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Posts Tagged ‘Christian Publishing’

Book Trade – Stock, stock and yet more stock

January 26, 2014 8 comments

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.

Stock, stock and yet more stock!

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.

Muddy Pearl at CRE

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!

Bibles and more Bibles ...

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)

Book Trade – What Future for the Christian Book Trade?

August 12, 2013 2 comments

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.

17th century MSS in St Peter's Church in Brooke, Rutland.

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.

Design used courtesy of Yeomans Marketing

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)

Book Trade – Reconnecting with the Local Church

June 29, 2013 1 comment

In a previous post, I touched briefly on the tricky matter of church / retailer engagement. We return to it here to examine this important topic in more depth.

Many shops are struggling to communicate with their church leaders and ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to their Churches’ own financial constraints. Retail managers struggle to venture outside of their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers must be in touch with their core customer base – the Churches. 

St Olav Trust Bookshop, Chichester

Earlier this year, I oversaw a fairly small-scale Christian retailer survey, attempting to draw out the very real concerns that cause such difficulty in the area of contact with their local congregations. Here in order of priority are the main barriers given by retailers for failing to engage with their local church communities and ministers.

The number 1 reason cited in the survey was the Managers’ own lack of time and the overall busyness of their shop, followed closely by:

  • Low levels of staff cover and an over-reliance on volunteers
  • Lack of interest and support for the bookshop by their local churches
  • Ministers opting to order online for reasons of convenience and price
  • Stock limitations due to differences in theology across the denominations
  • Churches going direct to suppliers owing to better terms on offer
  • Ministers and leaders themselves too busy to visit their local shop
  • A fear of the unknown – the concern of how best to approach a church leader

Do any of these reasons resonate with you? If so, how can you manage this aspect of trade more positively? One thing is certain; we must not sit back, throw up our hands in despair or give up. Other retailers’ experience shows that, whilst it is clearly hard work, it is still possible to build good business links with local churches.

35 years ago, when I first started in bookselling, support for their local Christian bookshop by the surrounding churches was unquestioned. It was a given. The churches themselves saw the bookshop as the partner in their own local mission. Support was therefore an imperative. The success of my then small community shop in rural Gloucestershire was largely down to the custom generated by their weekly bookstalls and regular bulk sales.

I was hugely favoured from the beginning by that indomitable champion of the Church Bookstall, Beryl Goodland at the local Baptist Church in Gorsley.  Lion Publishing was just getting underway and Beryl was at the heart of the book scene at that time. I’m quite sure that without her dogged support for me personally and for the shop, it would not have enjoyed the kick-start that it did. This then-large congregation was the closest I think I ever got to working with a mega-church! Beryl was the best advocate anyone could have had for selling books via the Church. I realise now just how fortunate we were to have had such impressive support.

This point underlines the importance of having a ‘Champion’ on board in each church for your shop, and in most cases it’s usually not the minister. One key is to seek out and identify those champions in each congregation and start to work with them. Keep close to them, make them feel special and ensure you look after them well.

Church support for the local bookshop is no longer as clear cut as it once was. Churches themselves are struggling and having to shop around for best value. Ministers and leaders are pushed for time and can no longer provide the link and support that is the lifeblood of the local shop. Bookshop staff have themselves lost out by not always realising just how much the scene has changed – and they have largely failed to change with it. Many of us appear to have lost the art, desire and capability to get out into the community to network and connect with churches. Times have indeed changed and the church / shop compact as described above is no longer in place … or is it?

Some would argue that the link is most certainly still there but that it’s just different. Partly it’s down to education – on both sides. Churches need to be helped to understand and value their local resource centre and shops need to understand the new market reality and the very real pressures on church leaders. Partly it’s down to societal change; 30 years ago the internet did not exist and mail order was a poor second option to the shop. Churches themselves valued books and resources in a way that they perhaps do not now. Leaders would recommend books during their sermons and from the pulpit, far more often than appears to be the case nowadays. Are Christians reading as much anyway and how do churches decide what is best for them to study in a time of so many competing voices? Many congregations now have access to the technology and the wherewithal to produce their own materials, thus bypassing both publishers and booksellers. This change has particularly impacted and disrupted the daily reading notes and home group study market.

Rather than bemoaning the situation, retailers have to change. We simply must become more proactive in making contact with local ministries. New ways of engaging with local congregations must be found in order to introduce resources into their spiritual lives. It remains a truism that personal recommendation continues to be the single best way of selling a book to a customer – and in this case to a whole church.

Happily, there are a number of exciting initiatives taking place around the country that do just that. It takes effort, time and, I suspect, will demand ever more change to the way the shop is both staffed and operated.

Nigel Cope of the Christian Book Centre in Preston, quoted in the preview issue of Together magazine, estimated that around 12% of his business now came from outside of the shop. His one single piece of advice was “Don’t wait for people to come into your shop, go out and find them and serve them where they are“. Nationally, CLC Bookshops are more and more committed to running external events and have ramped up their own activity in this area recently.

