A view from CBA’s International Christian Retail Show 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia … Evangelical Christian publishing in the USA is clearly not in great shape …
After a gap of well over 10 years, I returned to what I knew as CBA, now called ICRS, and was shocked by what I found. This was the 65th anniversary of the show but it’s a shadow of its former self. The rump of an industry that once covered several exhibition halls rivalling the Frankfurt and London book fairs, is now reduced to a few aisles in a single hall easily covered in one day.
To me, the booths were smaller, the visitor numbers lower, the aisles seemed quiet and the delegate ‘buzz’ felt decidedly restrained. However, products did appear a little less ‘trashy’; perhaps suppliers are more focused as a result of the downturn.
Such major industry shrinkage is salutary. Publishers Weekly reported this year’s attendance as ‘flat’ with 3,722 delegates (against 3,739 in 2013), 1,520 of whom are classed as ‘Buyers’. To put this year into context; at CBA’s 50th anniversary only 15 years ago, there were over 15,000 attendees!
What has happened since the heyday of CBA in the late 90′s, when the turnover of American Christian publishers hit $3bn?
Well, for one thing, the States are now a vastly different place to that of even five years ago. Evangelical churches are haemorrhaging numbers especially from its younger demographic. Churches are extremely exercised by how many young people are leaving. Barna Research suggests that 61% of ‘once churched-youth’ are now ‘spiritually disengaged’. Politically, evangelicalism is not the force it once was (for good or ill, depending on your point of view), and as Philip Yancey observes in his forthcoming book, ‘Vanishing Grace’, American evangelical Christianity find itself on the back foot culturally.
The largest Christian product market in the world is clearly struggling to make the numbers work. This year ICRS was held in Atlanta, and next year in Orlando, Florida (28 June 28 – 1 July 2015). But where then? Those close to the decision-makers predict a much reduced fair with a smaller and possibly more relational format. A reinvention along the lines of the UK’s CRT event would seem sensible.
The plus point is that ICRS presents a really good networking opportunity and continues to work for the international community. I counted well over 20 Brits present in Atlanta and there were a good number of other nations represented. The weather’s better as well!
Several US houses were celebrating their own special anniversaries this year:
Baker Publishing Group; 75 years, Send the Light Distribution; 40 years, Harvest House; 40 years and Gospel Light; 80 years.
American Christian Publishing and UK Distribution
One publisher told me the talking point of the convention was the distribution situation in the UK. US Christian publishers are in a state of considerable flux following the recent upheavals in the UK, with the demise first of STL and more recently of TMD. Distribution infrastructure is therefore hugely reduced, and many US publishers currently find themselves without a home.
Those left – IVP, CLC, Marston, Norwich and JTD – have only so much capacity and the days of easily finding a UK distribution partner are gone. This is a disrupted market and likely to remain so for a while. What to do? Ingram and Send The Light Distribution have been a good ‘second string’ for UK retailers for some time. This solution is likely to develop further, pulling in an even wider range of shops. However, for US publishers this is not the best solution, as it does little to satisfy their very real demand for wider title visibility and full range availability.
In the UK, distributors and wholesalers are still scrambling to cope with the continuing disruption caused by TMD’s closure. It’s unrealistic to take out around £2-3m of USA turnover from the supply chain and expect everything to sort itself out in a few weeks! In my view, the current situation has a long way to run, and it could be well past Christmas before anything remotely resembling stability returns. I sense that this approaching autumn sales period will be very challenging indeed. I further suspect that some well known American names will not actually find a home in the UK.
This market has changed so much in such a short space of time. However, let’s not kid ourselves as even in the TMD days, too much imported product was already chasing far too few buyers. In some ways, the new non-exclusive model of distribution may only make matters worse, resulting in a false sense of security. More product is being brought in, but the danger is of larger unit numbers simply sitting on even more UK warehouse shelves. These arrangements are unlikely to solve the broader problem. Traditional retail has contracted and online retail is far more demanding of the supply chain.
