There has been a slew of bad retail news of late. Legacy retail versus on-line resellers continues to make headlines. As I write this (mid-January), HMV have announced the relocation of their flagship Oxford Street store after 30 years of trading, to a much smaller London pitch. Shop closures persist. Retail – even Christian retailing – can, at times, take on the appearance of a soap opera. This last Christmas was no exception with what had the makings of a good game of snakes and ladders! Christmas 2013 was far from easy for some on the High street, although December sales overall rose more than 5% year-on-year.
Clearly major societal changes are gathering speed. I guess we will look back and see that we have lived through quite a revolution; one of those extraordinary times when a significant step change occurs. Newspapers too continue to be caught up in the ‘old media, new media’ debate. This past Christmas saw the annual winners and losers emerging across the wider retail sector. John Lewis, Asos, Next and discounters Aldi and Lidl triumphed, whilst grocer Morrisons and department store Debenhams slipped further, at least in the eyes of the City. Waterstones, whilst not having a storming Christmas, turned in a credible sales performance ‘slightly down on last year’. This is an unsurprising outcome with Nielsen BookScan reporting that total printed book sales in the UK fell by £98m during 2013.
In the Christian market, Koorong-owned Wesley Owen has now migrated fully on-line. This January, Wesley Owen ceased to exist as a physical brand having made such a notable contribution to Christian retailing over the past two decades. The independent UK Christian Bookshops Blog carried an in-depth piece on the winding up of Wesley Owen. Birmingham and York were the last two stores to close, completing the demise of the once ubiquitous chain. A number of high profile Christian bookshops including the Horsham Christian Centre and CLC’s Kingston-on-Thames branch (previously Chapter and Verse) also shut their doors for the final time.
I have long held the view that the failure of IBS-STL in 2009 and its terrible impact on Wesley Owen was entirely preventable; the result of an ill-judged overseas expansion from which it was unable to recover. Without this chain of events, the national chain may well still be trading today. Having been close to the creation of the brand in 1992/93, I obviously lament this outcome, but recognise that the clock cannot be turned back. The SPCK Bookshops chain went through a similar trauma over a comparable period and this too is cause for enormous regret. Many fine, committed retail staff were displaced as a result of these two catastrophic events; a major loss of skills, spirituality and calling to the wider ministry.
And yet – ministry through print and through bookshops continues on a daily basis, often-times unseen and unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how it should be? A verse from the Psalms speaks to this, ‘The Lord will not let you stumble. The One who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord Himself watches over you’ (121:3 NLT). There remain many fine exemplars of Christian bookselling in this country; a good example of which is Faith Mission Glasgow.
Our calling is not primarily to run bookshops or publishing houses but to disseminate the Christian message in such a way as to reach as many people in this country and around the world as possible. As a colleague put it recently,
‘Lives changed, hearts changed, through the power of God’s word’.
Our ministry is all about distributing gospel content, however that is packaged. Once we understand this, then criticism of those who choose to package truth digitally should cease. Personally, I’m relaxed about digital, as it seems to fit St Paul’s dictum ‘by all means, to save some’. If we keep these aspects of our trade in balance, we will be far less stressed by any seeming unfairness. There has been an irreversible way to how people consume content. No one can change that. Does this reality negate ministry through bricks and mortar? Of course not. In fact in some ways it strengthens it. We are certainly not going to see the complete disappearance of either physical shops or on-street shopping. I remain optimistic. Justin King, the well respected CEO of Sainsbury’s said in a December interview in relation to on-line competition:
‘On-line is more than a decade old. The truth remains that 96p in every pound is spent by real customers in real shops doing their own shopping’.
Many people and groups remain committed to maintaining a physical High street presence. Don’t believe all you read about digital. Statistics in this area are wildly variable. Independent physical bookshops, run well, with a eye on costs and in partnership with their local community can and do succeed, especially where they are equipped with space in which to provide local services such as debt counselling, childcare etc. New and imaginative ways of providing spiritual care and counselling can be found which, when allied to a good bookshop, can and does make a real difference to that community.
