For those in the trade unable to attend London Book Fair this week, here are some of the images of the past few days.
Turkey was the Country in Focus for this year’s Fair.
The Books are My Bag national promotion was launched this week.
Kobo ereaders had a major and impressive presence at this year’s fair.
Monday was a very busy day at the Fair this year with very full aisles.
Canadian retail blogger, PaulThinkingOutLoud was upset recently by one publisher’s website and its aggressive discounting policy. Writing in his blog – which is well worth following – he saw this as
‘Another example of a publisher or distributor bypassing the brick and mortar stores. Although some of this might be legitimate overstock inventory, it raises the expectation of consumers for this level of discounting to be normative, which adds to the discouragement of already battered retailers’.
In another post, Paul writes movingly of competing emotions during the closure of one of his stores. He ends with an appeal to press on towards the goal of in-store ministry.
Do you feel battered by falling sales or emboldened by spiritual opportunity? Yes, Christian bookshops continue to close, footfall is in decline, competition from online is savage and at best support from churches is patchy. Yet we are not always that well informed of current trends in the wider publishing scene. In the same way as what happens in the USA often affects the UK, the same is true of events in the general market impacting the Christian trade.
Generally speaking, our grasp of the financials on both ‘sides’ is often lacking. Retailers operate on lower margins with high fixed costs (upward only rents, rising business rates – up 2.6% again in April) whereas publishing in the main has higher margins and a far more flexible cost base. Clearly there are worries on all sides and as publishers face lower physical sales, print-runs continue to fall making the viability of mid-list titles ever more tenuous. Many publishers struggle with storing high levels of physical stock, much of which will eventually be written-down. Ironically for publishers, digitalisation represents yet more cost and a growing overhead; this, coupled with falling average cover prices (ebooks sell at half the average price of a paperback: £3.21 v. £6.31).
Our industry is a torrid place. The physical consumer book market declined by 4.6% in value in 2012, with fiction down 4.5% and non-fiction down 6.3% – only Children’s books held steady. The value of print sales slumped by £74m last year. (It could be worse – in Australia their market fell 6.3%). The marketplace churns violently in a volatile landscape; over 200 libraries were closed between 2011/12 and in another sign of turbulence, Cambridge University Press ceased print production on their Cambridge site after 400 years.
Yet 2012 saw the continued growth in digital publishing, social media marketing and self-publishing. Hive became established. Amazon’s Kindle grew faster than ever and a number of other e-readers, notably Nook, Kobo, and Nexus gathered momentum. Controversially Waterstones began to sell Amazon’s Kindle, recognising that they had neither the time nor money to develop their own platform. The Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon came out of nowhere ending the year with sales of £47.3m.
The market for ebooks was revised upwards to £300m late last year and continues to grow, albeit more slowly. Major publishers report e-sales of between 8% and 17% of overall revenue. In November, the ebook agency price probe in the USA and the EC brought a chill to the major houses as they battled against what felt like unfair external pressures. Now ebooks sell for an unsustainable 20p (a marketing idiocy pioneered by Sony) and most slots in the Kindle top 20 are populated by cheap ebooks. Nielsen data suggest that there are 7m UK ebook adopters, with heaviest use amongst ages 35-44, lowest in the under 20’s. However, the BBC reports that just as many UK adults, 7.4m or 15% of the population have yet to access the Internet.
Bookshop closures continue apace with The Booksellers Association figures documenting ongoing decline: down to 1,028 shops (2012) from 1,535 in 2005 – conversely Children’s bookshops are thriving with more opening this year. In the USA, the one surviving major bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble announced after Christmas that they expect to slim down store numbers by a third. B&N have 689 stores currently with 190-240 of these slated to close over the next decade. It’s a widely held view that the holy grail of ‘Discoverability’ is best achieved in a physical bookshop; browsing activity is their USP.
The debate over the future of our libraries is equally as fierce. The UK Government’s Sieghart ebook library lending review is yet to report but author, Terry Deary said recently: ‘Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in the electronic age’. How to win friends! It’s worth noting that the PLR on printed books from library lending is more than £6m paid out to 23,000 authors. The debate remains live as people continue to ask if digital will trounce the physical book or whether in due course it will all settle down benignly?