Birmingham City Centre - The Bull Ring

I recently spent time with Bob and Sandie Clark at the Christian Resource Centre in Eastbourne, runners up in this year’s ‘Small Independent Retailer of the Year’ award. In the two years the Clarks have been involved, the business has been turned around and turnover is slowly on the rise, largely due to a stated policy of spending time with ministers outside of the shop. Bob, an experienced and seasoned publisher’s representative, is specifically tasked with building up these external relationships – and clearly has the skill-set to do this extremely well.

CRC is part of Churches Together in Eastbourne but when the Clarkes commenced in 2011, there were active relationships with just two churches. Bob diarises each Thursday for networking with church leaders, fitting in five to six visits during the day. Using his earlier repping model, he views his role as relating, as well as selling, to churches.

The Book Box Scheme is CRC’s main promotional thrust. This scheme is based on one pioneered by Pam Brittle at Choice Words, Newton Abbot. Book boxes are supplied lidded and the selected product is all provided on a see-safe basis. Some boxes are brought back to CRC by the church for resupply; others, Bob will replenish himself on a subsequent visit. CRC now have around 18 churches in the scheme – and it’s growing – with the goal to reach 50 boxes by this Christmas.

They also operate the Big Church Read introducing one title per month to each of their partner churches. These schemes work via a Church Champion and not through the minister or leader, although permission is always sought first. Making the contacts and building relationships takes up a good deal of Bob’s time and he says that it still remains a challenge and a struggle to get support from the local church community.

Christian Resource Centre, Eastbourne

So what are the main keys to success in engaging with churches?

(1) Tenacity, patience and perseverance – plus a solid and workable game plan!

(2) Finding a local ‘resource champion’ in each congregation to work with you. Make sure you get the minister’s agreement first but accept that it may not make sense to work solely with the minister as he may wish to delegate the role to someone you both trust.

(3) Network – network – network. If necessary, alter the way you operate the shop in order to find the time to do so. For example, would shutting the shop for one day or one morning or an afternoon a week or month bring more benefit to your trade than simply staying open on an otherwise dead day?

(4) Research your locality thoroughly and recommend relevant resources to your constituency in a positive, pleasant and non-demanding way.

(5) Help your local ministers to keep up to date with what’s new and what’s selling in the wider overall context. So many leaders are notoriously out of date in their own reading and book / resource knowledge.

(6) And please … do not use the lack of time or staff as an excuse to do nothing. That way you may be sleep-walking to disaster. Find a way. Be creative. The local churches do not owe you a living – you still have to work for it!

We’d love to hear from you on this subject. Send in your own thoughts and the practical ways in which you have sought to address this area of your work. We’ll then share your wisdom with others through the pages of Together. May God bless you in all aspects of your shop’s ministry.

This article was written in mid May 2013 for Together Magazine (June – July 2013)

Review – These 25 Books have shaped my spiritual life …

November 12, 2012 3 comments

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?

 

Christian Book Trade – It’s time to change the mood music

October 29, 2012 2 comments

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:

  1.  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?
  2. 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: 

  1. 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’.
  2. Stats prove that it’s wise to trade upmarket with card and gift – avoid tat, embrace quality.
  3. Make more use of staff and personal recommendations when speaking with customers.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Keep up with digital developments – sign up to KOBO, HIVE and others as yet unknown!
  7. Stay positive and avoid the ‘numbers’ game (bigger, better, more). Be proud of your own calling and work.
  8.  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!

Book Trade – Christian Resources Together 2012: A Perspective

June 18, 2012 1 comment

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.

Christian Book Trade Meditation: Be encouraged today

March 9, 2012 3 comments

Be encouraged – even when it seems tough.

Christian Bookshops can sometimes be lonely places in which to work. Lots to be cheerful about but occasionally we can get disheartened. I’d like to encourage you in your work today. That book or card or piece of music you’ve just sold has the most amazing potential – with the power of the Holy Spirit – to change someone’s life. You have no idea!

Be encouraged.

Recently, I’ve been amazed – and myself encouraged – to read and hear so many accounts of people being helped, turned around, challenged and faced with the truth of the Gospel by a particular Christian book or Daily Reading booklet. Sometimes its surprising which title is involved but this only goes to remind me that this is God’s work, not ours.

Multiplied many times over – all around the world today – the same is happening with so many items of Christian material. You are part of an incredible and powerful worldwide ministry. None of us can ever know this side of eternity the eternal impact our work will have for the Kingdom of God.

Be encouraged.

As you read this, let me pray for you right now:

‘May God through His Holy Spirit anoint your work today and bless you in all that you do for Him’.

The Bible provides this compelling perspective of the purpose of our work:

‘But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name’. John 20:31.

Be encouraged in God today.

Book Trade – A Tsunami of Bookshop Closures

January 28, 2012 15 comments

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

Book Trade – is News Corp a ‘Fit and Proper’ entity to be a Bible publisher?