Together magazine exists to celebrate all that is best about this trade. There is so much that is good. An unbalanced but persistent tidal wave of bad news can knock us off our feet but Scripture exhorts us to ‘stand firm’, ‘to take heart’ and ‘to work whilst it is still night’. These are encouragements to not let circumstances dictate our feelings and deflect us from the joy of serving God through this ministry.
‘God give me strength’ should be our exclamation, but in a prayerful and positive way!
This article was written in mid January for publication in Together Magazine (March to April 2014).
Working on Together magazine and through my involvement with CLC Wholesale, I see a huge variety of product. In fact, far too much product in my opinion. Publishers and distributors are continuing to push out new titles into a fundamentally changed sales environment and a shrinking physical market. This cannot continue. The economics don’t add up. Internet retail copes poorly with new product as recent debates over ‘Discoverability’ show. In my view, the jury remains undecided on whether the Internet will ever fully replace the ‘lost’ B&M sales from the many, many shops that have closed in recent years.
And yet still the titles keep coming. Suppliers have yet to react intelligently to such a radically changed marketplace. I doubt anyone can continue to keep publishing at current levels into an already saturated market. I fear further fallouts. Mergers could follow. Self-publishing is already making inroads into the traditional model and publishing is feeling the cold draught of reality. I applaud publishing start-ups, like Edinburgh’s Muddy Pearl, that are probably nimble enough to make it, but they too face an uncertain future.
There is way too much mediocre product, much of it destined to remain unread – a major challenge for authors as well as for publishers. Put simply, way too much is being published and a market correction is surely due. Publically quoted Lion Hudson PLC has taken a large stock write-down for two years running; £924,000 in 2013 and £550,000 in 2012 (Source: annual company accounts). Many other publishers have similar challenges providing for high levels of dead or slow-moving stock. Quite whether all are as strong as a PLC to cope financially with such savage action is a moot point. Over the longer term, publishers will profit from the shift to digital as they will benefit significantly from higher sales but with far lower stock management costs.
This summer, we caught a glimpse of what happens when a tectonic shift takes place. The Kingsway–DC Cook distribution upheaval has left a drastically altered landscape, especially for many USA houses. The reality has dawned that the UK no longer has the distribution capacity required to handle the vast amount of Christian product looking for a home. Not all of those suppliers originally with KW/DCC will be racked here again. Some are still looking; others have withdrawn from the UK. Distribution is not for the faint-hearted. It costs. Lots. Especially if you are intent on the deep stocking of all lines listed. Something has to give as the financials are becoming harder and harder to get right. New product is replaced by even newer product in an ongoing frenetic cycle – and then promptly forgotten. Ask yourself, how many of the recent titles you have been shown have ‘made it’ and are still earning their keep? In my view, the only way for retail to survive is to become ever more selective – to the severe frustration of publishers (and authors) who nurse the fervent belief that every one of their titles is both ‘key’ and ‘core’ to your business.
Where does this leave the Christian retailer? Those who survive will be those shops that choose stock wisely, prudently and are selective in the extreme. The game has completely changed. For publishers to succeed, the key issue is ‘discoverability’ whereas for the retailer the absolute priority is ‘selectivity’. On what are you spending your money? No longer can it be about stocking anything and everything. To do so is impossible given such a huge product range and the relative size of most UK stores; insane given the investment needed in stock that could be here today and gone tomorrow; and unnecessary in a digital world which demands physical retail to be distinctive and unique if it is ever to make it through to the end of this decade.
I contend that selectivity and discoverability really do lie at the heart of this debate. You and I have the power to move the market if we truly believe in a product. The art is finding the book that really moves you to want to handsell it to as many friends, family, colleagues and customers as is humanly possible. When did a title last grab you like that? What was it? How good did it make you feel when it started to move off the shelves? My colleague, Chris Magee did just this with ‘The Circle Maker‘ (Zondervan). Its message touched him deeply, so he sent one copy to many of the retailers that CLC works with – and it remains one of their top sellers. Without such action, many books will sink without trace.