There’s a lot of anger amongst booksellers towards the perceived lack of a level playing field. Writing in The Bookseller, Charles Tongue of the Stroud Bookshop said, ‘I believe Publishers are blindly colluding with Amazon and the result will be the destruction of High street retailing’. He was widely applauded.
I like Foyle’s of London advertising slogan; This Bookshop Will Change Your Life – no ambiguity there! Earlier this year, Sam Husain, CEO of Foyle’s sent an open letter to publishers arguing the need for better terms (an average of 60%) and increased support (promotional stock on consignment). He stated that the current bookshop model is broken, needing a complete rethink. This at a time as Foyle’s announced eight redundancies. Bravely, Foyle’s and The Bookseller have since conducted a two-day ‘Re-imagining the Future Bookshop’ workshop, held in London, allowing the trade to collaborate on what the bookshop of the future might look like.
WH Smith continue to do a sterling job in showcasing books but even their sales fall year on year; down 7% to the end of August 2012 and down a further 6% in the 20 weeks to mid-January 2013. Another indication of the parlous state of the High Street trade is wholesaler Gardners sales results which dropped 3% to the end of February last year. Blackwell’s did improve their results last year but remain loss making.
Waterstones is far from being out of the woods with the release of poor results (admittedly pre-James Daunt) showing a £37.3m loss. I wish Waterstones well because if their 290 branches were to disappear from the High Street then it would be a very serious matter, and I might add, particularly for publishers. However, I’m encouraged for two reasons: anecdotally, people seem very warm towards the ‘W’ brand and some are switching their buying away from the mighty ‘A’. The question is, will it be enough? Waterstones iconic branding campaign last autumn was well received and this year it has plans for the refurbishment of another 60 shops.
My other reason is that when I visit Waterstones, they generally prove to be busy places and people are markedly buying books. It’s just a shame that Waterstones do not ‘do’ Christianity better and with more visibility. On a positive note, I welcome the announcement by Waterstones of the launch of its staff-training academy and Certificate in Bookselling (accredited by the University of Derby); surely a vote of confidence in its own future by a visionary book chain?
Maybe I’m pipe dreaming? After all, Amazon had overall sales in the UK in 2011 of £2.91 billion (on which they famously paid £416m UK tax). They reported Q4 worldwide revenue growth of 22% to £13bn last Christmas! Latest innovations include customer collection lockers in railway stations and newsagents. This is an immensely powerful online juggernaut and our small trade faces a very significant challenge indeed!
Yet I dare to believe that localism can prevail, customer attitudes can change and that people continue to care about their local shops – you must just hope that I am right! The demise of retailers, Jessops and Blockbuster earlier this year followed by HMV going into administration shows just how tough conditions are. Incredibly, HMV was selling 27% of all CD’s and 38% of DVD’s at the time of its demise.
I would echo Philip Downer’s (ex-Borders) comment from last year;
‘The old days of Borders and Ottakars will not return … Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook offer are now essentials for Indies who want to stay in business and thrive for the future’.
We have to give customers a reason to come to our shops. Why should they shop with you? I was recently handed a forward-dated 15% off voucher for a national (non-book) retailer. It worked. I visited the shop on the stated date, I used my voucher … and I bought far more than I had intended. In the Christian trade we must start thinking more creatively and connecting with customers in a very different way to the past.
Church engagement is a hugely important topic that needs far greater attention and one to which we shall return in the next issue. Many shops find difficulty in communicating with ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to the Churches’ own financial constraints. Managers struggle to venture outside their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers have to get back in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.
The days of waiting for a church to contact you are long gone. It’s often a salutary task to record daily footfall and till data – but it may just serve as the severe jolt you need in order to take action?
This article was written in early March 2013 for Together Magazine (April – May 2013)
Today I visited the CLC Bookshop in Ave Maria Lane, London, adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral and just off Ludgate Hill. The shop moved here from much bigger premises on Holborn Viaduct in August 2011.