At the same time, we are experiencing HarperCollins Christian’s introduction of their New York mandated 360-supply programme, requiring that their Christian titles (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) are sourced via the Glasgow warehouse. Those of us with longer memories will remember something similar from some while back; a move which resulted in the then HarperCollins Religious titles moving to Carlisle due to Glasgow being unable to cope! The jury is out on whether this will work again second time around. For our niche trade, with its requirement of the long tail of titles, especially from the Thomas Nelson Bible range, somehow I have serious doubts but I’m willing to be proved wrong. Anyway, it’s yet another piece of unhelpful trade disruption for bookshops and their customers to navigate at a time when all of us need as many sales as possible.
What does this all mean for the trade, whether publisher or retailer? In my estimation, further consolidation here seems highly likely, as well as even more upheaval to the status quo. We cannot under-estimate the scale of the unprecedented industry and market changes that we are presently living through. Retailers have been coping with this particular storm for years and now it seems its the turn of the publishing community to feel the heat. At the same time, suppliers have to deal with an increasingly bellicose Amazon demanding ever increased terms for doing business in the UK.
As many readers will know, I continue to remain positive about the future of the printed book despite the onset of digital product. The key risks to print sales rest with quality and content. For the retailer, selectivity is the name of the game, together with an ability to curate relevant books to appeal to a specific customer base. Long gone are the days when retailers, wholesalers and distributors would take everything a publisher produces.
Good relationships with customers, stock availability of key lines and fast, same day despatch are what count now.
The game has changed completely. Marketing and promotion remain the Holy Grail. Title discoverability is key. It is one thing getting a title into a warehouse; it’s another matter entirely to get that same title into the hands of the consumer. This point requires far more attention from all aspects of the trade; the Christian trade in particular has a way to go here. A total rethink to advertising and promotion is required.
I look forward to navigating the next set of rapids that lie ahead. Years ago, I particularly enjoyed canoeing through white water – which is just how the book trade feels at present.
Eddie Olliffe is Consulting Editor for Together Magazine.
Wow @Foyles. A major new bookshop opened in London’s Charing Cross Road last Saturday.
Now this really is a bookshop! It was still a bit rough around the edges when I was there due to the earlier move and has no cafe yet (this will open shortly on an upper floor).
The range of titles is tremendous, as is the easy access to eight levels.
If you’ve seen this brilliant new Foyles shop, you’ll appreciate that good bookshops are not dead yet. The shop was heaving at 7pm in the evening with customers buying armfuls of books.
The Christianity section is good with a decent range of Bibles, but I’m not sure it’s quite as extensive a department as in the previous shop? Anyway, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
A month long ‘Grand Opening Festival’ is due to start this weekend. #Foyles107
Libraries are once again in the news, and not for the most encouraging of reasons. Closures, cuts and low staff morale seem to be the order of the day. Austerity has taken its toll. In that sense, libraries and bookshops have much in common. Both are fighting for the attention of the reading public, both are under pressure, feeling under-appreciated and threatened in a fast-paced and increasingly digital reading environment.
Closure statistics are salutary. 100 libraries are slated for closure this year, plus 200-300 others to be taken over by volunteers, with the inevitable loss of a professional service. One library campaigner was reported in The Bookseller in February as saying, ‘We are in a state of emergency’. Local authorities will see cuts to their budget this year of 2.9%. One library assistant from British Columbia posted, ‘Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague’. That quote obviously resonated as it’s now all over the Internet.
The authoritative Public Library News website states that, since April 2013, 489 libraries (including 81 mobile libraries) have been closed, or are likely to be closed or have already been passed over to volunteers. This disturbing figure is almost 12% of the total library estate of approximately 4,134 libraries around the country. It is just possible that local campaigning may halt a small number of these closures.
Yet this is not the whole story. There is another aspect to this particular soundtrack. The fight back has started. Central government is being forced to listen to a growing chorus of concern. The many thousands of employed librarians and their libraries are an irreplaceable national treasure. Most agree that libraries are vital centres for literature and reading. Libraries – along with most well run bookshops – emphatically have a future, albeit one that may be somewhat different from that which has gone before.
In September 2013, against these current trends, Birmingham City Council opened their flagship 31,000 sq. feet, 10-floor ‘Library of Birmingham’; one of the largest libraries in the world, and built at a cost of £189m. This library houses over one million books, the Quaker Cadbury family’s ‘Bournville Village Trust Archive’, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Manchester and Liverpool have also opened revamped libraries very recently, both projects costing many millions of pounds.