Most of us came into this trade to make a difference to people’s lives. Recommending – suggesting – handselling a title that has absolutely got to you is just the most fulfilling aspect of what we do. Hype and PR have no place in this trade and yet seemingly it’s all around us. Do we truly believe all the claims that we make for much of the product that we promote? Is it not high time we looked again at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the sale as well as our need to shift stock? In a few short years, we seem to have gone full-circle. There was a time when our shops were expected to stock in both width and depth. No longer; the new trading reality allows us to be ourselves and stock what we wish to sell, what we believe in and not those titles which have no place in our shops, as their claims are often far too spurious and their content questionable. It’s time for a rethink right across the trade on this matter.
Moving from the negative to the positive, I’d like to highlight a couple of areas that certainly warrant our attention – Children’s books and Bibles. I’ve written previously about the continuing growth in the sale of children’s titles, especially for the younger age group (pre-school and picture books are up 5.5% in five years according to new Nielsen figures). However, the one area that merits serious profile is Bibles. Sales continue to rise year-on-year. The appetite for Bibles seems to grow and grow. The range of styles and colours has never been as wide. Pink Bibles sell! This is the area that we do know about. It’s our specialism and no one can compete with us in our knowledge of the Bible market. Even the reinvigorated Waterstones doesn’t really cover this section that well.
Christian retailers know Bibles better than anyone (or at least I hope we do). Translations, bindings and fonts are what we do. It’s truly a skill to manage a good Bible department – and it pays off. This is the one area on which we must concentrate effort – through high stock investment, in-depth staff training and knowledgeable customer engagement. I’ve always enjoyed selling Bibles; that passion has never gone away. This is the one genre that makes this trade special – very special – distributing the very word of God is not given to everyone but you and I get to do it as part of our day job – wow!
Here are four stand-out Bibles that have impressed me this autumn. This is a personal selection (no publisher was involved in this choice!) but I would be proud to promote and handsell all of these Bibles to any customer (or friend) I might come across!
1. The NLT Wayfinding Bible (Tyndale House)
This is quite superb and is probably my favourite newcomer this year – a very clever use of colour and graphics enabling the reader to find their way through the complexity of the Bible by navigating via three clear ‘routes’. Love it.
2. The NIV Journalling Bible (Hodder Faith)
Of the various covers available, the black cloth hardback is my favourite. Journals sell well in all shops and spiritual journalling is increasingly popular. This Bible has a lot of journalling space. It feels great and is a welcome addition to the range – but I’d use a soft pencil rather than ink when writing in it.
3. The NIV Every Day with Jesus Bible (CWR)
I loved the imaginative marketing campaign on www.onebible.co.uk Check it out. Selwyn Hughes’s hugely popular notes, allied to the Anglicised NIV 2011 text and presented in a chronological one year reading edition make this a ‘must-have’ stock item.
4. The ERV Youth Bible (Authentic)
At last – the text and notes in this perennial youth market best-seller have been completely reworked. It’s good – very good – and for a while at least, the price looks unbeatable. Impressive, and it’s good to add such a fine looking Bible to the shop youth section.
This article was written in late October for Together Magazine (December 2013 to January 2014)
Friday 22nd November 2013 is the 50th anniversary of C S Lewis’s death in 1963; a date he shares with USA President J F Kennedy. A permanent memorial to Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963); writer, scholar and ‘one of the most significant Christian apologists of the twentieth century’, was laid today in the floor of the South Transept at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The service to dedicate the memorial was uplifting and joyful, a spiritual occasion with shades of a funeral farewell. Hymns were sung which I hadn’t heard since my school days – John Bunyan’s He who would valiant be – a throwback to Lewis’s world of the 1950’s; so all the more significant then that Lewis’s books continue to sell in such volume, and with such wide appeal. The Chronicles of Narnia have sold upwards of 100m copies around the world! Mere Christianity continues as a classic.