CLC London is now the largest Evangelical bookshop in England and is run by CLC, an interdenominational Christian charity, now operating in 58 countries with 180+ bookshops around the world. CLC began its work in Colchester in 1941 and its London presence has been in this area of the capital since the first shop opened on Ludgate Hill in 1946, just after World War 2 ended.
The nearest tube station is St Paul’s (Central Line) and from there it’s literally a five minute walk through Paternoster Square across to the shop. Pater Noster (Latin) means ‘Our Father’. The Square lies near the top of Ludgate Hill, the highest part of the City of London.
This area – originally Paternoster Row – resonates with the history of publishing houses and booksellers as, in the 1940’s; this was the centre of the British publishing trade. In December 1940, the entire area was devastated during the London Blitz – but miraculously St Paul’s Cathedral was saved. An estimated 5 million printed books were lost in the ferocious fires caused by the bombing.
Emerging from Paternoster Square into Ave Maria Lane (I love the name of this street given the theological predisposition of CLC!), the first building you see is a well-lit and well-signed modern bookshop - but leaving no-one in any doubt that this is a ‘Christian bookshop’.
I still mourn the closure of the Scripture Union / Wesley Own shop in London’s West End at Wigmore Street. As the book market changes and the European recession continues to bite, bookselling in our towns and cities is changing markedly and the world of Christian bookselling is no different.
I applaud the efforts of Manager Petra Nemansky and the CLC team who are doing such a sterling job in increasingly difficult times. I hope that the shop will go from strength to strength as the very last thing that London needs is the demise of yet another well located Christian bookshop.
Please pray for the important ministry of this shop, only a stone’s throw away from the buildings of the London Stock Exchange and if you’re in London, especially if you are anywhere near St Paul’s Cathedral, please do visit the shop – you will not be disappointed.
Over the years I have built up quite an extensive library. Occasionally I’m informed of a potential clear-out coming my way but the threat has yet to materialise! However, if I did have to select my top 25 titles, which books would be the most important for me to keep?
I’ve thought long and hard and here is that list – these are the books which have fed my soul, impressed my spirit and directed my life as opposed to simply informing my theology.
The main 10 – in order of priority
Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster Hodder
Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen DLT
The Wonder of Worship David McKee Faith Mission
Enjoying Intimacy with God Oswald Sanders Moody Press
Border Lands David Adam SPCK
In the Name of Jesus Henri Nouwen DLT
Awake my Heart J. Sidlow Baxter MMS
The Glory Man – Billy Bray Cyril Davey Hodder
An Unfading Vision Edward England Hodder
Literature Evangelism George Verwer Authentic
Those next in significance
Unlocking the Bible David Pawson HarperCollins
Dynamics of Spiritual Life Richard Lovelace Paternoster
Knowing God James Packer Hodder
The Church on the Way Jack Hayford Chosen Books
Wisdom Larry Lee Highland
The Life God Blesses Gordon MacDonald Word Books
Circle of Love Anne Persson BRF
Ruthless Trust Brennan Manning SPCK
A Glimpse of Jesus Brennan Manning SPCK
Soul Survivor Philip Yancey Hodder
Those too hard to leave out!
Finding Sanctuary Christopher Jamison Orion
Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren Zondervan
Walking the Edges David Adam SPCK
Epiphanies of the Ordinary Charlie Cleverley Hodder
Soulful Spirituality David Benner Baker
If you were hoping to find here a Guide to the 25 Essential Spiritual Classics, that book has already been written (25 Books Every Christian Should Read : Harper One : 2011) and is in itself highly recommended. It contains all the major Christian writers from past centuries and has been put together by a specially selected group of advisors by Renovare.
As a personal exercise, why not post here which books are important to you? What titles would your own list include?
Last week the UK came out of recession and into growth, albeit at just 1%. The naysayers feel that we may well slip back again but hey, for the moment even the media is upbeat about the economy.
For me, this underlined how important the mood music is to how we feel about our lives. For as long as I can remember, the Christian book trade has always ‘been getting worse’! We seem to believe that things are ‘not as good as last year’ or ‘sales are not what they used to be’. Now it’s possible that this could all be true but it could also be that we are creating (and believing) our own negative PR and adding to our own gloom. No-one likes to be around gloomy people – or patronise gloomy retailers. Or for that matter read gloomy blogs!
