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Book Trade – Church House Bookshop, Westminster, London

August 13, 2014 Leave a comment

An award winning Bookshop set at the heart of National and Church Government.

Church House Bookshop - external view

The recently refurbished Church House Bookshop, situated near Westminster Abbey in London is a delight to visit. It’s bright, light and airy with high ceilings and distinctive semi-circular metallic feature windows. The deep red armchairs are inviting and the book range is both wide and deep, reflecting a broad churchmanship whilst understandably and rightly centering on its historic Anglican market. I spied a signed copy promotion and a number of well stocked promotional tables.

Church House Bookshop is just off the main tourist drag, adjacent to the Church House conference centre in Great Smith Street and right opposite the Department of Education. The shop began life in 1936 as an Anglican library and resource centre, and then branched into bookselling as a Book Room in 1946. Mark Clifford, now of Sarum Books was a previous manager. Since 2006, the shop has been owned by Hymns Ancient and Modern and is part of the Norwich-based company that publishes the Church Times. In these uncertain days, it’s good to visit a shop with a secure and stable future, located in an important part of central London, particularly now that so many of the larger city centre Christian outlets have closed.

Church House Bookshop - Interior

I met with Aude Pasquier who, amongst her company responsibilities, oversees the shop. Aude joined HA&M in 2011 from DLT and SPCK. Events are increasingly important and the team look after the Greenbelt shop and are involved in their own Bloxham ‘Festival of Faith and Literature’. The shop is the ‘public face of HA&M’ but is left very much to its own devices.

This is a destination shop for a market comprising clergy and church professionals, teachers visiting the DOE, civil servants from the nearby Ministry of Justice and a tiny, mainly elderly local community. Thursday and Friday are the busiest trading days, Thursday being publication day for the Church Times. Opening hours are often extended for the synods and conferences held next door at Church House (the legal link between the two ceased in 2006).

The shop statistics are impressive: a five member staff team with over 60 years of bookselling experience between them (Hatchards, SPCK, Wesley Owen and Mowbrays), a turnover in excess of £750k per annum, and the appealing summer 2013 refit at a cost of £70k. The challenges facing the shop are two-fold: remaining competitive on price and availability and keeping the ‘right’ range of titles in stock. Good links with their own Norwich warehouse ensure that customer orders can be turned around quickly.

Michael Addison, Sales & Marketing Director at HA&M says,

‘Whilst Church House Bookshop has a wonderful, loyal customer base – we are doing what we can to broaden this out … especially to a younger audience at events’. 

Church House is an outstanding bookshop with an evident and proud commitment to range bookselling.

Church House Bookshop - Interior

This article was written in early June for publication in Together Magazine (July to August 2014).

Book Trade – No one has to visit your bookshop today to buy a book

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

The seminars at London Book Fair are often tucked away in an obscure location but are worth seeking out. Perusing this year’s programme, I noted the ‘International Retail Seminar: The Bookshop of the Future’. Sure enough, the room was tortuous to find and when I did so, it was absolutely packed with booksellers … from Sweden. Then I caught the beaming face of Dave Lock from Manna Christian Centre, Streatham across the room – and relaxed!

London Book Fair 2014

Ably chaired by Philip Jones, the insightful editor of The Bookseller, three retailers from Europe, Asia and the USA shared their thoughts of the physical bookshop of the future. This was a fascinating session; wide in scope and exceptionally positive in its view of the sustainability of bookselling. The session explored the current rebirth of the bookshop. It underlined clearly that physical bookshops continue to have a future. Viability remains possible. This positivity obviously comes with caveats. The ‘shopping experience’ model as advanced by these three speakers is unlike much of what we know today. Changing the way we have always operated is a given, as customers will no longer put up with either mediocre service nor second-rate shops.

Sion Hamilton, Retail Operations Manager of Foyle’s London, spoke of his work in delivering one of Europe’s largest and newest bookshops, which opened on Charing Cross Road in June 2014 (pic below). He highlighted the importance of making physical space work for your business and of the imperative to learn from the customer. Hamilton stated that providing storewide public WiFi is a growing customer requirement. Without it, they will go elsewhere.

