a big step forward in the utilisation of Data within this realm and its clear focus on ROI. Suddenly, the market was changing, “There was a massive spike of agencies popping up and claiming to leverage Data Science and Machine Learning to provide better optimisations for entertainment companies, mobile gaming – you name it. There was a huge momentum shift from using these gut decisions to leveraging agencies that could prove that”. What she saw next seemed only natural, with more agencies offering Data-driven optimisation, companies looked to develop this capability internally. Sarah elaborates; “Now I am seeing these companies starting to take ownership of their own media buying and bringing the Marketing and Data Science in-house”. This shift in-house has been propelled by the major players, companies like Facebook, Google and Nooravi’s own company, Snapchat, working directly with companies to help them optimise their campaigns. This shift has changed the landscape of Marketing Analytics, specifically within the advertising space. Sarah explains, “You no longer need an agency to optimise your, for example, Facebook campaigns, because Facebook will do it for you. They are minimising the number of people behind the campaigns. You give up a little of your company’s Data for a well optimised campaign and you don’t have to hire a media buyer. There is definitely a movement now to becoming more Data-driven. Companies are really leveraging A/B tests and also testing out different creatives”. It is this change in strategy that is seemingly taking the Marketing Analytics challenge to the next level. With opportunities to pinpoint specific audiences, companies are using their Data to understand how to approach their content, take the opportunity to experiment, and to find out what it takes to resonate with their audience. Sarah has seen the potential of this first hand: “We are starting to see a lot of AR and VR. There are meaningful ways to engage with technology to connect with the world. Moving forward, content will have to become more engaging. People’s attention spans are becoming shorter and with each decision someone makes it is changing the direction of content in the future. There has been a massive shift from static images to video advertisement and, more recently, from video into interactive video like playable adverts. People want to engage with adverts in order to understand a company’s message”. It is within this space that she sees a gap for the future of ROI positive advertising: “The biggest issue that I find with the creative and the content is that the value add is missing. The resonance with the brand or company, their values and mission is what is missing. Analytics alone cannot fix that. You need to understand what the company stands for, people want to connect with brands because of what they stand for – whatever it is. Especially in a time like we are dealing with right now, a pandemic, advertising spending has gone down. However, maybe there is a way to properly message to people that would resonate. Not that you want them to buy your stuff but maybe right now is the perfect time to do outreach and to help people understand your brand”. The ability to understand and predict customer behaviour is evolving, but with that, so is the customer. Whereas at the moment, you can build out experiments, you can create models that will be able to, as Sarah explains, “in real-time decide whether a user’s behaviour is indicative of one that is going to churn” and then try and create offers to increase retention. This is the challenge of the current analytics professional – our behaviours in a global pandemic have shifted consumers into a new world. Now working for Snap Inc, she sees the potential of this from a new perspective. Naturally, like most social media channels and communication technologies, they have seen an increase in usage over the last month. “People are wanting to communicate more as we are forced to social distance. However, we are seeing different regions engaging a lot more heavily. For example, it's Ramadan right now, people want to share those moments with one another and at the moment the way that they are having to do that is changing”. So, it will be a question for all those required to predict behaviours to determine how many of these new lines of communication, these new habits, will have evolved. Once people are out of quarantine, are they going to continue to utilise the apps, games, social channels in the same way that they are currently? It certainly is going to be something that many within the marketing analytics space will be trying to forecast. If you’re looking to take your next step in Marketing Analytics, or are looking to build out your team, Harnham may be able to help. Take a look at our latest opportunities or get in touch with one of our expert consultants to find out more.