The rather pronounced English voice of Belfast-born ‘Jack’ Lewis (taken from his wartime talks for the BBC) was broadcast in the Abbey on this bitterly cold but sunlit November day in London;
‘Look for Christ and you will get Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair and ruin’.
C S Lewis’s last pupil read a lesson; the service was seamless and beautifully choreographed. The Abbey was filled with a soft light suffused through the glorious stained glass and with soaring choral music which echoed off the ancient stonework. As the memorial was dedicated, there was a reading from The Last Battle:
‘Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before’.
The draw for many in this audience was the past Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and a Lewis author (The Lion’s World : SPCK) who gave a short but erudite address. On this occasion he wisely left Narnia alone, concentrating instead on Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Lord Williams of Oystermouth homed in on how Lewis deplored the misuse of language; how he saw it is used to hide from ourselves and to hide from reality.
Our questions fall away; we have nothing to say because we have too much to say.
Rowan Williams noted Lewis’s aversion to the King James Bible which he saw as getting in the way of our understanding. Instead Lewis preferred the Moffatt and J B Phillips translations of the Bible in order to best ‘hear’ the freshness of the text.
The one-hour service ended with a choral anthem based on verses written by C S Lewis and specially commissioned for today’s service. Then the long queue began as almost the entire congregation snaked around the Abbey to view the new slate memorial stone set at the base of one of the stone pillars in Poets’ Corner, engraved with Lewis’s words:
‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’.
On British TV, Back to the Floor programmes are a ‘must-see’. Viewers watch bosses mix with workers, sometimes culminating in an epiphany of goodwill after their stint at the coalface, sometimes not! Management Today runs a monthly piece where it sends one of their unwitting writers to spend a day in a workplace. Well, in July, CLC did similarly in placing me for a spot of holiday cover in Guildford.
Guildford is one of CLC’s smaller branches – probably they didn’t want to tax me too much – tucked away somewhat off the main drag. This shop has been trading in upmarket Surrey for many years; first opened by Challenge Literature Fellowship in 1930, and subsequently acquired by Wesley Owen in later years, it was one of the six shops rescued by CLC from the STL Distribution demise in 2009.
I was really struck by the shop, its history, the staff, customers and the locality. I asked myself, what would change in this community if this shop was not here? This is an unremarkable shop. It’s small-to-medium in turnover and similar to many other shops up and down the UK. But it’s there. And, for me, that makes the difference. Keeping shops open is a particular burden of CLC. Of course, shops sometimes have to close as they reach a natural end point. In this case, the shop is there – and I think Guildford is all the better for it. What about those towns and cities where there is no shop? My contention is that these places are poorer spiritually without such a presence.
Once again I saw the importance of ‘talking up’ Christian retailing – It’s not at the bottom of the resources food chain. Christian retailers can be poorly regarded, even by fellow Christians. I applaud the Waterstones initiative raising the role of ‘Bookseller’ to an enhanced status within their branches. We rightly demand a lot from our shop floor staff, but we need to applaud and encourage them whenever possible.
This entire experience reinforced a cast-iron conviction that an on-street ‘Presence’ is critical to our Christian witness. I came away with this clear challenge to suppliers: Why are you not more supportive? Why do you act as if it doesn’t matter if shops disappear? Now I know these questions can seem subjective. I’m sure that, right now, some of you are indignantly putting pen to paper – but please hear this; this really is how it feels on the ground.
Anyway, to return to my experience of ‘Back to the Floor’. I’d been for a day’s induction as it’s clearly some while since I stood behind a counter. What fun … for me, at least. Although acting manager, Jill may have thought otherwise, she didn’t voice it, not to me anyway! I’d forgotten so much, but like riding a bike, things came back fairly quickly and I’d actually hand-sold a quality, leather NIV Bible towards the end of that first day. A truly good feeling!
The manager impressed me. She showed sheer tenacity and a real dedication to the job, well beyond the call of duty. There was an incident in the street involving the Police and a couple of ambulances. This was well handled by the staff; they were on-hand, got stuck in and this put the shop in a positive light as a part of their local community. Time and again, I was struck by the dedication of this small team, often with very limited backup. And this doesn’t just happen in Guildford; it happens all over the UK on a daily basis. When you open your shop today, you will make a difference to the people you come alongside.