Foyles Charing Cross 2014

Hiroshi Sogo is Director of Kinokuniya Bookstores Ltd, started in Japan in 1927 and with shops now across Asia and the UAE. He commenced by saying ‘real bookshops still exist‘, stressing that establishing viable bookstores remains eminently do-able. The key to Kinokuniya’s success is ‘events, events, events’. For Sogo, ‘Big Data’ alone is not enough. Human interaction remains at the heart of the business: In-store hospitality, politeness and customer care are a must.

My top ‘take-away’ of the day came from Steve Bercu, President of the American Booksellers Association and owner of the Book People in Austen, Texas. His photo-session was an eye-opener; a testimony to an amazing business full of extraordinary energy and remarkable innovation; in short, Bookshop Theatre. Events, festivals, school fairs and birthday parties all help to provide the opportunity to extend the brand and grow the business. Interestingly, he maintains that store blogs should be used to promote books, not the company.

Buried within Bercu’s presentation, given at breakneck speed, was this one telling but vital truth, ‘No one has to visit your bookshop to buy a book today’. We have to earn that custom.

Ask yourself – Why should anyone decide to visit me today?

This article was written in early June for publication in Together Magazine (July to August 2014).

Book Trade – ICRS, American Christian Publishing and UK Distribution

June 29, 2014 2 comments

A view from CBA’s International Christian Retail Show 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia … Evangelical Christian publishing in the USA is clearly not in great shape …

After a gap of well over 10 years, I returned to what I knew as CBA, now called ICRS, and was shocked by what I found. This was the 65th anniversary of the show but it’s a shadow of its former self. The rump of an industry that once covered several exhibition halls rivalling the Frankfurt and London book fairs, is now reduced to a few aisles in a single hall easily covered in one day.

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To me, the booths were smaller, the visitor numbers lower, the aisles seemed quiet and the delegate ‘buzz’ felt decidedly restrained. However, products did appear a little less ‘trashy’; perhaps suppliers are more focused as a result of the downturn.

ICRS Atlants 2015

Such major industry shrinkage is salutary.  Publishers Weekly reported this year’s attendance as ‘flat’ with 3,722 delegates (against 3,739 in 2013), 1,520 of whom are classed as ‘Buyers’. To put this year into context; at CBA’s 50th anniversary only 15 years ago, there were over 15,000 attendees!

ICRS 2015

What has happened since the heyday of CBA in the late 90’s, when the turnover of American Christian publishers hit $3bn?

Well, for one thing, the States are now a vastly different place to that of even five years ago. Evangelical churches are haemorrhaging numbers especially from its younger demographic. Churches are extremely exercised by how many young people are leaving. Barna Research suggests that 61% of ‘once churched-youth’ are now ‘spiritually disengaged’.  Politically, evangelicalism is not the force it once was (for good or ill, depending on your point of view), and as Philip Yancey observes in his forthcoming book, ‘Vanishing Grace’, American evangelical Christianity find itself on the back foot culturally.

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The largest Christian product market in the world is clearly struggling to make the numbers work. This year ICRS was held in Atlanta, and next year in Orlando, Florida (28 June 28 – 1 July 2015). But where then? Those close to the decision-makers predict a much reduced fair with a smaller and possibly more relational format. A reinvention along the lines of the UK’s CRT event would seem sensible.

The plus point is that ICRS presents a really good networking opportunity and continues to work for the international community. I counted well over 20 Brits present in Atlanta and there were a good number of other nations represented. The weather’s better as well!

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Several US houses were celebrating their own special anniversaries this year:

Baker Publishing Group; 75 years, Send the Light Distribution; 40 years, Harvest House; 40 years and Gospel Light; 80 years.

