Waterstones set to buy Blackwell’s as book sales soar

Waterstones, the UK’s biggest bookseller, is set to buy its smaller rival Blackwell’s, cementing its dominance in the UK book sector as sales rebound.

Blackwell’s, the UK’s largest independent bookseller, has 18 stores, including the 25,000 square foot flagship store on Oxford’s Broad Street, which opened in 1879 and served university students with an extensive academic range.

The companies expect to strike a deal in the “low single-digit millions” within days, according to a person familiar with the talks.

Blackwell’s will continue to operate as its own brand, similar to Foyles since its acquisition by Waterstones in 2018.

In 2021, book sales in the UK hit their highest level in a decade, according to Nielsen data, with 212 million copies in print sold despite shops closing during the Covid lockdowns. However, the book industry struggled with supply issues amid high demand at Christmas.

Waterstones, which has been owned by US hedge fund Elliott Advisors since 2018, has 291 stores in the UK, Ireland, Amsterdam and Brussels.

Blackwell’s has suffered repeated losses in recent years, according to accounts published on the Companies House website, and had net liabilities of £3.8 million in the year to January 2021.

It closed five of its college campus branches in June 2020, following the first lockdown. This month the company released a statement saying it was looking for a new owner, after attempts to refinance and move to employee ownership in 2021 failed.

Julian Blackwell, owner and chairman, said at the time: “I would have loved to pass the business on to its staff, but I also accept that in order to grow and stay competitive, it is time to change ownership, ideas and investments. ”

Elliott acquired US book retailer Barnes & Noble in 2019 for $683 million. Barnes is run by former banker James Daunt, who founded Daunt Books in 1990 and took over as CEO of Waterstones in 2011.

Waterstones had £376million in sales in the year to April 2020, the most recent period for which accounts are available, down from £392.8million the previous year as she began to be affected by the pandemic.

Waterstones did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the deal. Elliott Advisors declined to comment.

David Prescott, managing director of Blackwell’s, said the company was still in exclusive talks with a potential buyer and was unable to comment further.