I found it hard. I found it physically demanding and on occasions, I found it boring! It was the hottest day of the year so far, the till was situated in the front window and it felt like I was being cooked every time I served a customer. I battled to get home on that first day. The trains were delayed due to the rails buckling in the heat and my 30-minute journey took two hours. In the shop, I had a schedule but it was next to useless as everything took far longer than planned. Customers and phone calls have this habit of obstructing the routine! Then there are the practical difficulties caused by having too few staff or volunteers to call on. You’re pulled in so many directions. You’re tied to the till. Having a break and even getting to the loo becomes a logistical challenge.
As you can see, it was all going so well. It got worse. I became irritated by someone using the shop as a library, spending literally hours reading their way through the books. Do you know; they were back again the next day? Oh dear, I knew that I was supposed to be welcoming and caring but in a rather small shop on a very hot day that too was hard. I decided that there are some really odd customers out there; an eclectic bunch indeed. Can I also say with some authority that people buy the oddest of items in the gift line! But there again, we were the one’s stocking them. Oh well …
I was blown away by how technology is now so central to the whole operation. It really is a whole lot easier to run a shop; from mobiles for texting customers to websites for accessing information. In the past this would have taken forever and then the result would probably have been wrong! The sheer immediacy of information was the most striking. There is so much bibliographic help available. PubEasy was a delight to use and I was able to build my order as the day progressed. Then there is the delicious irony of using Amazon as the shop database. Amazon is obviously a double-edged sword but it’s superb for in-store use – providing you don’t show the interface to the customer (as I did) and then spend ages having to explain pricing policy to a disgruntled purchaser! Credit card usage, especially for inexpensive greetings cards, made me smile. The daily cash take is minimal as more and more customers use plastic for even the smallest of purchases. It makes end of day cashing up much quicker and the card companies cannot really lose as they gain from both parties. As purchasing moves on to Smartphones, this too will have an effect on retail procedures.
What did I learn? That I loved working in the shop. Despite what I’ve said, there was an enjoyment of the day and particularly of serving people that you’d have to go a long way to beat. Good people skills remain absolutely key despite the tech. It’s still possible to hand-sell; indeed I think it’s a requirement! I know licensing is contentious but there is something when playing CD’s that does help the sale of music. On two occasions in as many days, I sold music that, at the time, was being played in-store. I noted the strong appeal of fiction. Fiction sells and it’s not correct to say otherwise. Authentic, CWR, BRF and Lion are each producing beautiful Children’s books, the standard of which is second-to-none and a delight to sell.
To me, the sale of the Bible remains central and deeply fulfilling. The range of Bibles available is extremely good, regardless of version. All Christian shops must concentrate on Bibles in depth as their core stocking statement. At the time, the lack of Tyndale NLT’s was a huge frustration resulting in two almost empty shelves – not good for all concerned. Hodder Faith have a superb range of British text NIV’s in attractive bindings and boxes, although I’m certain an enhanced large print series would be welcomed.
The necessity of good stock knowledge was rammed home yet again to me. For shops, it’s an Achilles heel and one where we fail so often. We do have to get a whole lot better at this. Basic product training is absolutely key. Publisher core lists are useful but I’d like to see the ‘must-haves’ from each publisher; a smaller selection of titles you simply cannot do without, as core stock lists tend to be way too long. I cannot over-estimate the importance of office-based staff being ‘hands on’ in the shop. It set me thinking – the general market has held a number of successful ‘publisher/retailer swap days’. Why not the same for our niche – and for authors too? Anyone up for it? There’s such a lot we can learn from each other. It’s totally different when you move from the spreadsheet to the till; from theorising about what should happen, to seeing what actually does happen on the ground.
