If Indie Bookshops Can Pay a Living Wage, Why Can't Waterstones?
Recently, Waterstones boss James Daunt said the chain "can't afford" to pay a living wage. What can it learn from the independent bookshops who say they already do?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Everyone deserves a Living Wage. This isn’t that radical a statement, really: all I’m saying is that everyone deserves to be paid enough money for doing their job to allow them to eat proper meals, travel to work (and, heaven forbid, to other places they might also like to go to), and generally live comfortably.
However, despite the fact that the right to decent pay should be universal, there are a massive number of workers in the UK for whom a Living Wage is not a reality. A 2018 KPMG report states that an estimated 5.75 million employees in the UK are paid less than the recommended national Living Wage (£10.55 an hour in London; £9 an hour elsewhere.) The report also claims that “the total number of jobs that pay below the Living Wage has risen by 1.2 million compared to 2012,” and suggests that of all sectors, sales and retail assistant jobs represent the highest proportion of roles that see people earn less than a Living Wage (the report suggests that this number is “approximately 756,000”).
Unsurprisingly, workers have had enough, and some have even begun to fight back. Since 2016, workers at Picturehouse cinemas have been petitioning bosses for a Living Wage, leading to a number of well-known figures including Sir Ian McKellen calling for a boycott of the chain until they had reformed their pay policies. And in October 2018, fast food and bar workers at branches of McDonald’s, Wetherspoons, Uber Eats, and TGI Fridays banded together in what became known as the McStrike. The strikers’ demands included an end to lower rates of pay for younger employees, union recognition, and, indeed, a basic £10 per hour minimum wage (KPMG note in their report that “bar staff and waiters and waitresses are still the most likely to be paid less than the Living Wage.”)
The Living Wage emerges periodically as a news item, usually because another group of workers has started campaigning to claim what should already be theirs. Currently, retail employees – or booksellers – at the UK’s largest book chain Waterstones are going into that particular battle. Last month, Waterstones staff member April Newton started a petition addressed to James Daunt, CEO of Waterstones, calling on him to increase booksellers’ wages in line with the Living Wage.
On Monday the 8th of April, that petition was delivered to Waterstones’ London head office, with the strong support of more than 1,000 authors including best-sellers Sally Rooney and David Nicholls, who signed an open letter from writers to the firm. To coincide with the petition, workers also launched the book Working at Waterstones, a collection of 40 anonymous bookseller profiles. In it, staff discuss the sad reality of loving your job and all the good you are able to do in it, but having to envision a future outside of it because it just doesn't pay enough.
Responding to the moves from workers, James Daunt gave an interview on Radio 4, where he said that Waterstones simply couldn’t afford to become a Living Wage employer. Speaking on the 27th of March, Daunt defended his remarks by essentially saying that by raising the bottom tier of booksellers’ wages would negatively affect prospects for career progression: “It’s about having proper career progression and pay progression through the company which is most important to us, and that if you raise the bottom level becomes more than we can afford.”
Daunt said Waterstones is “forging careers” by having the current system in place, but paying the bottom rung of workers the lowest wages isn’t the only way to do this in the book industry, or indeed in any industry (it’s also worth noting that an investigation by Corporate Watch recently pointed out that Waterstones’ “highest paid director – presumably Daunt – alone made £1.6 million from the company last year, up £170,000 from the previous year.”)
Ross Bradshaw owns and runs Five Leaves Bookshop, an award-winning independent bookshop in Nottingham. Five years ago, the shop started paying a Living Wage to all employees, and I spoke to Ross about the decision to do so: “The Living Wage is good for staff retention, as people feel valued, and our customers like that we pay the Living Wage,” he explains. “It's also non-discriminatory, in that the government’s pale shadow minimum wage allows workers under 25 to be paid less than older workers.”
Indeed, when staff members feel appreciated (a feeling fostered by paying the Living Wage), it follows that they’re more likely to feel happy at work, and remain in their jobs. And so, as staff members become more experienced, that can in turn open up more prospects. In fact, two of the independent bookstore owners I spoke to for this piece told me that their Living Wage-paid booksellers were involved in lots of different parts of the business, from buying to running staff-led initiatives and events.
Sam Fisher, who co-owns Burley Fisher Books in east London, previously worked as a bookseller at Camden Lock Books, where his then-boss Jason Burley paid his employees the Living Wage as soon as it was introduced. “As an employee, it meant that I felt less of a sense of economic precarity, and also felt valued as part of his business,” Sam tells me. He now co-owns Burley Fisher with Jason, his former boss: “When we set up the shop together there was no question that the Living Wage policy would be carried over,” he says. “Booksellers, and their specialist knowledge and passion for what they are selling, are what make bookshops special, and what separate them from the homogenising online retailers. The survival of bookshops is contingent on booksellers being able to earn a living wage – to be able to see it as a viable career option.”
It’s true that , as a retail job,bookselling in particular requires employees to live and breathe book culture – booksellers are expected to be well-read, full of recommendations, and versed in new literary trends and releases. As such, many spend a huge amount of time outside of work keeping up, simply because of their passion and enjoyment for the role and for books in general.
Writer Alice Slater – who also co-hosts the books podcast What Page Are You On? – spent six years working as a bookseller for Waterstones. She tells me that while she sees the good that James Daunt has done for Waterstones (Daunt was brought in as the chain faced bankruptcy in 2011, and had returned it to profitability by 2015), “the current pay structure and poor working conditions mean that great booksellers are overworked, underpaid and undervalued – but they love the job, so they do it anyway.”
