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December 15, 2008


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Yes, I agree this is an essential read, though for my part (cough - http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/25/ben-goldacre-bad-science/ ) I thought it a little too long in places, something I often feel about non fiction books. Not sure why.

The reason that people are happy to be fooled by falsity in science reporting (Goldacre points out that the Daily Mail is on an ontological quest to divide all inanimate objects into those that cure, and those that cause, cancer) is, I suppose, the same imperative that leads people to be attracted to religion.

I am not interested in media but science does fascinate me so....I may be buying this book...or I may not :)

I can't wait to read it - I am a huge fan of Ben Goldacre's column in the Guardian. A question for you: where do you get your news from now, and what makes you think it is a more reliable source (if indeed you do)?

If ever there's an item in any news medium about which I know a lot, be it a road accident in my street or an interview with someone I know personally, the facts are always totally and utterly wrong.

But I save my most withering scorn for any report about anything to with with diabetes. Having had Type 1 diabetes for over 30 years, I am both sick of tired of this 'eat too much junk and you'll get diabetes' reporting and also 'could this be the cure for diabetes?' type stuff. There are two types of diabetes. Both have different causes and type 1 has nothing whatsoever to do with diet as cause. (It's an auto-immune disease.) And type 2 diabetes may be triggered by over-eating but it won't 'give' you diabetes if you don't have a genetic tendency.

And as for a cure? Maybe but not in the way the newspapers report it.

Okay. Rant over.

I heard Goldacre being interviewed in Radio 6 and he sounded like a very sensible chap (if a little angry). Will def. track this down.

He's not as angry as the guy who's in charge of the Large Hadron Collider - he called journalists who spread black hole scare stories "twats". I only read news online or sometimes on TV. It's the bias or the inaccuracy, you'll get that with any news, it's the oldness. It's dead news on dead trees, what is the point?

I bought this book when it was first published and loved it. I've bought and given away several more copies since. Brilliant stuff.

I'd like to see it added to the reading lists for writing courses, so that new writers could fully understand how to fully research their subjects, and how to separate the real information from the fluff. It would be a lot more useful for their writing careers than some of the stuff they are taught at the moment (and I speak as a long-time worker in publishing, and as a happy graduate of an MA Writing course).

I bought this book when it was first published and loved it. I've bought and given away several more copies since. Brilliant stuff.

I'd like to see it added to the reading lists for writing courses, so that new writers could fully understand how to fully research their subjects, and how to separate the real information from the fluff. It would be a lot more useful for their writing careers than some of the stuff they are taught at the moment (and I speak as a long-time worker in publishing, and as a happy graduate of an MA Writing course).

I'm surprised that you were surprised by the media's coverage of the Ottakar's/Waterstone's merger. Since when have facts ever stopped the press promoting a particular viewpoint?

The coverage of the merger may have been factually inaccurate, but it reflected the depth of feeling about Ottakar's. The OFT said that the number of letters they received from concerned authors, customers and publishers was unprecedented. People liked Ottakar's in the same way that they used to like Waterstone's, before it became a soulless arm of a corporate empire.

I know that you'll disagree with my views. You came to Waterstone's via HMV and had a successful career there. All I can say is that working for the real Waterstone's (i.e. Tim Waterstone's small chain of around 36 shops) was inspirational, as was working for Ottakar's under James Heneage. Being taken over by Waterstone's was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

Overall, around 60-70% of Ottakar's managers have gone in the two years since the takeover, which is a pretty damning figure however you look at it.

I don't want to be completely negative about Waterstone's. I thought highly of most of the managers and booksellers I met and at a head office level, I was impressed by the buying team and Phoenix gurus. However, there were too many people in middle management - 'retailers' - who referred to books as 'product' and turned a job I loved into a grim admin role.

As for getting the facts right, I was interested to read Alan Giles (now ironically working for the OFT) claim that over 95% of the stock was chosen at a branch level. It certainly didn't feel like that when I received the endless checklists and planograms.