Two stories and I close. Two young foreign students came in. Initially I was fairly suspicious as they took what seemed like ages checking the shelves. I wondered why they were there (shame on me). As they paid, they told me in their limited English – I speak no Spanish – that the two books they were buying were presents for their mothers at home. A pointed lesson not to judge either appearance or motive too quickly! Someone else came in and told me they’d been healed of a condition through prayer. He was clearly OK now. As he left, he said to me, ‘God bless you’. His words really cheered me that day and I was moved both by the power of blessing and by the power of encouragement. That’s what you and I do, despite the daily challenges. We bring a mixture of blessing, encouragement and presence to our local communities.
Well, what great fun. It had been an age since I’d done this. Anyone out there interested in holiday cover, do let me know – but only if you’re by the seaside! I cannot promise to double your turnover but, on the strength of these few days, I will at least keep the doors open! Oh, and by the way, CLC have asked to return but funny this … I’ve not been given a date yet!
This article was written in early September for Together Magazine (October – November 2013)
Here’s a flavour of the delegate sessions (lifted from my Tweet stream) at last week-end’s very positive Booksellers Association annual conference held over 24 hours at Warwick University, near Coventry, England.
Sunday 22nd September
- Heading to #BA13 Warwick this w/e. Should be good fun, representing #CLC Bookshops. Trade is on top form after success of @booksaremybag
- So warm. Like a summer’s day here in Warwick. Actually l think we’re probably nearer Coventry. Good to catch up with old friends. #BA13
- Great start to #BA13. Warwick is almost tropical. Excellent Bookseller debates earlier: Thx @unicorntreebks @storytellersinc & Andy Rossiter
- #BA13 ‘Selling’: three fast-paced practical cameos – Effective selling online, Maximising Christmas sales, Promoting books to schools
Monday 23rd September
- #BA13 underway in Warwick. 250 delegates in conference. Sense of positive energy palpable this a.m. @booksaremybag judged a big success
- #BA13 68% of people prefer to discover books in physical shops. Discoverability is key. Need to place emphasis on physical environment
- #BA13 James Lowther: Shop environment – more sofas, cafe/coffee/wine, singles night, in-store book clubs. Employ best people you can
- #BA13 James Lowther: Shop loyalty is created through having good staff. Important to have an ability to sell without hassling customer
- #BA13 James Lowther: Amazon is not going away! If you can’t beat them … digital interaction and information gathering is vital in-store
- #BA13 James Lowther: Keep @booksaremybag going. Use your shop, your window, your counter. Use big bold messages. Not end of the campaign
- #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Your brand can be defined as what your customers think of your bookshop. It’s their experience of YOU
- #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Best search engine is you, the bookseller. Curation of stock should be an expression of bookselling skills
- #BA13 Jo Henry/Nielsen:Data suggests that ebook sales are plateauing (consensus emerging). 7 in 8 books still bought in physical format
- #BA13 Joe Henry/Nielsen: Why people buy from bookshops? Strong evidence of impulse purchase. 1 in 4 bookshop purchases are pure impulse
- #BA13 Jo Henry/Neilsen: Bookshop strengths: curated stock selection, customer ability to browse stock. Note scepticism of online reviews
- #BA13 Miriam Robinson/Foyles: Onus should be on bookshops that empower customers to do discovery for themselves, not spoon-fed reviews
- #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: 60 shops across Ireland. Books equal 50% of turnover. Challenges of past 5 years; economic + trade volatility
- #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: Changing the face of Irish bookselling. New shop design implemented in Cork and Belfast. New bright colour scheme
- #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: In an Internet age, range is no longer the key selling point in-store, it’s now all about relevance to the customer
- #BA13 Bill Bryson closing keynote: It’s a great chance for me to say thank you to booksellers. Keep going and don’t quit!