From her point of view, it’s as if Daunt recognises that bookselling is a demanding job, and wants it to be viewed as such, but won’t remunerate his employees in a way that recognises this. “Part of the problem is that James Daunt seems to believe that bookselling, a job that he doesn’t actually do, is a reward in itself and it simply isn’t,” Alice says.
Miranda Peake, who runs Chener Books in southeast London (where her one day per week employees are paid £10.20 per hour, just under the Living Wage), has a similar perspective. She tells me that Daunt’s comments on pay “seem at odds with his moves to give booksellers in individual stores more responsibility and to some extent do away with the centralised ordering system. He wants booksellers to play a key role, but is not prepared to compensate them for that responsibility. I don't doubt that keeping the chain afloat is a very precarious task, but his position is difficult to defend when they have been opening new stores consistently for the last few years.”
More stores can present further staffing challenges when wages simply aren’t high enough to retain employees. Indeed, Alice names understaffing as another problem affecting Waterstones booksellers, and says that she does believe that better pay could go some way towards helping with the challenges faced on the shop floor. “Skipping breaks, unpaid overtime, coming in whilst sick and working alone all come with the territory of understaffed shops. It’s impossible to offer the same level of diligent customer service that Waterstones customers expect when you’re alone on the shop floor, have a thousand things to do, a full bladder, a rumbling stomach, a queue of people demanding to know why there isn’t anyone else available to serve them and a full 40 minutes before someone will be free to cover the shop floor,” Alice explains.
“You simply can’t expect a tight ship – a tidy and seasonally appropriate shop floor, beautiful windows, an organised back of house, customer orders running like clockwork, no backlog of stock, and on top of essential operational tasks like booking in deliveries, completing returns and health and safety checks – from a skeleton crew that includes inexperienced booksellers, and that’s before we even think about the literal job of selling the right books to the right customers so they come back for more. Now try doing all that with a bad cold, or on your seventh day working in a row. Every shop in the estate is understaffed, which comes back to pay: can Waterstones raise bookseller wages and increase staff budgets? Certainly not. But I believe raising wages to retain talent would alleviate some of this pressure.”
Alice is keen to stress that Waterstones is not the only company in the book sales industry letting workers down (she points me towards Twitter account @BookshopStaff, which keeps an invaluable running record of labour struggles in the literary world’s retail sector). But as Britain’s biggest book chain, with 283 locations, and recent acquisition of rival chain Foyles, Waterstones has an unprecedented level of influence on what literature reaches the public at large. You can't deny the relevance of pointing that out. And therefore, you could argue that Waterstones should be setting the standard for industry practices.
Sophie Mackintosh, an author who published her Man Booker-longlisted debut novel The Water Cure in 2018, and signed the writers’ letter in support of Waterstones staff, agrees. Sophie’s decision to add her voice to this cause was easy, as she tells me. “I was never a bookseller but I have worked minimum-wage jobs in the past, and I know the toll it can take on you emotionally. I actually think it's almost harder if you love the job, because if you don't you can check out mentally, but what if, actually, you do want to do that job forever and you put so much of your heart and love into it, but you know it's not sustainable? It's a horrible position to be in. So I wanted to support the booksellers who have really made a difference to how my book has been received, as it's only fair.”
She also adds that she feels the warmth and care of booksellers to have been crucial to her novel’s success; as such, she’s enormously grateful to them: “Being a debut author is pretty terrifying, and the success of our books depends on the enthusiasm and love of booksellers. Since my book was published I've been honestly bowled over by the brilliance of so many Waterstones booksellers – they've hand-sold my books, made videos about it, told people about it, run events, and gone above and beyond,” she says.
Here, Sophie also speaks to the wider fact that booksellers are increasingly responsible for the proliferation of literature and reading amongst the British public. Libraries are closing rapidly, and for many, bookshops play the important role of encouraging reading, introducing consumers to new voices, and upholding the UK’s literary culture.
Alice sums it up best, telling me: “Booksellers bridge the gap between publishers and consumers, and they do it with a smile even when they’re cleaning up puke or dealing with a cash office catastrophe. With passion and enthusiasm, booksellers can create bestsellers, turn reluctant readers into lifelong bookworms and forge communities – whether that’s with an amazing events programme, an enthusiastic book group, a Sunday story time for children, or just a friendly chat with the regulars. Booksellers are fucking magic.”
When contacted for a response, Waterstones said the following:
We support unequivocally the assertion that higher bookseller pay is desirable. This said, we judge that we pay overall what it is prudent to do in the present retail climate. When so many fellow retailers are in dire straits, including such peers as Paperchase and Majestic, and with widespread closures from the likes of M&S’s and Debenhams, to do otherwise would be irresponsible. We defend also that we chose to invest in the pay of those committing to careers at Waterstones. In September we awarded 3 percent to those booksellers above the entry level, and a further 4.9% percent in April to preserve the incremental rates paid to experienced booksellers. Pay has been progressing at Waterstones, even if we would all wish that it was doing so faster.
If we were to close our less profitable shops – say half – then Waterstones also would be able to do so. Of course, 1,500 people or so would lose their jobs which we believe to be destructive and highly undesirable, to say the least.
A very small number of independent bookshops commit to the Living Wage, and the only one in London is Daunt Books. If they can afford to do so, it is of course right that they do. Waterstones carries a very large number of shops with little or no profitability, and this undoubtedly constrains its ability to pay better. After all, Waterstones came close to bankruptcy very recently, and only returned to profit in 2015.