You might say that Waterstone's had a more efficient business model and saved the Ottakar's branches from extinction. I'm not convinced. I was dismayed by the inefficiency and wasteage (eg, scaling out the same quantities to branches regardless of size during autumn 2006, resulting in overstocks in small branches and shortages in large ones) I encountered. Waterstone's bought Ottakar's because it had the cash.

In fairness, the Gerry Johnson era has seen a number of improvements and there is far less wasteage. It's a pity he hasn't successfully tackled the morale issue.

I apologise for this rant, but I feel strongly about Ottakar's. People who didn't work for the company don't get what was so special about Ottakar's. It was a company that celebrated individuality, creativity and eccentricity, making people feel that they were valued for who they were. James Heneage was the antithesis of the grey, dull pompous businessman. He was an inspirational leader and if he offered me a job tomorrow as an assistant in a kebab shop, I'd probably take it.

The demise of Ottakar's was one of the tragedies of the book trade. The press knew it and even if they got some of their facts wrong, they got to the heart of the story.

I think you make some excellent points Steerforth. My referencing of the Waterstone's/Ottakars events was not trying to suggest that the takeover itself was either a good or a bad thing, just that it was reported and commented on inaccurately.

That in itself didn't surprise me, it was the extent of the bias that made me realise that I couldn't trust any of the stories newspapers printed. Up till then I had pretty much dismissed the tabloids as all PR and fluff, and was aware of the political bias of the broadsheets but did essentially think other reporting was sound, or reasonably so. I now assume it is all bollocks.

But back to Waterstone's. I don't know how accurate your 60-70% figure on Ottakars managers leaving is but I have no reason to doubt it. It doesn't surprise me. Of course, 100% of the Waterstone's senior central buying team left and a fair percentage of the rest of the buyers hopped it not too long after the the Ottakars people came to Brentford so there have been changes on all sides.

I did receive a lot of emails at the time from Waterstone's head office staff and branch managers who were annoyed at quite how much praise was heaped on the incoming Ottakars people. Many felt that in attempting to welcome an unsure and wary new group of booksellers the board were effectively slagging off the long time incumbents. And certainly some of the early appointments of O people over W people didn't turn out too well.

But isn't that all part of a merger? Some things work well, some things don't. Some people see progress and some people see regression. Some stay, some leave. It is a shame for those that go but in a few years time little memory will remeain. In retail, everyone is replacable and customers have short memories.

God, I sound like a cynical bastard. Sorry. I do basically agree with you but think it is all inevitable when a big merger happens really.

Well recently, a poll of teachers revealed that 20% fancied bringing back capital punishment. By the time it reached the papers the headline read 'Teachers want to bring back capital punishment'. No mention of the '20% Do/80% Do not' until well into the article...

Do you mean capital punishment or corporal punishment, Danny? But the point is well made. I saw a similar poll reported about GPs and their views on assisted suicide (or something) - it was reported as "A third of GPs oppose euthanasia", rather than "Two thirds support."

I have no knowledge or views on the Ottakar's/Waterstone's business as we never had an Ottakar's here. However Steerforth's observation that "Alan Giles ... claim[s] that over 95% of the stock was chosen at a branch level" enables me to resurrect an old hobby horse.

I've never been clear on why local buying is supposed to be a good thing. I want to buy books that I read about in papers or online: nationwide or worldwide sources. My reading tastes have (almost) nothing to do with my geographical location within the British Isles. (Indeed, I've always hated the way that, in Belfast, Joyce or Beckett for example are filed under "Irish Fiction".) When Waterstone's branches did do most of their fiction buying on a branch-by-branch basis, they didn't stock copies of middle-ranking but nationally reviewed authors like Patrick McGrath and Rupert Thomson, and I had to order them in. Now that most fiction is bought nationally, it's rare that a book reviewed in the national press is unavailable in my local branch.