November 1, 2011 1 comment

Last evening, a bombshell exploded in the worldwide book trade with the announcement by HarperCollins in New York of their proposed purchase of Thomas Nelson USA (Publisher of Billy Graham, Max Lucado and the New King James Bible).

This is astonishing. News Corporation already owns Zondervan (the Publisher of the New International Version, on licence from Biblica USA) and HarperCollins (the Publisher of the Good News Bible).

I, for one, am not hugely keen on the news that an ethically discredited NewsCorp may shortly own two major USA Christian publishers; Zondervan & Thomas Nelson; thus – incredibly – making Rupert Murdoch the largest Christian publisher in the world, in control of many of the major English translations of the Bible!

I believe, in the light of the phone-hacking scandal here in the UK, that NewsCorp is not a ‘fit and proper’ entity to control such a major percentage of English Bible translations. To me, this is extremely worrying.

As John Duncan said on Facebook today;

 ‘By my reckoning this now makes HC owners of the companies that produce the NKJV, a large percentage of the KJV (both Nelson and HC), the NCV, the NIV (US editions), the GNB, the ESV (UK editions), and some NRSV – rather a lot of bibles, really’.

Christianity Today reported in September 2010 that:

 ‘The American Bible Society says there are 32 translations on the North American market, while Christian Book Distributors offers over 50. BibleGateway.com offers 23 English versions’.

Whilst this is true, CBA USA figures indicate that the list of best selling Bibles by unit sales in 2010 is actually a much smaller group of translations;

    1. New International Version
    2. King James Version
    3. New King James Version
    4. New Living Translation
    5. English Standard Version
    6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
    7. The Message

Make no mistake; News Corp may soon control the majority of the bestselling English translations of the Bible. In this list, the only independent translations are The New Living Translation (Tyndale), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (Broadman and Holman) and The Message (NavPress).

I have known and worked with good people in all of the companies mentioned above and I have no wish to cause offence but this seems to be a rather perilous and serious state of affairs. Thomas Nelson is a privately owned USA company – maybe the owners will see sense and reconsider the sale.

2 Corinthians 2:17 states; ‘Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God’.

These are salutory and hard words indeed for all of us working in this industry.

Book Trade – Reflections on the UK specialist wholesaling model

October 29, 2011 8 comments

TMD’s announcement this week of its imminent withdrawal from wholesaling for UK publishers came as no surprise. The surprise to me is that it’s been able to carry on as long as it has.

Even at the height of STL Distribution’s involvement with wholesaling, it was incredibly cash, stock and shelf-space intensive. The breakthrough for STL in those early days came when it moved into trade distribution (starting with Kingsway) and began to develop its own extensive retail infrastructure. Without those two elements, in my view STL may not have survived beyond the 1990′s.

In the late 19980′s, STL tried to emulate the likes of Gardners and Hammicks. Now the competition is even fiercer with Amazon taking on a quasi-wholesale supply role within the book trade. It seems crazy that it makes sense for shops to buy from Amazon and receive better terms than from publishers!

The retail sector has to take its own share of responsibility for the difficulties experienced by suppliers in recent years. Too often shops use their distributors as bankers – by not sticking to agreed payment terms and by often paying late. This has had a rolling, detrimental and destabilising effect across the whole trade putting a lot of pressure on companies’ cash flow.

For TMD to concentrate on its American lists makes a lot of financial sense. These are usually high margin transactions, with stock often placed on consignment and a much healthier impact on cash management.  USA Publishers can afford to throw greater margin and to slightly increase their already high print runs for sale to the UK market. One negative effect may be to further accentuate the already disproportionate USA / UK title balance on display within UK bookshops. 

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ behind the TMD decision is the hugely shrinking pool of retail outlets for suppliers to sell into. The UK market has lost a very large number of shops in a relatively short period of time. There is simply much less shelf space to go around. There is just not as much business to be had. Everyone involved is ‘competing’ for less space on shelves and seemingly for fewer customers. TMD do not own their own outlets as STL did and so the vertical integration model does not work for them.

I’ve said elsewhere that I wish CLC Wholesale well. However, I remain unconvinced that they can pick up the slack due to two reasons; (1) their remuneration policy which mitigates against being able to attract enough competent and professional staff (no slight whatsoever intended to existing CLC’ers, all of whom do an amazing job in often difficult circumstances) and (2) the need to significantly widen their stock holding policy at the wholesale warehouse level. If these points are courageously and urgently addressed, then the chance still exists for CLC to fill the current vacuum and grow their own market share considerably.

This is now such a seriously changed landscape; one in which specialist Christian trade wholesaling may possibly have had its day.  Like so often in life, we’ve gone full circle from a viable wholesale model – brilliantly pioneered for this market by the likes of Raymond Stanbury, Daan van Belzen and Keith Danby– to again buying direct from Publishers with all of the built-in inefficiencies and additional costs.  C’est la vie!

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