- #BA13 Thanks to @BAbooksellers for an excellent conference; full of warmth, great information & practical advice
To sum up – as I posted on Facebook yesterday:
‘Just back from a brilliant Booksellers Association conference in Warwick over the weekend. Good to spend time with Melanie Carroll and John Keble amongst others. Good energy and a positive buzz, much of it down to the very good ‘Books are my Bag’ Saatchi campaign. People are now talking about AA (after Amazon) i.e. in the the sense that Amazon, digital and ebooks are a reality and here to stay so we need to get over it, move on and go for the sales that are still there for those who are adapting in order to do business in the new environment. It’s now very clear that whilst Amazon is not going away, neither is the independent bookshop sector. The evidence of the weekend is that we are a hardy lot! I agree with Melanie that it would be good to see more of our Christian colleagues at the event. Sometimes our niche works against us and makes us look like we inhabit a religious ghetto. I learnt a lot and was very glad I attended’.
As I write, the fallout from the Kingsway – D. C. Cook distribution decision remains unclear. What is clear is that we are facing yet further consolidation within the distribution sector. Change is unsettling and disturbing and we should say a prayer for all those affected by it.
I benefitted much from reading Steve Mitchell’s (m.d. Authentic Media UK) closely argued seven-page monograph, What Future for the Christian Book Trade?, published as the lead article in the quarterly journal, Faith in Business (available online, £2).
I greatly admire Steve’s ability to look forward, assess future direction and consider those aspects of this trade that many of us would prefer to leave well alone – in short, to cause us to think. Melanie Carroll described the piece as ‘honest and insightful, and as such not without elements of controversy and pain for all elements of the trade’. Steve wrote it as ‘an academic article aimed at church and business leaders explaining the issues facing the Christian book trade’.
I was particularly encouraged by Steve’s statement – cited twice in the text – that ‘the majority of books are still sold in a physical form from physical retailers’. I was struck by his examination of the ‘disloyal consumer’ and the stark observation that ‘publishing is likely to see the cold wind that has blown through the retail world enter its domain’.
Yet the essence of the Gospel remains unchanged. Tom Wright in his New Testament for Everyone translates Romans 16:25-26 as,
‘Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, in accordance with the unveiling of the mystery kept hidden for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith among all the nations‘.
Quite a task – and still this remains our mandate.
There remains compelling content for us to distribute, albeit in what are now differing and changed formats. What has been described as the historic Guttenburg to Google Revolution is playing out in our own lifetime. Parchments were then turned into printed books and these are morphing in shape and feel into digital content. Quite what all this means for us as a trade is still being worked through but I found Steve’s article to be an eloquent resume of these hugely important issues and highly commend it.
Seek first the Kingdom and …
Increasingly I have come to accept that spiritual insight stands worldly wisdom on its head.
The Bible says ‘God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. How we hate this. It’s not very cool and gets little recognition from the secular movers and shakers. For our part, we chase after professionalism and eschew the amateur. We love to be seen as wise, hating to be foolish. I was brought up short by the sheer impact of this statement in Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus,
‘My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations, but temptations’.
These truths are as important for us in business as they are within the Church. As a trade, we should be even more profoundly aware of them. All our business plans and strategies are of little significance in the light of the deeper principles of the Kingdom: ‘Seek first His Kingdom and all these things will be added to you‘. Other ministries and practices which we judge, sometimes harshly, as ineffectual may be, in the economy of God, quite the opposite. If they result in the spiritual turnaround of just one person, they will have been worthwhile.
In my experience, we tend unconsciously to turn this verse around and to do our adding up before any seeking of the Kingdom. Business culture and worldly practice rears its ugly head and takes us in another direction entirely and we think that our ways are the best ways – they are not. The wisdom of Scripture should be rediscovered for the way that we do business. I have a small plaque hanging in my office recording the words of a captain in one of the Roman legions, discovered in the Libyan Desert; ‘I have learnt and pondered this truth: there are in life but two things to be sought, love and power, and no-one has both’.
All of this is far easier said than done, particularly in the inevitable pressures of the moment. We probably accept it in our hearts but our heads overrule the idea as naive, one which is unworkable in the day-to-day. In the end, God is left out and we then wonder why we flounder! Brennan Manning wrote in his book, A Glimpse of Jesus:
‘The glory of Christ lies in this … He has called forth disciples to come after him … they are ‘marginal’ people, not part of the scene, irrelevant to ‘the action’. In their ministry of quiet presence they do not need to win or compete. The world ignores them – but they are building the Kingdom of God on earth’.