John, the real key is balance. It is refreshing to read your comment as the argument would often be the complete opposite.

Before increased central buying was introduced in the early part of this decade Waterstone's buyers in stores had a hell of a lot of freedom both in terms of what they stocked, and also what they didn't stock. As you would expect, some stores were great at it and some weren't.

It was also very biased in favour of more literary fare. I remember one week when 5 of the top ten books in the country were not even stocked by one third of the chain. When this was challenged the answer back was 'we don't sell that sort of book here'. Well obviously, if you don't stock it.

If a member of the public walks into a leading book chain and asks for the bestselling book in the country - even if that is Josephine Cox or Danielle Steel - and is told that they don't stock it it sends out a terrible and elitist message. It was happening frequently in the 'good old days'.

Of course, flipping to the other end of the scale is not healthy either. Somewhere in the middle is fine.

Oh, and the 95% Alan Giles figure is simply in terms of title count. 95% of titles were bought at store level. That would represent about 70% of sales or 80% of stock.

Fair point - before central buying, there was no safety net to prevent inexperienced booksellers from missing out on essential titles.

I suppose it boils down to how you decide to manage your business. Do you implement a series of controls to ensure that the least competent employees aren't able to do too much harm, or do you work on the assumption that if you recruit the right people and trust them to know what they're doing, the business will thrive?

I found it very demotivating to find myself accountable for a store's sales when I had so little control over them. It was particularly irritating to have to waste a huge amount of time and manpower returning books that I wouldn't have ordered in the first place (at least, not in those quantities). In theory, I had the freedom to develop sections and experiment with improving the range of fiction titles, but in practice most of my time was tied-up with admin tasks.

Whether local buying makes a better bookshop from a customer's point of view, I can't say. In truth, it probably depends on how well the shop is run. I'd rather visit shops that I know are run by the people who work there. People loved Ottakar's because the branches felt more like independent bookshops. Indeed, many customers had no idea that Ottakar's was a chain, which suggests that they had a few problems establishing a brand.

Regarding the whole issue of literary versus mass market titles, I think that the elitist attitude was a hangover from the original Waterstone's. 20 years ago, there were only 36 shops - all in solidly upmarket areas. The fact that we weren't like WH Smith and didn't stock 'airport fiction' was an important part of the 'brand'. However, when you absorb 55 branches of Sherrat and Hughes, 140 of Ottakar's and all of Dillons, that attitude isn't going to work any more.

In short, Waterstone's gained the world, but lost its soul.

To return to the original topic of this post, here's a website to gladden the cockles of Ben Goldacre's heart, where the NHS gives some of the inconvenient facts behind those Daily Mail health scare stories.


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Books Read: 2014

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  • Richard Hughes: In Hazard

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  • Éric Faye: Nagasaki

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Quick Flicks

Big Mouth at the Movies

  • : The Queen of Versailles

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  • : The Grand Budapest Hotel

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    I find quite a lot of Wes Anderson's films to be style and silliness over substance (see a couple of entries down) but this was simply glorious and Ralph Fiennes hilarious. (*****)

  • : Blue Jasmine

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    Sort of OK. The acting was a bit too obvious and mannered for my liking and the script a bit lightweight. Not bad but not great. (***)

  • : The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
    Most Wes Anderson films are more silly than interesting and this is definitely one of those. Enjoyable, but daft. (***)

  • : Computer Chess

    Computer Chess
    Trippy comedy set during a computer chess tournament in the early 80s. Not entirely successful but captures the era brilliantly. (***)

  • : Lady Vengeance

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    A bit confused and definitely the least rewarding of the revenge trilogy. Has its moments though. (***)

  • : Oldboy

    Second time I have seen this. It loses none of its impact really. A real classic. (*****)

  • : Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

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  • : The Lego Movie

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    Not actually as good as I was led to believe although certainly better than most animated kids movies. (***)

  • : Harvey

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  • : Sightseers

    Very dark. Very funny. (****)

  • : Somersault

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