American Christian Publishing and UK Distribution

One publisher told me the talking point of the convention was the distribution situation in the UK.  US Christian publishers are in a state of considerable flux following the recent  upheavals in the UK, with the demise first of STL and more recently of TMD. Distribution infrastructure is therefore hugely reduced, and many US publishers currently find themselves without a home.

Those left – IVP, CLC, Marston, Norwich and JTD – have only so much capacity and the days of easily finding a UK distribution partner are gone. This is a disrupted market and likely to remain so for a while. What to do?  Ingram and Send The Light Distribution have been a good ‘second string’ for UK retailers for some time. This solution is likely to develop further, pulling in an even wider range of shops. However, for US publishers this is not the best solution, as it does little to satisfy their very real demand for wider title visibility and full range availability.

In the UK, distributors and wholesalers are still scrambling to cope with the continuing disruption caused by TMD’s closure. It’s unrealistic to take out around £2-3m of USA turnover from the supply chain and expect everything to sort itself out in a few weeks! In my view, the current situation has a long way to run, and it could be well past Christmas before anything remotely resembling stability returns. I sense that this approaching autumn sales period will be very challenging indeed. I further suspect that some well known American names will not actually find a home in the UK.

This market has changed so much in such a short space of time. However, let’s not kid ourselves as even in the TMD days, too much imported product was already chasing far too few buyers. In some ways, the new non-exclusive model of distribution may only make matters worse, resulting in a false sense of security. More product is being brought in, but the danger is of larger unit numbers simply sitting on even more UK warehouse shelves. These arrangements are unlikely to solve the broader problem. Traditional retail has contracted and online retail is far more demanding of the supply chain.

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At the same time, we are experiencing HarperCollins Christian’s introduction of their New York mandated 360-supply programme, requiring that their Christian titles (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) are sourced via the Glasgow warehouse. Those of us with longer memories will remember something similar from some while back; a move which resulted in the then HarperCollins Religious titles moving to Carlisle due to Glasgow being unable to cope! The jury is out on whether this will work again second time around. For our niche trade, with its requirement of the long tail of titles, especially from the Thomas Nelson Bible range, somehow I have serious doubts but I’m willing to be proved wrong. Anyway, it’s yet another piece of unhelpful trade disruption for bookshops and their customers to navigate at a time when all of us need as many sales as possible.

What does this all mean for the trade, whether publisher or retailer? In my estimation, further consolidation here seems highly likely, as well as even more upheaval to the status quo. We cannot under-estimate the scale of the unprecedented industry and market changes that we are presently living through. Retailers have been coping with this particular storm for years and now it seems its the turn of the publishing community to feel the heat. At the same time, suppliers have to deal with an increasingly bellicose Amazon demanding ever increased terms for doing business in the UK.

As many readers will know, I continue to remain positive about the future of the printed book despite the onset of digital product. The key risks to print sales rest with quality and content. For the retailer, selectivity is the name of the game, together with an ability to curate relevant books to appeal to a specific customer base. Long gone are the days when retailers, wholesalers and distributors would take everything a publisher produces.

Good relationships with customers, stock availability of key lines and fast, same day despatch are what count now.

The game has changed completely. Marketing and promotion remain the Holy Grail. Title discoverability is key. It is one thing getting a title into a warehouse; it’s another matter entirely to get that same title into the hands of the consumer. This point requires far more attention from all aspects of the trade; the Christian trade in particular has a way to go here. A total rethink to advertising and promotion is required.

I look forward to navigating the next set of rapids that lie ahead. Years ago, I particularly enjoyed canoeing through white water – which is just how the book trade feels at present.

Eddie Olliffe is Consulting Editor for Together Magazine.

Book Trade – New Foyles bookshop opens in London

June 13, 2014 2 comments

Wow @Foyles. A major new bookshop opened in London’s Charing Cross Road last Saturday.

Foyles at Charing Cross Road, London

Now this really is a bookshop! It was still a bit rough around the edges when I was there due to the earlier move and has no cafe yet (this will open shortly on an upper floor).