What are the actual facts about libraries in the UK today?
- There are 4,134 public libraries in the UK (including mobiles)
- 40 new libraries opened in 2012 and 2013
- There are 288 million visits to public libraries each year
- This represents 4,522 visits per 1,000 of the population
- There are 42,914 computer terminals in libraries, all with library catalogue and public internet access
- Public libraries lend 262.7 million books a year
- This breaks down into: 91.6 million children’s books; 116 million adult fiction; 54.6 million adult non-fiction
- There are 10.3 million active borrowers
(Source: The Reading Agency – accessed 20 March 2014)
The Bookseller noted in a recent editorial, ‘there were 10 times as many library visits last year as there were votes cast at the last General Election!’ These statistics are impressive. Closures are obviously a real concern but these numbers are evidence of very considerable traffic flow in and out of the public library service every day.
The reinvention of the public library – as with the local bookshop – is underway. The coalition government has just reconvened the Sieghart Commission (chaired by a Publisher) to report independently on the English library service, and report back to Parliament later this year. Its remit is to investigate how our public libraries should adapt for 21st century use. The importance of this commission is that its members are widely respected across all parts of our industry. This same group published a report on E-lending via libraries last year; the conclusions of which have been broadly supported, although the Booksellers Association has since expressed well-argued concerns and is requesting certain safeguards for bookshops. One of the newer members of the commission, Luke Johnson, suggests that future library services may well include computer training, childcare and career advice. However, the core activity of promoting literacy and reading must surely continue.
Anyway, why am I writing about libraries in an esteemed journal dedicated to retailing and publishing? Well, for one thing, we each share a common vocation and the deep conviction that books are vital to the health of society, and need to be made available as widely as possible. Speak to anyone, and most will be able to recall their own childhood library. I visited my own local library in the Cotswolds on a weekly basis, taking out a pile of books every time. I came to know exactly what was on each of the shelves, and I was given special dispensation to take out more books than was normally allowed! There is no way that my parents could have supported my reading habit financially were it not for this library. As I write, in my mind’s eye, the whereabouts of those books and layout of the shelves remain a clear memory. My two-year-old grandson has taken up the mantle, delighting in a large pile of children’s picture books on a regular basis. I too have discovered the capers of Elmer the Elephant.
We should all care about the future fate of our local libraries. The library continues to form part of that vital chain in introducing books and learning to future readers. In other words, the future customers of all good bookshops! We have tended to take our libraries for granted. I realise that there are those who see them as an anachronism in an age of the god, Amazon. Governments dislike the expense. The 152 separate local authorities responsible for the UK’s library estate are caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in trying to balance their books, so the easiest option is their closure. This is short-termism at its very worse.
Thankfully, councils have a statutory duty under a 1964 Act of Parliament to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for their local communities. Anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow a book free-of-charge from the public library. Oddly, whilst prisons have the same duty to provide a prison library, this is not the case for schools.
We sometimes fail to realise that for some people, books remain expensive, particularly for the vociferous reader. Affordability of books remains a real issue, especially for young families and other sections of society. Not everyone has sufficient disposable income to spend on books. Why then are we closing so many libraries in the UK and removing this hard won social resource? Like bookshops, once they are gone, it’s next to impossible to bring them back again. Does anyone actually care? Well, yes – many people do, and the Internet is full of campaigning websites indicating significant grass-roots support around the country.
Among these websites are:
www.readingagency.org.uk/news Click on ‘library facts’
One of the more concerning aspects of this unfolding story is the sheer loss of library staff from the profession. Figures collated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that employed staff numbers dropped 6.8% in the year 2012-13 to 20,302 professionals. Yet library volunteers in the same period shot up 45% to 33,808. For a vital public service this represents a double whammy: the closure of library buildings, and the loss of books and professional staff. The six million dollar question within the profession is whether volunteers are really in any position to run an efficient library service? That particular jury will remain out for some while yet. Readers of this magazine will keep these closures and redundancies in their prayers, especially as many Christians work within the library world. Their profession is hurting in much the same way as in the publishing and retailing world, with the attendant impact of uncertainty and unsettledness on so many families.
