Home > Book trade > Christian Book Trade; Facing four incontrovertible facts

Christian Book Trade; Facing four incontrovertible facts

We’ve had it much our own way for years. This fine trade of ours is full of great people called to the ministry of Christian literature. The 80’s and the 90’s were the heyday and we were able to build on the legacy of some wonderful pioneers of bookselling. I was honoured to know a number of them and my life is richer as a result. As a trade we now face a problem of demography as many colleagues face retirement, making it ever harder to pass the baton on in the light of these wider challenges.

During the late 90’s and early noughties, many of us worked hard to move ahead and build a better trade. Many might say it didn’t work and that it was predicated on a wrong premise. I don’t know but I do know that generally speaking the motives were right. The execution may have been sometimes clumsy but, in my opinion, many good but tired shops were given a new lease of life.

We face an uncertain future as a niche trade, both booksellers and publishers alike. Delivery channels are changing fast but spiritual content and Godly truth remains. People still deserve to hear the Word. How do we carry out our God-given calling in the context of these new realities?

Life will most certainly not return to how it was. We have to move on and change – fast.

It seems to me that there are four incontrovertible facts that we must openly recognise and begin to accept;

  1. The UK has become increasingly secularised and less open to Christian forms of spirituality
  2. Delivery methods and channels – but not content – are changing almost on a daily basis
  3. Consumers, and especially younger people, are not buying as many physical books as in the past
  4. The Christian book trade is undergoing a serious and prolonged period of retrenchment

The mission and calling of distributing the word of God in various formats continues. We urgently need to develop positive conversations to determine how best to respond. By way of encouragement, I fully recognise that there are a good number of shops around the country doing a superb job and working against the odds. May God bless each one. As I’ve written elsewhere, we must provide encouragement and help to each other and eschew condemnation and recrimination wherever possible.

When William Carey faced a complete wipe-out of years of translation work in India following a catastrophic warehouse fire, he wrote;

‘In one short evening the labours of years are consumed. How unsearchable are the ways of God. I had lately brought some things to the utmost perfection of which they seemed capable, and contemplated the missionary establishment with perhaps too much self-congratulation. The Lord has laid me low, that I may look more simply to him’.

Like Carey, perhaps I too have been guilty of ‘self-congratulation’.

Perhaps for all of us this really is the time to ‘look more simply to Him’?

We have a high calling; I don’t believe it has yet been rescinded.

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  1. March 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Amen

  2. Pete Slee
    March 13, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Well said Eddie.
    As someone who is no longer directly involved in the trade (except as a customer!) I hesitate to comment – and yet I do want to acknowledge the sheer dedication of so many in the UK Christian Book Trade, among whom I would like to think I have many friends.
    Nevertheless, there are a couple of things I’d like to pick up (well maybe four, like you!):
    First, because the work is something people do as a vocation, a calling (I don’t know anyone who goes into the trade to make money!), there is an inherent danger of feeling the current difficulties are somehow a failure – but I firmly believe God is bigger than any of this – his purposes will still be fulfilled;

    Second, I really think those affected by the falling sales need to beware attributing blame – or indeed projecting guilt upon individuals or church leaders. There are many reasons why the trade is in the state it is, but I hope retailers will avoid “having a go” at local christians for their use of the internet, at “the expense” of the local shops – there are all kinds of issues here that could be unpacked, such as asking how much publishers can be held accountable for discounting etc… The local shops need the GOODWILL of their potential customers;

    Thirdly, I think the whole trade needs to keep asking the BIG questions about its raison d’etre – assuming that “Advancing the Christian Faith” is still as good as any – how is that being helped? Are publishers able to ask themselves: “Are there enough good titles out there on this subject already?” “Will publishing this book really make a difference to people’s lives – or will it end up being bought by a number of folk who like that author and then add to the remainders list?” And are christian retailers really providing vital ammunition for those on the front-line or is there a danger of rather a lot of casualties from “friendly fire”?

    Finally, do we need to take a deep breath and ask if, in 2011, the trade really understands how to communicate Good News to the present generation? I applaud those, like yourself Eddie, who are acknowledging that e-books are here to stay – and considering the knock-on effects of this; but what about the reality that many people read very little of any printed word – that communication is via screens and headphones, not paper and ink? God bless those who are on the leading edge, but lets pray for grace that others will be able to ride the new wave, where ever it may take them. (I remember Rob Bell explaining, years ago, that NOOMA presentations were made with a view to people being able to view them as downloads.., and that’s now one of the ways many in our world receive information!)