28. May 2020
It’s a challenge finding the right Data & Analytics candidate. Add in the number of companies fighting for that perfect profile and for many it can seem like an uphill battle. But there’s a simple way to cut through the noise; better job descriptions. As a specialist recruitment agency within the Data & Analytics space, we have seen a real variety of job descriptions over the years, from the bright and innovative to the long and technical. And it may surprise you to learn that candidates still ask regularly to see official job descriptions and it is part of their decision-making process. Unfortunately, they are also often a part of the recruitment process that can be rushed or created from out-of-date previous descriptions. There are some real benefits, however, to putting the time and effort required into creating something fresh. If you’ve recruited a role like a Data Scientist before, you know that the problem isn’t usually getting enough candidates through the door, it’s about getting the right ones. A well-crafted job description leads to better quality applicants. It also helps those candidates become more engaged and excited about your business. So, with that in mind, here are our five top tips for businesses looking to help their role stand out from the crowd. CHECK YOUR JOB TITLE You might think that calling your BI Analyst a ‘Data Ninja’ is going to get you the top talent, but it would probably mostly cause confusion. It is important that you align the job title to a clear and market relevant job title. Often internal job titles can be the biggest blocker in aligning your vacancy to the market. Consider changing the job title for external purposes to make it more closely aligned to the market. Here are some common examples: An AVP Analyst within a Marketing Analytics team is more closely aligned to a Senior Marketing Analyst. A Data Scientist job title aligned to a role with no machine Learning or algorithmic development may be better titled a Statistical Analyst. CREATE A COMPELLING JOB RUN-THROUGH Our consultants agreed unanimously that one of the weakest areas of job descriptions tends to be the more detailed description of what the role actually is. Too often job descriptions just list lots of different responsibilities, but these are often very generic or basic. Before starting to write the job brief, ask members of your team that do the role already – what gets them excited? You will likely find that it has to do more with the types of projects i.e. the application of technical elements, that appeals most to candidates. If you can, bring the role to life in a meaningful way. For example, relating it to projects that your team has done is a really enticing method of exciting a candidate about the potential of the role. Create A Tailored Experience Section Uninspiring job descriptions often have long lists of key skills required, often with irrelevant skills included. Keep your requirements to around 5 or 6 key bullet points, asking yourself what the most important requirements are and clearly laying those out. On top of that often companies get too focused on requesting years of experience. We strongly discourage companies from specifying years of experience in a job advert as, within the UK, most European countries and a number of US states this is classified as age discrimination. Instead of including years of experience, carve out what it is that you want your ideal candidate to have done before instead, this will often correlate to their experience level. For example: 5+ years' experience in a Marketing Analytics could easily be transformed to Proven commercial experience in a Marketing Analytics environment with exposure to pre and post campaign analysis, customer analysis, customer segmentation and predictive modelling. DON’T FORGET TO SELL YOURSELVES Another key area where many companies fall down is effectively selling their opportunity and company to the prospective candidates. Whether an active or passive job-seeker, candidates are likely deciding whether this is the right fit for them based on what they are reading. Many job descriptions completely forgo any type of sales pitch above an initial description of what the company does, perhaps because they expect the candidate to know them and want them. These are the areas we’d suggest bringing to life to effectively sell your opportunity: Writing in your brands personality. Consider the right tone of voice to match your company culture and style of working. Introduce yourself. Whether you’re a brand name or not, use this chance to actually tell people about what you really do and what you really stand for. Share what it’s like to work for the company. Include the culture, work environment, targets, challenges and of course reference to perks and benefits on offer too. Consider the candidate. What appeals to a talented Data Scientist will differ from what appeals to an HR professional. Make sure you tailor your overall pitch to the type of candidate you are seeking. WORK ON THE LOOK AND FEEL A little effort on the aesthetic look of your job description an go a long way. On top of a nice overall look, keep the length to a maximum of 1.5 pages. Utilise bullet points and bold formatting to keep the description some-what ‘skimmable’. If you’re looking to hire a Data & Analytics professional, Harnham can help. Get in touch with one of our expert consultants to find out more.
14. May 2020
£80000 - £90000 per annum + package
One of the UK's most well recognised Media brands are looking to bring 2 new senior developers and a Data Architect on board
£40000 - £50000 per annum + pension and benefits
Great role in a strong BI team of Analysts and Developer and DBA's to work on 3 major migration and Data Warehouse projects
£80000 - £100000 per annum
Fully remote role for a Senior Software Engineer in healthcare.