Foyles London

The range of titles is tremendous, as is the easy access to eight levels.

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If you’ve seen this brilliant new Foyles shop, you’ll appreciate that good bookshops are not dead yet. The shop was heaving at 7pm in the evening with customers buying armfuls of books.

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The Christianity section is good with a decent range of Bibles, but I’m not sure it’s quite as extensive a department as in the previous shop? Anyway, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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A month long ‘Grand Opening Festival’ is due to start this weekend. ‪#‎Foyles107‬

Book Trade: Literacy matters – and Libraries matter too

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Libraries are once again in the news, and not for the most encouraging of reasons. Closures, cuts and low staff morale seem to be the order of the day. Austerity has taken its toll. In that sense, libraries and bookshops have much in common. Both are fighting for the attention of the reading public, both are under pressure, feeling under-appreciated and threatened in a fast-paced and increasingly digital reading environment.

Closure statistics are salutary. 100 libraries are slated for closure this year, plus 200-300 others to be taken over by volunteers, with the inevitable loss of a professional service. One library campaigner was reported in The Bookseller in February as saying, ‘We are in a state of emergency’. Local authorities will see cuts to their budget this year of 2.9%. One library assistant from British Columbia posted, ‘Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague’. That quote obviously resonated as it’s now all over the Internet.

The authoritative Public Library News website states that, since April 2013, 489 libraries (including 81 mobile libraries) have been closed, or are likely to be closed or have already been passed over to volunteers. This disturbing figure is almost 12% of the total library estate of approximately 4,134 libraries around the country. It is just possible that local campaigning may halt a small number of these closures.

Yet this is not the whole story. There is another aspect to this particular soundtrack. The fight back has started. Central government is being forced to listen to a growing chorus of concern. The many thousands of employed librarians and their libraries are an irreplaceable national treasure. Most agree that libraries are vital centres for literature and reading. Libraries – along with most well run bookshops – emphatically have a future, albeit one that may be somewhat different from that which has gone before.

In September 2013, against these current trends, Birmingham City Council opened their flagship 31,000 sq. feet, 10-floor ‘Library of Birmingham’; one of the largest libraries in the world, and built at a cost of £189m. This library houses over one million books, the Quaker Cadbury family’s ‘Bournville Village Trust Archive’, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Manchester and Liverpool have also opened revamped libraries very recently, both projects costing many millions of pounds.

Birmingham library pic

What are the actual facts about libraries in the UK today?

  • There are 4,134 public libraries in the UK (including mobiles)
  • 40 new libraries opened in 2012 and 2013
  • There are 288 million visits to public libraries each year
  • This represents 4,522 visits per 1,000 of the population
  • There are 42,914 computer terminals in libraries, all with library catalogue and public internet access
  • Public libraries lend 262.7 million books a year
  • This breaks down into: 91.6 million children’s books; 116 million adult fiction; 54.6 million adult non-fiction
  • There are 10.3 million active borrowers

(Source: The Reading Agency – accessed 20 March 2014)

The Bookseller noted in a recent editorial, ‘there were 10 times as many library visits last year as there were votes cast at the last General Election!’ These statistics are impressive. Closures are obviously a real concern but these numbers are evidence of very considerable traffic flow in and out of the public library service every day.

The reinvention of the public library – as with the local bookshop – is underway. The coalition government has just reconvened the Sieghart Commission (chaired by a Publisher) to report independently on the English library service, and report back to Parliament later this year. Its remit is to investigate how our public libraries should adapt for 21st century use. The importance of this commission is that its members are widely respected across all parts of our industry. This same group published a report on E-lending via libraries last year; the conclusions of which have been broadly supported, although the Booksellers Association has since expressed well-argued concerns and is requesting certain safeguards for bookshops. One of the newer members of the commission, Luke Johnson, suggests that future library services may well include computer training, childcare and career advice. However, the core activity of promoting literacy and reading must surely continue.