It really is time to change the mood music in this trade. Someone else said last week, ‘This is the new normal, get used to it’. Change is here to stay; trade structures and loyalties are shifting before our very eyes and the way people shop has already altered – just look at the recent Argos announcement.
I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a new Facebook group dedicated to the sharing of useful retail tips – and maybe I will do just that. Somehow we must ramp up our effectiveness for the sake of the business and the ministry. There are some things out there that we simply cannot change but we do not have to cower as victims. The Gospel demands that we live our lives with joy, optimism and hope; how much more so when we are in this particular trade.
So how to move on? Well, we have to accept that, for starters, it’s not all bad. This has definitely become the day of the Indy bookshop, no question. Chains no longer work for all the reasons we know so well. There are many new, vibrant entrants to the trade. This is bringing in new – and hopefully younger – blood, and better ideas with different ways of doing things.
Actually, despite appearances sometimes to the contrary, publishers and suppliers still need the whole retail piece to make their own numbers work. I would hazard a guess that for most product originators, retail still represents c. 55% (maybe more) of their turnover. The balance of power within the industry has substantially altered in recent years; retailers’ are better off, suppliers less so (I know to some of you it doesn’t always feel that way). There is still way too much product out there so retailers can and should use their buying power to favour some suppliers over others – and therefore certain product lines over others. You just cannot buy or stock everything you are offered!
What action can retailers take – practically – to avoid falling sales? Let me sketch out some of the more obvious ways here. Feel free to offer your own as a comment and let’s start a conversation.
Here are my top two observations and recommendations which I believe can quickly impact your sales for the better. You may have to readjust your timetable and your shop to carry these out:
- Re-engage with your local churches and church leaders – but make friends with them first. Even the best of shops can do better in this area. What prevents you from getting out there?
- Increase the amount of space given to Children’s books – ramp up your range – stats prove that this is the ONE area in publishing that continues to thrive despite the ongoing shift to digital.
Try these other top tips:
- Become known locally for doing great deals – be flexible – match online prices if you have to. Join the fight-back against the online competition. Badger suppliers into helping with margin. Take a lower margin if you really have to as ‘less margin is better than no margin’.
- Stats prove that it’s wise to trade upmarket with card and gift – avoid tat, embrace quality.
- Make more use of staff and personal recommendations when speaking with customers.
- Keep stock looking fresh. Return stock wherever possible; mark-down stock, dump old stock. Take extreme care with stock levels. Buy wisely. Buy tight. Make sure stock works for YOU.
- Engage in positive PR – let your customers know what’s new and what’s happening. Use social media – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn - and make yourself heard in your own locality. Build community. Build links. Do visits. Share ideas. Above all, realise that you are not alone in this trade. Use the Facebook CABP group and get help and advice from others online.
- Keep up with digital developments – sign up to KOBO, HIVE and others as yet unknown!
- Stay positive and avoid the ‘numbers’ game (bigger, better, more). Be proud of your own calling and work.
- Pray constantly – on your own, with your trustees, with your staff and with your customers.
Maybe together – and ever so slowly – we can change the mood music? Together we should strive to build a vibrant trade sector where we feel proud to be known as Christian retailers. Eschew any perceived downward spiral and stay positive. Don’t despair. Don’t lose heart.
If you really have had enough of the trade, then perhaps you should call it a day because life is too short to be gloomy!
Almost 300 delegates and over 50 suppliers met together in June at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick for Christian Resources Together 2012. The conference hashtag #CRT2012 reveals a Twitter stream full of pertinent observations, not least by super-speedy-trade-tweeter, Melanie Carroll.
CRT’s latest venue (in 2011 it was held at the smaller Highleigh centre) meant that almost 100 extra people registered for this year’s extremely well-run one-night, two-day retreat, a tribute to the meticulous organising skills of Steve and Mandy Briars.