I remain as passionate about the future of libraries as I do the future of bookshops. I fully expect both to remain part of our literary landscape. This is one reason why I am involved with Speaking Volumes, a growing charity that exists ‘to help libraries stock good-quality Christian books for all readers to enjoy’. We work with public libraries, and also libraries in schools, prisons, hospices, playgroups and churches – anywhere, in fact, that books are lent or made available to a wide readership, and we assist by providing 50% of the full price of the books and DVDs.
In April, the ‘Librarians’ Christian Fellowship’, recently re-branded as ‘Christians in Library and Information Services’ (CLIS), appointed me as their next President. I am the first non-Librarian to hold this post, so feel something of a fraud! No matter, I’m a bookman at heart and anyway, I’d always harboured an ambition (unfulfilled) to train as a librarian.
This appointment signals CLIS’s desire to bring those of us involved in books – whether authors, booksellers, librarians or publishers – closer together. To quote ‘The Christian Librarian’ journal, this change of name:
‘Signals to the wider professional world that CLIS is responding to changing times; to the way jobs and work places may be nothing like the work patterns and careers of the past. We have come to this point out of a deep conviction about our calling as a Christian voice in an increasingly secular world’.
This is absolutely a platform upon which I am proud to stand.
This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).
I am not long back from a tour of Israel. I last went in 1988. The country has developed massively in that time but the politics remain complex. With a population of 8 million, contradictions and conundrums appear at every turn. Instinctively, as a Christian, I want to love Israel but they themselves make this far from easy. The national character is likened to the ‘sabre’, or prickly pear. The visit left me saddened, and with a deep disquiet of whether the present situation can ever truly be resolved. How can such divided peoples live side-by-side, even if a two state solution were to prove possible?
Whilst there I read through Psalms 120-134, ‘The Songs of Ascent’; songs sung by the Jews travelling up to Jerusalem. Psalm 122:6 exhorts us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. Peace is never more needed than it is today. Hostilities and injustice abound across Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Even the Christian denominations add to the sense of tension. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a travesty of all that the gospels teach. Discord and disharmony lie at the centre of one of the most important Christian sites on earth!
A visit to the Holy Land is far from straightforward. It throws up thorny issues of land ownership, disputed borders and national security; concepts which in the UK we are rarely forced to consider. We Brits have our own issues to face as our history from the Mandate period has left bitter memories in Israel. I fully support Israel’s right to exist, but how does its antagonistic policies toward the Palestinians sit with the scriptural injunction to take care of the stranger and neighbour?
There are no simple answers. The situation would appear intractable. What we can and must do, however, is to continue to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’; an anguished city over which Jesus himself wept.
This reflection was published in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).
Unbelievable: Amazon UK have paid just £4.2m tax on £4.3bn of sales, described in the Guardian as ‘Industrial scale tax avoidance’.
Surely the time has come for publishers to stop supplying Amazon? If I owned or managed a publishing house, I would be reviewing any policy that involved selling to them. Some will say that this is totally impractical and unrealistic. I’m not so sure. Many publishers privately say that they hate doing so, but love the sales that come from them and that it is commercial suicide not to supply them.
I am increasingly of the view that publishers are utterly complicit in this unfolding outrage. They have always treated Amazon to far better terms and now, like a drug they cannot stop using, they are hooked on the need for bigger and bigger sales, albeit at higher and higher discounts. These are terms that stock-holding bookshops can only dream about. Only this week, Amazon in the USA are said to be punishing Hachette by slowing down despatches from their warehouse until better terms are extracted.
This situation is intolerable, unethical, unfair and unjust. It is killing the UK High street and wrecking many a local economy. Society overall is worse off as the country receives less and less in taxes. Utter, utter madness and all in the name of speed, price and convenience. It seems perfectly summed up in the phrase; ‘Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Consumers and, I might add, publishers too are sleep-walking into a dependency on this monolithic and monopolistic giant. I hope that they feel it will have been worth it once there is nothing and no-one else left.
The daft thing is that there are some very good alternatives out there, Waterstones, W H Smith, Foyles and the Book People for general books, and for Christian titles; Eden.co.uk and other smaller Christian websites as well as the dwindling band of local Christian bookshops. The current call for a consumer boycott of Amazon is timely. We need to encourage as many of our own customers and friends as possible to join in.