I completely understand the current strength of feeling across the Christian retail trade regarding the perceived inequity of Kingsway offering allegedly differing terms to its varying distribution channels.
I admit to feeling uneasy earlier this week with their seeming triumphalism, displayed in the social media, as the new Worship Central album began to sell strongly through the newer channels, then the announcement of its availability through branches of HMV and the unspoken sense that a better job was now being done than by just having to rely on their traditional Christian retail outlets.
The concerns centre around HMV, Amazon and iTunes apparently receiving better margins in order to reach a ‘broader’ market. I have to say that whilst Kingsway are high profile in this and have an aptitude for drawing ‘flack’ fairly regularly, they are not alone in so doing. Doing business with the big secular players is costly, frustrating and was often seen by suppliers simply as an add-on to the traditional market – nice to have if you can get it but not the end of the world if you can’t.
However, that view is rapidly changing as the realities of market share begin to bite. For Christian suppliers, the old retail chain model is ‘holed below the water line’, Indy’s are flat-lining and any growth is elsewhere, not in retail. The truth is, that for most suppliers, our niche retail trade no longer provides the geographic coverage required to get a new product to market. Shops are dwindling and with them, a suppliers ability to reach its market and, more importantly, to sell enough of its initial print-run (in the case of publishers). No wonder suppliers are casting around looking for new, more viable alternatives. I say this, not to excuse such behaviour but to try to help to explain it. Sadly, these are now the rules of the marketplace. It may seem unfair to a small well-run Christian outlet but this is how it is in the real world. It’s not just our trade that affected – it’s happening right across UK retail.
One of our issues is that the retail book world still lives with the ghost of the Net Book Agreement. Yes, it’s long gone but some of us still operate (and think) as though it remains in force. I believe strongly that pricing should be left to retailers and that prices will always remain fluid. In order to compete on the basis of price, then retailers do need to have adequate margin in their armoury. Some suppliers are better than others in this respect. I’m led to believe that IVP and Lion Publishing remain the retailers’ favourites and sadly, it seems, Kingsway continues to draw their indignation!
My experience of dealing with Amazon as a supplier is that they have their own very strict pricing policies which it’s impossible for suppliers to influence – plus they take a far lower margin on a sale in order to attract the customer. It’s very much ‘take it or leave it’ but it would be a brave supplier who opted not to deal with them due to the volumes they are capable of generating. None of us may like this but that’s the truth of it. The same goes for music digital downloads over physical product sales – and who knows where eBooks are heading?
If suppliers are guilty of anything, it’s that they can sometimes seem to take their small retail customers for granted and to put all of their energies into building relationships with new outlets – often secular, mostly larger. They assume the Christian shops will always be there or worse, they assume that most of these shops are on the way out anyway! Recent history has not helped this particular impression! Either attitude is damaging in these difficult economic times.
This issue is a major point of deep contention for both suppliers and retailers. Our brave new digital world is not helping. Everyone in the supply chain is feeling squeezed; small retailers feel unappreciated and powerless in the face of such huge change, suppliers are fighting for volume as they see their product runs ever diminishing and all of us are seeing the rampant switch to digital from print. Is it any wonder we can seem worried and anxious; emotions which are then expressed in a form of protectionism.
Of course, you could argue that we should neither be worried or anxious; indeed we are so commanded in the New Testament. However, reality is often a little different and invades our thinking in more negative ways particularly when it comes down to matters of money and business. Would that it did not – but it does and we need to recognise this fact more than perhaps we do. When suppliers have large payrolls and report to even larger owners, it takes a special kind of courage to manage these often huge and contradictory tensions in trying to make ends meet in the present climate.
I do understand what’s going on because I’ve been on both sides of the argument. Still am. Neither side is fully right, neither side seems comfortable with the other and both feel misunderstood by the other. Not a great place to start when certain emotive ‘triggers’ occur and begin to inflame the understandable indignation. Somehow we have to deal with this or we will be torn apart by it. Our trade, made up as it is of several parties with a common goal of mission – but with very different economic drivers – could so easily degenerate into hostile and divided camps. Some would say these camps are already antagonistic to each other – I pray not.
If we truly believe we are about the Father’s business we should all do better – for the sake of the Kingdom.
Mark 8: ‘What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul’?
This month I flew to Singapore once again. On a regular flight like this, you get to know the route pretty well. One’s routine on the flight is fixed in order to pass away the 12 or 13 hours at 39,000 feet as quickly as possible. Keeping a weather eye on the in-flight map display is just a part of that routine.
This time, it struck me forcibly that the route across these countries on the way down to the Far East represented a snapshot of the challenges and problems that face us all as members of the human race:
Europe = almost entirely secularised and experiencing massive economic turmoil.
Iran and Afghanistan = convulsed by war and civil unrest, impact of repressive regimes.
India = hugely complex, terrible poverty, rising wealth, frequent floods and earthquakes.
Malaysia and Indonesia = emerging Islamic powers.
This is a truly a big and complicated world, often hard to fully comprehend. I recognise that in being both British and Western in outlook, I bring a set of prejudices and preconceptions to my interpretation of the issues facing this planet which may or may not be right, depending on your own viewpoint. Culture clash is quite clearly inevitable!
There is a massive battle of ideas going on everywhere – Secularism versus Atheism versus Christianity versus Islam versus Hinduism versus Buddhism.
In this confusing context of the soup of competing big ideas; what is Truth? Who do you listen to and whom can you trust? For me – and without wishing to be hopelessly simplistic – it only makes sense by my belief in God, a trust in Christ and dependence on the teachings found in God’s word, the Bible. Don’t interpret that statement to equate to holding solely to an Evangelical Christian position. Faith is so much bigger than any one interpretation.
Psalm 24: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in It, the World and all who live in it’.