For me, the most memorable aspect of the two days was the chance to hear not one, not two, but three really engaging speakers:
Mark Stibbe, The Father’s House Trust
Charlie Cleverely, Rector, St Aldate’s, Oxford
Alister McGrath, King’s College, London
The worship for each session – full of the presence of God – was sensitively and powerfully led by Lou Fellingham (Lead singer, Phatfish). Her new refrain to the Welsh hymn, Here is love vast as the ocean, particularly affected me:
Grace takes my sin,
Calls me friend,
Pays my debt completely
Love rescued me
And seated me with my King forever.
Opening the retreat, Mark Stibbe described Borders Bookstores as ‘an icon of a bygone age’! He spoke of the Book-trade facing huge challenges and being in ‘the perfect storm requiring prayerful and careful navigation’.
These points particularly struck me as Mark Stibbe worked through his five key ideas:
Passion – He spoke movingly of his adoptive father stimulating his own great love and passion for reading and writing, by deluging him with books during his youth!
Perspective – ‘There are never enough books to contain the wisdom of God’, ‘the Christian bookshop is an outpost of heavenly wisdom in the midst of a land of barren ideas’ and ‘we are in the business of the Kingdom and not the kingdom of business’.
Partnership – ‘All parts of the trade need the other’.
Proactivity – ‘We need not to be reactive but to breakout … Christian bookshops have immense value … the Starbucks founder talked of a third place, not at work or at home but of somewhere just to hang out … Bookshops can offer that sense of the presence of God … Indy’s can thrive again … we need a creative business model’.
Pliability – Stibbe especially recommended Jim Collins, ‘From Good to Great’.
‘No man can be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
On the second day, Charlie Cleverley was the guest devotional speaker and commenced with ‘God has not yet finished with the printed book’!
His latest book is about God-appearances: ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’ (Hodder Faith).
Charlie’s theme was ‘regaining vision’. In visions become realities. The vision of how good God is drives mission: ‘Grant unto me a vision that changes everything’.
In Revelation, John saw the heavens open. He saw the Divine. In Exodus 34, Moses boldly asked God ‘to show him His glory’ and Ezekiel wrote down the vision that he saw: colour, flashes and lightening, an awesome sight. On Patmos, John called the Church back to its first love. When we behold God’s glory, it will refresh and restore us.
Cleverley moved on to talk about stillness and discipline: Stop – Look – Listen. The discipline of living in the presence of God – not activism but contemplative prayer. He quoted Nouwen and Fenelon (Be silent and listen to God) and embarked on a tour of some of the great mystic writers of the Christian tradition.
He spoke about ‘being Charis-mystical’, of seeing the Lord and of the Prayer of Quiet. Then … of being stilled, of union and communion and of spiritual ecstasy. To be on fire with devotion. Of the patrimony, the inheritance of God. He encouraged retailers to so strive to hold resources in our outlets that will enable people to ‘see’ God.
Alister McGrath was the final speaker. It was a privilege to finally get an opportunity of listening to such an important theologian and apologist.
McGrath is author of the best-selling The Dawkins Delusion (SPCK) and he commented first on the Diamond Jubilee of Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis, 1952); the 60-year spiritual impact of which since publication has been ‘simply colossal’.
McGrath moved on to discuss the development of the New Atheism kicked off by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins in 2006. Ironically the public debate had rekindled interest in God and, as a result, it’s now much easier to talk about faith and spirituality. There seems less enthusiasm for the new atheism, which indeed seems to be fading, but there remains in society a lingering interest in who God is and in the ‘Big Questions’.
Finally, Alister complimented all that was being done through Christian resources. His theme for the remainder of the session was ‘Building a vision of God, the Gospel and of who we are’. He drew our attention to Isaiah 6 and the need to refresh and renew our vision of God.
McGrath concluded by stressing the absolute constancy and faithfulness of God. God is utterly trustworthy even in the midst of much change.
Click here for a comprehensive report of the #CRT2012 industry awards: the People and Products.
Next year, Christian Resources Together will again be held at The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick on Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th April 2013.
I attended the London Book Fair at Earls Court this week; the first time in several years. I was left with several over-riding impressions.