    • March 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      Thanks so much for this Pete. Good to hear from you. I think your 4th point is the key issue – ‘do we need to take a deep breath and ask if, in 2011, the trade really understands how to communicate Good News to the present generation’? Well put and its this exact point that I think needs an urgent trade conversation.

      • March 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

        Any thoughts on how we can get that conversation going in a trade that seems to struggle to communicate amongst its own members?

        Would the Christian Authors, Booksellers & Publishers facebook group be a good place, away from the public eye? Or I’d be happy to host the conversation on the UKCBD blog for a more open discussion?

        I’m not convinced that Christian Resources Together would get us very much further than it did with ‘Stronger Together Weaker Apart’ last year where everyone talked about it but no one followed through :-/

        • March 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm

          Hi Phil. I have been invited to speak at the CRT event in June. See http://www.christianresourcestogether.co.uk/eventprogramme.htm
          and am planning to weave some of these issues into my seminar. If you wanted to carry on this theme on UKCB, as well as mentioning my CRT slot, please feel free.

          • March 14, 2011 at 11:00 am

            Thanks Eddie. Let’s hope the trade is in a receptive frame of mind and willing to pursue further…

  3. March 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Very, very good points, Pete — some shops may win some custom by playing the guilt card, but that’s certainly no way to win goodwill (a bit like different approaches to presenting the gospel itself: some preachers love to ham up the guilt and some people do respond to that; but surely the better way is the message of love and grace…).

  4. Valiant for Truth
    March 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I tend to agree with the over production of titles all of a similar kind, together with a concentration, as in secular publishing also, with new titles and front list rather than back list, so that some good, useful volumes disappear after as little as one year.

    • March 13, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      … on which, I predict a rash of anti-universalism books emerging from conservative evangelical publishing houses in response to Rob Bell’s latest. Here we have someone who genuinely has the ability to connect with “the present generation” and what happens? The right wing stalwarts of the old generation seem to be able to find no better response than throw stones and condemn…

    • Pete Slee
      March 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm

      I presume you meant to say that you DON’T agree with over production of titles…
      Yes, I used to often have people asking for titles that were no longer available, even though they were only a couple of years old. Wasn’t that one of the ideas behind some publishers developing P.O.D. – or has the ebook revolution already consigned that to history?

      • March 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm

        If it has, STL USA are in big trouble: they’ve recently invested $1M in a new POD service: STL Distribution’s ‘landscape changes’… (this is part of the organisation that couldn’t afford to keep STL here in the UK afloat back in 2009, incidentally…)

  5. Valiant for Truth
    March 14, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Yes, too many titles and too many that are similar. I’ve not had to deal with POD recently, but my recollection was that titles were expensive and that put people off. When the supermarkets, Asda especially, went for the Net Book Agreement, they did it to be able to price promote books in their stores alongside groceries. The bookshops had to follow suit to stay in existence despite receiving less discount than large retailers, and on-line retailers. A culture of “bargains” developed and shops not reducing prices, were perceived to be “ripping off” customers. I go with the arguement that a book is not a tin of baked beans. It is the heart and soul of the author, and a work of art and literature. Cutting prices devalues not only this work, but also the overall concept of the value of books now seen as disposbale items, not valuable possessions representing thought and knowledge.

    • March 14, 2011 at 11:10 am

      Hmmm… don’t know, Carole: a lot of the tripe published these days is worth far less than a can of baked beans, I’d say. Consider the ridiculous number of Christian responses to The DaVinci Code and how many of those simply ended up as remainders or even went for pulping. What’s needed is a bit of joined-up thinking from publishers, a bit more working together instead of overloading the bandwagon by each jumping onto it with their own offering…

  6. Valiant for Truth
    March 14, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Don’t I recall there was talk of the BACBG and the Christian suppliers group working together but it never really happened? I agree about the “Tripe” and simply overload also, whereby good stuff can get buried in the dross of over production. Years ago when a secular bookseller, I recall occasions when publishers reps occasionally brought their editors to shops. I also recall telling one lady who is now a senior publisher, that certain proposed jackets would not work. She was indignant and went ahead with them. Three months later those books were re-jacketed – I was right but how much money was wasted because publishers don’t listen to booksellers.

    • Pete Slee
      March 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      Ah, Carole, you’ve just introduced an interesting word: “listening”! How different the world might be if we all learned to do that. It’s all about communication, information-flow, and this is needed at all levels. In the Christian booktrade this should start with the end-user, the customer, and flow through retail & wholesale channels to the producers – publishers and authors. I see book publishing as something that should be able to stimulate discussion as well as respond to need.

  1. March 21, 2011 at 8:32 am
  2. March 21, 2011 at 8:32 am
  3. June 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm
  4. June 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm

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