Someone said to me recently: ‘We are where we are to do the work God has called us to do’. In this trade, this is so true. Calling is critical. It clarifies both purpose and direction.
Just how many Christian trade outlets are there?
This is the one question guaranteed to be discussed whenever book trade people get together. It’s a question with no simple answer because it depends on what you actually mean by ‘outlet’. It’s also compounded by issues of theology, inclusion (who’s in, who’s out) product type and definition.
The most accurate place to go for answers, however, is the UK Christian Bookshops Directory. This has been a labour of love over several years for webmaster, Phil Groom; to whom this trade is deeply indebted for what is a magnificent and free resource. I thought it would be fun to delve into the detail and pull out some of the facts from this archive.
The UKCBD County Index lists 462 Christian trade outlets including London (as at 30th June 2013).
The largest concentration of trade outlets is Yorkshire with 29 listed, followed by London 27, Kent 20, Devon 14, Glamorgan 14, Hampshire 13, Surrey 12, Sussex 12, Cambridgeshire 11, Somerset 11, West Midlands, 11 Dorset 10 and Lancashire with 10.
In terms of the UK regions; Scotland (including Highlands & Islands) has 43 outlets, Northern Ireland 25, Wales 37, Islands (CI, IOW, IOM) 5, Northern England 86, Central England 91, East Anglia 32, South West 42, South & South East 74 and London with 27.
Christian trade outlets exist in hospitals and café’s, in abbeys and cathedrals, in city missions and conference centres and in traditional denominational settings. One internet retailer is listed: Christian Bits, Haslemere and there are a number of chain booksellers on the list: Quench, St Andrews, Pauline Books & Media, Faith Mission Bookshops, CLC Bookshops and the Blythswood group.
One question is what proportion of these shops operate from church and cathedral premises rather than from the high street or market stalls. 42 of the shops listed here are within church premises, some of which are full-feature shops such as Origin, Woking, but some of which are probably more akin to large bookstalls. This raises the hoary old query of ‘when is a trade account really a trade account’.
The Cathedral and Church Shops Association has 120 members. However, only 29 Cathedral shops are listed on UKCBD, some of which are no doubt far more focused on souvenirs and gifts than on books, once again highlighting the debate in terms of what type of outlets should be included in our definition? Part of the problem is the perceived (and perhaps actual) decline of the traditional High street Christian bookshop. Reports of such closures are seemingly constant and rumours circulate on a fairly regular basis of shops that are about to close.
The periodic Bookseller Association numbers bear out the brutal fact that bookshops are indeed closing at a rather alarming rate. However, what strikes one in reading though this data is that there is a great deal of creativity out there when it comes to making Christian resources available. Long may this be the case. Perhaps trying to categorise outlets in some way or other is counter-productive. Rather, maybe we should simply celebrate diversity and variety, recognising that so many areas actually do have Christian materials available, often in the most surprising of places.
In closing, let me hypothesise, using the data, in terms of the probable numbers of High street Christian resource centres. The best estimate seems to be around 300 shops trading as part of the traditional high street. Of these, possibly around 200 to 225 are doing the type of business which could ensure a sustainable future. Massive challenges face these shops, most obviously the internet and digital content, but not least the matter of demography as many of these owner/operators come up to their retirement without necessarily having any succession plan in place.
In terms of visibility, the trade no longer has a fully obvious High Street presence across the country. Christian resources are not as widely available as they once were. Sadly, there are entire cities now without any Christian on-street presence. In my view and given this situation, digital activity on the part of Christian online retailers such as Eden Interactive or Christian Bits is to be welcomed if we are to continue to reach out to this nation with quality Christian material. The irony could be that Christian resources are actually more accessible now given the ubiquity of the internet, but that’s a debate for another time.
This article was written in early July for Together Magazine (August – September 2013)