The Fair remains the premier International Book Fair. It was busy – very busy – with 25,000 delegates, half from overseas, attracted by the 1,500 exhibitors from 57 countries. The Bookseller suggested that the USA DoJ ruling on the Agency Model (eBook pricing) had dampened the mood considerably for rights sales.
I am very much against this ruling as it simply hands yet more power to an already menacing monopoly. I applaud those Publishers who have decided to fight this rather simplistic ruling. Amazon has already done considerable damage to our High Streets, and not just to Bookselling. It’s quite foolish to view Amazon as a consumer champion.
China – this year’s Market Focus - with their visually stunning Fair Pavilion (designed by Yang Liu). The Market Focus logo was in the shape of a hand-fan as used by the Royal Family in China 1500 years ago. LBF reported that China had sent 1,200 people (including 50 authors) representing 180 publishers – quite a commitment! So why China? Well, English and Mandarin are the two dominant world languages and China is a vast country with a 1.3billion population speaking over 50 dialects. It’s projected to overtake the USA as the world’s largest economy within the next 20 years or so, and yet paradoxically it’s still 90th on the GDP index despite its recent spectacular economic growth.
The sheer size of the country with its many regional imbalances and huge social challenges is overseen by the pro-business centralised Government. For the Western creative industries, protection of Intellectual Property and Copyright remains the pressing issue. Good quality translation skills remain scarce.
There is the inevitable controversy over issues of censorship when judged by the ideals of liberal democracy. Indeed, the Fair’s impressive China and Europe Publishing Forum attracted a goodly number of silent placard waving protesters; ‘Free speech is not a crime’, ‘Stop literary persecution’. The London Evening Standard ran an interview this week with the Chinese author of Wild Swans in which she stated that, in her opinion, ‘Censorship in China is worse than it was 10 years ago’.
The Chinese Government oversees all media output through GAPP and it is this body which issues the requisite ISBN’s. Since 1949, China has published around 34,000 titles of British books within China. Apparently, ¼ of all books imported into China are from the UK! Through its 600+ Publishing Houses and with a workforce of nearly 57 thousand employees’, China has the largest publishing output in the world by volume (300,000 titles in 2009). It’s a mature and self-confident market set to generate revenues of $9.5billion in 2012. China is poised to take over from the USA in levels of scientific journal publishing.
There are 167,000 bookshops across China, with some state-of-the-art seven-story bookshops in the largest cities. The number of bricks and mortar shops is growing by almost 5% per year! The state-run chain, Xinhua (new China) has 6,483 outlets.
Why is this of any interest to us Brits? Because there are more people learning English in China than anywhere else in the world and more English speakers in China than in the rest of the English speaking world. Language learning is paramount. For publishers, this obviously represents a huge market and a pressing opportunity. There is a very attractive market for educational and English language publishers!
I was very struck by Pearson’s almost evangelical mantra, ‘Not just touching people, but transforming lives through learning’.
Islam – I was forcibly struck by the number of large and impressive Islamic publishing stands at LBF. These were in stark contrast to the mainly small booths of the Christian publishers, aside from the usual welcome presence of Lion Hudson PLC. Islam clearly has plenty of financial backing, is investing heavily in literature and is clearly committed to book distribution in a way that some Christians seem to have forgotten.
Print still dominates, at around 80-85% of the UK market and much smaller elsewhere in the world. We should keep the eBook ‘hype’ in perspective. The digital presence at the Fair was actually quite small, tucked away in one smallish zone. Interestingly, KOBO eReaders have said that 10% of their eBook sales are now for self-published authors. In China, authors are uploading self-published works in instalments, books which are then picked up by publishers and eventually making their way into bookshops; the reverse of our model in the West!
UK Publishers do increasingly view their role as ‘Content Providers’ delivered via various platforms but print currently continues to dominate their activity.
LBF 2012. Quite an event, and yet again, another reminder of just how quickly our world is changing. The tide of globalisation and digitalisation continues to alter the way we all do business yet the basic desire to read remains.
In his summing up, Lord Powell of Bayswater said, ‘The English language is the highway to bring the world to China’. I suspect that China is actually finding her way to the rest of the world!