Anyway, why am I writing about libraries in an esteemed journal dedicated to retailing and publishing? Well, for one thing, we each share a common vocation and the deep conviction that books are vital to the health of society, and need to be made available as widely as possible. Speak to anyone, and most will be able to recall their own childhood library. I visited my own local library in the Cotswolds on a weekly basis, taking out a pile of books every time. I came to know exactly what was on each of the shelves, and I was given special dispensation to take out more books than was normally allowed! There is no way that my parents could have supported my reading habit financially were it not for this library. As I write, in my mind’s eye, the whereabouts of those books and layout of the shelves remain a clear memory. My two-year-old grandson has taken up the mantle, delighting in a large pile of children’s picture books on a regular basis. I too have discovered the capers of Elmer the Elephant.

We should all care about the future fate of our local libraries. The library continues to form part of that vital chain in introducing books and learning to future readers. In other words, the future customers of all good bookshops! We have tended to take our libraries for granted. I realise that there are those who see them as an anachronism in an age of the god, Amazon. Governments dislike the expense. The 152 separate local authorities responsible for the UK’s library estate are caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in trying to balance their books, so the easiest option is their closure. This is short-termism at its very worse.

Thankfully, councils have a statutory duty under a 1964 Act of Parliament to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for their local communities. Anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow a book free-of-charge from the public library. Oddly, whilst prisons have the same duty to provide a prison library, this is not the case for schools.

We sometimes fail to realise that for some people, books remain expensive, particularly for the vociferous reader. Affordability of books remains a real issue, especially for young families and other sections of society. Not everyone has sufficient disposable income to spend on books. Why then are we closing so many libraries in the UK and removing this hard won social resource? Like bookshops, once they are gone, it’s next to impossible to bring them back again. Does anyone actually care? Well, yes – many people do, and the Internet is full of campaigning websites indicating significant grass-roots support around the country.

Among these websites are:

www.publiclibrariesnews.com

www.readingagency.org.uk/news      Click on ‘library facts’

www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk

One of the more concerning aspects of this unfolding story is the sheer loss of library staff from the profession. Figures collated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that employed staff numbers dropped 6.8% in the year 2012-13 to 20,302 professionals. Yet library volunteers in the same period shot up 45% to 33,808. For a vital public service this represents a double whammy: the closure of library buildings, and the loss of books and professional staff. The six million dollar question within the profession is whether volunteers are really in any position to run an efficient library service? That particular jury will remain out for some while yet. Readers of this magazine will keep these closures and redundancies in their prayers, especially as many Christians work within the library world. Their profession is hurting in much the same way as in the publishing and retailing world, with the attendant impact of uncertainty and unsettledness on so many families.

I remain as passionate about the future of libraries as I do the future of bookshops. I fully expect both to remain part of our literary landscape. This is one reason why I am involved with Speaking Volumes, a growing charity that exists ‘to help libraries stock good-quality Christian books for all readers to enjoy’.  We work with public libraries, and also libraries in schools, prisons, hospices, playgroups and churches – anywhere, in fact, that books are lent or made available to a wide readership, and we assist by providing 50% of the full price of the books and DVDs.

In April, the ‘Librarians’ Christian Fellowship’, recently re-branded as ‘Christians in Library and Information Services’ (CLIS), appointed me as their next President. I am the first non-Librarian to hold this post, so feel something of a fraud! No matter, I’m a bookman at heart and anyway, I’d always harboured an ambition (unfulfilled) to train as a librarian.

This appointment signals CLIS’s desire to bring those of us involved in books – whether authors, booksellers, librarians or publishers – closer together. To quote ‘The Christian Librarian’ journal, this change of name:

‘Signals to the wider professional world that CLIS is responding to changing times; to the way jobs and work places may be nothing like the work patterns and careers of the past. We have come to this point out of a deep conviction about our calling as a Christian voice in an increasingly secular world’.

This is absolutely a platform upon which I am proud to stand.

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).

