Home > Book trade > Book Trade – Stock, stock and yet more stock

Book Trade – Stock, stock and yet more stock

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)

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  1. brian.butler@talktalk.net
    January 27, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Good morning, Eddie. I always enjoy reading your blog–it keeps me
    up to date with what’s going on in the Xtn book trade–even though I am
    not personally involved. You have your finger on the pulse like few
    others. So thanks.

    Brian
    (I was thinking it would be good to spend a day together in the
    summer)

    Respond to this post by replying above this
    line

  2. January 27, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Sad to say, I think you’re right. In my bookshop management days, I’d say I rarely — if ever — took more than 20% of what any rep might show me: most of it was, as you say, mediocre, or if not mediocre, too narrow an appeal or too specialist even for a theological bookshop. With many titles I’d order a single copy with a specific customer in mind, and when that had sold there was no point reordering.

    I still receive many publishers’ catalogues: there’s rarely anything that grabs my attention; and I have stacks of review copies sent on spec that are gathering dust and find myself wondering whatever possessed the publishers to produce them… a flooded marketplace of eminently forgettable titles…

    • February 6, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      Hmmm… I take that back: have just received SPCK’s latest catalogue — several titles I’d like to get hold of; and at least six my wife says are essential reading … and on the review copies front, have just received Glenn Myers’ latest, More Than Bananas (Fizz Books, Feb 2014) — very much looking forward to that 🙂

  3. February 11, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    We used to have gentleman publishers, they knew their writers, loved books. Where those famous names exist, if they exist at all, are imprints of global companies. For example HarperCollins, part of the Murdoch Empire. Books have been reduced to a commodity.

    We saw this with The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo. Every publisher, put on their list, a Scandinavian writer, billed as the next Stieg Larson. Jo Nesbo got this treatment.

    Quercus, that published The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo, is likely to go bust, if a buyer cannot be found.

    Large number of books published, that go straight to remainder, if not to be pulped, is nothing new.

    We have publishers dumping hyped rubbish onto chains, WHSmith and Waterstone’s, to be sold at massively discounted prices.

    This is incredibly short sighted. It deprives to indie bookshops of their bread and butter and they go bust. Looking back a couple of years ago, we lost in a relativity short period of five years, 25% of our indie bookshops.

    When you see books on prominent display in the chains, they have been bribed to do so by the big publishers.

    Small publishers do not get a look in.

    Writers need to take a stand. They need to insist, that if their books are to be heavily discounted, the indie chains get the same deal.

    Paulo Coelho did this a couple of years ago, with the indie bookshops able to offer a deal on his books.

    View story at Medium.com

  4. February 11, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Serendipity and discovery, how to find good books (or good music)? Whose opinion to value?

    Reps from publishers, do not give the time of day, show them the door, refuse to take or return their calls. Their only interest is selling a commodity.

    Book reviews should be ignored too (same applies to film reviews …). Reviewers are usually embittered wannabe or failed writers, mates of the author, or hate the author, have not read the book, or if they have, have failed to comprehend what they have read.

    Personal recommendation is usually bad too. Most people have poor taste and judgement. But there will be a few, who from experience, you know, you can trust.

    The proprietor of a good indie shop, will be on the shop floor, talking to customers, will listen to what they say, what have they read, what do they recommend, he will be widely read, and so can engage in intelligent conversation.

    The bad proprietor, of a failing bookshop, will be ensconced in his office with publishing reps, always too busy to even he pass the time of day with those who pass over the threshold.

    Serendipity plays a huge part in finding something new, and what is good, one thing leads to another.

    Nothing beats, flipping through a good book, or happening upon a good piece of music.

    View story at Medium.com

  5. February 11, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    What is most depressing about the article, books are reduced to a product, ie a commodity. We could just as easily have been talking about shifting cans of baked beans.

    A bookshop that treated books as a commodity, I would turn on my heals and walk straight out the door.

    Ben’s Records, in Tunsgate in Guildford, is a joy to visit. Why? because Ben knows music, knows his customers.

  6. February 12, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Where I would agree with the writer of this article, what is the point in keep churning out books that are saying nothing new, that are simply regurgitating what has been said before? I would though go further, I would question the need for Christian publishers, even the need for Christian bookshops.

    In Puerto de La Cruz, an excellent shop called Soluciones, books on many religions, books one is tempted to read. Excellent music.

    What is needed, well written, thoughtful, readable books where the writer has something worth saying, and quality indie bookshops where the staff know their books.

    Philip Yancey was greatly influenced by Dostoevsky. When did you last see books by Dostoevsky in a Christian bookshop?

  7. February 12, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    As a bible seller, Does it not say in the bible: “For nothing is impossible with God.”? But yet here you state: “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.”

    This saddens me. Books are created from somebody’s hard work and dreams, they are not just a “product”, to quote Yeats:

    “I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

    I understand that booksellers need to make money, but surely a Bible Seller who understands the he “distributes the very word of god” understands that profit is not everything?

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