It has felt like a tsunami of bad news of late with so many Bookshop closures. The UK has lost 26% of its Bookshops since 2006 (over 400 outlets according to the Booksellers Association) and many of these are Christian Bookshops. This decline seems to be quickening with various shop closures announced almost weekly. Even the once-invincible Christian chains have succumbed, weighed down by high central costs and slow decision making: Scripture Union, The Church of Scotland, SPCK, Living Oasis and now Wesley Owen. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the future belongs to a well-run and nimble independent sector. Have we simply gone full-circle?
The whole sorry saga of these closures came home to me as a bitter blow when I heard of the closure of Wesley Owen on Park Street in Bristol. This was originally the venerable ECL shop where I had cut my bookselling teeth in 1980 under the watchful eye of dear Alan Maynard, God bless him. The ECL Bookshop was originally opened in 1852 by Bristol’s famous George Muller and the building is still owned by the George Muller Charitable Trust.
I wrote on Twitter this week:
‘Sad times – iconic and memorable homes of Christian Bookshops have disappeared: Wigmore St London, George St Edinburgh & now Park St Bristol’.
Let’s remind ourselves of why we do what we do. My esteemed ex-colleague, Steve Bunn replied on Facebook:
‘What powerful ministries these stores and their dedicated workers had; there will be many when we get there (heaven) who will have come through their doors’.
Our trade urgently needs the rationale for a new approach. The bulk of Christian bookshops, developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were a response to what God was doing in the wider church. They embodied a strong pastoral thrust through staff with a vocational calling. Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic. They are seen as disconnected from the Church and overtaken by changes and events in wider society.
It’s fashionable even amongst some Christians to decry and downplay the significance of Christian Bookshops but, make no mistake about it, where these shops have closed, they will be missed.
I believe that if Christian shops are lost from the High Street, it will be impossible to replace them.
Yes, I accept that we do need to pose some important questions – what is God saying and doing today? What does the Church want? Where is the new market for resources? How does digital affect sales and delivery? Can we sustain the passion to remain as Christian ministries on the High Street? And if so, how?
Is there still a place for a Christian Resource Centre on the High Street? In my view, emphatically YES. Would a local community be worse off without a Christian presence on its streets? Again, emphatically YES. However, I accept that some ministries may need to be repositioned to serve God’s purposes today and we may need to build a new expression of Christian retailing through which to develop new local relationships.
We need a fight back. We need to show why selling Christian material on the High Street has never been more important. Closures are insidious. They weaken all of us across the entire trade. It’s bad for Churches, it’s actually worse for our culture – Christian values should be at the heart of society, plain for all to see. It lessens the availability of prayer and pastoral advice in the community, it damages the visibility of Christianity on the High Street and it severely diminishes the reach of suppliers.
I know of what I speak. For Publishers’ to survive they need markets. They must maintain their print runs and they need a sales network. Already print runs are falling and sales (and margins) are simply not being replaced by the Internet or via digital networks. Gradually, publishers are recognising the magnitude of the problem that shop closures are creating. Just where is the required volume of replacement sales going to come from?
That elusive balance of mission and business is constantly shifting. The line continually needs to be recalibrated. My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material. We may have strayed too far into the territory of mammon and lucre.
It’s not too late. Publishers can still support the Indy’s and what’s left of the Chains. I remain a retailer at heart. I’ve worked for a distributor and a publisher but always with a retailer’s instinct. Other publishers too are doing their best. Consistently, Lion Hudson and IVP have won accolades for their support of the trade – and deservedly so. To my mind, the mantle of the original OM STL has transferred to IVP. They have built on that all important sense of deep concern and support for the ministry of Christian literature. CLC continues to plough a steady and significant furrow in UK retail.
It’s not too late for all suppliers to give retailers a better deal. Sometimes it’s more about their tone, not discount. Some give lip-service to supporting shops but go headlong and unfairly into chasing other markets. Retailers aren’t stupid, they know when they are being strung along and unjustly treated.
As I was contemplating this post, I listened to this moving song by Don Moen. I feel it’s apt for our present situation:
‘You are brighter than my darkest night, stronger than my toughest fight
Just one touch from you my King, my Friend and I’ll never be the same again’.
Soli Deo Gloria