Chris White, head of fiction and publisher liaison at Waterstones, talks to Claire Coughlan about the importance of prizes for emerging writers, the perils of concentrating too much on debuts, and the transformed culture at the chain
Last month, Preti Taneja was awarded the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, for her novel We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press). Taneja beat fellow shortlisted authors Gail Honeyman and Paula Cocozza to the £10,000 prize. Chris White, head of fiction and publisher liaison at Waterstones, was on the judging panel, along with broadcaster Samira Ahmed and novelist Sarah Perry (chair).
Talking the day after the announcement, White said: "I’m so happy that we chose this book. There was complete unanimity among the judges that the scope, ambition, confidence and accomplishment of We That Are Young made it the stand-out winner. It’s a book very much of our global, fragmented and dangerous times, but also a book which transcends the era in which it is set and will be read for years to come. It was wonderful to watch Sarah present the prize to an author who we all agreed is destined for literary greatness."
We had spoken a week before the announcement, when White enthused about the shortlist "being all in their very different ways, extremely readable and enjoyable books. It’s interesting when you read a selection of books which, apart from being debuts, have no connection. But they have all in their various ways picked up on themes of loneliness and isolation in their writing."
The Desmond Elliott is vitally important, White says, for "setting an author up for that second and third book, and finding a writer who has enormous potential. Having spoken to authors, literary prizes are hugely important for emerging writers for building confidence, and just that recognition can really provide a shot in the arm to continue in what is a difficult and precarious line of work."
The perils of debut-spotting
However, White agrees that there is an industry focus on debut novels, which can be problematic for both authors and booksellers. He mentions the Waterstones 11, which ran from 2011-2013 and for which the fiction team picked 11 debuts.
"We were finding that it’s quite hard to pick 11 debuts a year in advance, because you end up missing some. Also, it’s rare, especially in hardback, that 11 debuts will break out within any calendar year," he says.
"But the main reason for moving away from it was that it put the focus on the first book, whereas what we want to do is put the focus on the best books. So, if an author has had two or three books out before and they’ve suddenly written an incredible book, then we want to be able to put the focus on that one and not be supporting a book purely because it’s a first novel."
The way the fiction team at Waterstones tries to work is to be "reactive and fleet of foot", White says.
"We have meetings and discussions two or three weeks before a new month starts so we can have a better sense, closer to publication, about what’s starting to look like it has a bit of momentum.
"It could purely be because somebody has read a book and loved it and it’s something that we think we can get behind, or it may be because there’s a significant publicity campaign planned from the publisher. And at that point you can make a more informed decision than you can further ahead."
White began his career in the book trade as a bookseller at Hatchards in 2004, remaining there until 2008, when he joined Waterstones' head office as an administrator on the fiction-buying team. Since then, the company has undergone major changes, and is now owned by US hedge fund Elliott Advisers, while Mamut-Lynwood retains a minority stake.
"When I started in 2008, we were still under HMV ownership," White recalls. "We operated in the way retail chains have been run for the last 30 years or so; we had a rate card model for our buying, we had centrally-dictated space. Part of the job as a buyer was actually a sales job.
"But that has now changed completely, and we don’t have any marketing spend anymore; there’s no rate card, which gives us the freedom to stock the books we want to stock and to merchandise and display them in a way that is most appropriate to their own shop.
"So, the vision is really a chain of 300 independents. To an extent, you have 300 individual shops who are able to branch out on their own, but with the support you get from being part of a larger corporation."
A recent surprise bestselling Book of the Month for Waterstones was Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn, which Virago Modern Classics has this year issued as a "beautifully-designed paperback, with flaps.It’s nice to do well with the new stuff but it’s quite fun to be able to pluck things out and turn them into bestsellers."
Of trends, White says that the current buzz words of up-lit and psychological thrillers have actually been around for a long time.
"You will always be slightly led by the publishing, and a lot of publishing has moved in that direction, so you’ll see a lot of psychological thrillers and up-lit titles, or at least books which are being presented in that way," he says. "So by virtue of our position in the industry, we’re followers. The simplest thing is just to be led by the quality of the books and the quality of the publishing, and let the trends emerge out of that."