Book Trade: Amazon – ‘Industrial scale tax avoidance’

May 9, 2014 1 comment

Unbelievable: Amazon UK have paid just £4.2m tax on £4.3bn of sales, described in the Guardian as ‘Industrial scale tax avoidance’.

Surely the time has come for publishers to stop supplying Amazon? If I owned or managed a publishing house, I would be reviewing any policy that involved selling to them. Some will say that this is totally impractical and unrealistic. I’m not so sure. Many publishers privately say that they hate doing so, but love the sales that come from them and that it is commercial suicide not to supply them.

I am increasingly of the view that publishers are utterly complicit in this unfolding outrage. They have always treated Amazon to far better terms and now, like a drug they cannot stop using, they are hooked on the need for bigger and bigger sales, albeit at higher and higher discounts. These are terms that stock-holding bookshops can only dream about. Only this week, Amazon in the USA are said to be punishing Hachette by slowing down despatches from their warehouse until better terms are extracted.

This situation is intolerable, unethical, unfair and unjust. It is killing the UK High street and wrecking many a local economy. Society overall is worse off as the country receives less and less in taxes. Utter, utter madness and all in the name of speed, price and convenience. It seems perfectly summed up in the phrase; ‘Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Consumers and, I might add, publishers too are sleep-walking into a dependency on this monolithic and monopolistic giant. I hope that they feel it will have been worth it once there is nothing and no-one else left.

The daft thing is that there are some very good alternatives out there, Waterstones, W H Smith, Foyles and the Book People for general books, and for Christian titles; Eden.co.uk and other smaller Christian websites as well as the dwindling band of local Christian bookshops. The current call for a consumer boycott of Amazon is timely. We need to encourage as many of our own customers and friends as possible to join in.

Book Trade: Retailing as we know it – is it finished?

March 16, 2014 2 comments

There has been a slew of bad retail news of late. Legacy retail versus on-line resellers continues to make headlines. As I write this (mid-January), HMV have announced the relocation of their flagship Oxford Street store after 30 years of trading, to a much smaller London pitch. Shop closures persist. Retail – even Christian retailing – can, at times, take on the appearance of a soap opera. This last Christmas was no exception with what had the makings of a good game of snakes and ladders!  Christmas 2013 was far from easy for some on the High street, although December sales overall rose more than 5% year-on-year.

HMV in Birmingham

Clearly major societal changes are gathering speed. I guess we will look back and see that we have lived through quite a revolution; one of those extraordinary times when a significant step change occurs. Newspapers too continue to be caught up in the ‘old media, new media’ debate. This past Christmas saw the annual winners and losers emerging across the wider retail sector. John Lewis, Asos, Next and discounters Aldi and Lidl triumphed, whilst grocer Morrisons and department store Debenhams slipped further, at least in the eyes of the City.  Waterstones, whilst not having a storming Christmas, turned in a credible sales performance ‘slightly down on last year’. This is an unsurprising outcome with Nielsen BookScan reporting that total printed book sales in the UK fell by £98m during 2013.

In the Christian market, Koorong-owned Wesley Owen has now migrated fully on-line. This January, Wesley Owen ceased to exist as a physical brand having made such a notable contribution to Christian retailing over the past two decades. The independent UK Christian Bookshops Blog carried an in-depth piece on the winding up of Wesley Owen.  Birmingham and York were the last two stores to close, completing the demise of the once ubiquitous chain.  A number of high profile Christian bookshops including the Horsham Christian Centre and CLC’s Kingston-on-Thames branch (previously Chapter and Verse) also shut their doors for the final time.

I have long held the view that the failure of IBS-STL in 2009 and its terrible impact on Wesley Owen was entirely preventable; the result of an ill-judged overseas expansion from which it was unable to recover. Without this chain of events, the national chain may well still be trading today. Having been close to the creation of the brand in 1992/93, I obviously lament this outcome, but recognise that the clock cannot be turned back. The SPCK Bookshops chain went through a similar trauma over a comparable period and this too is cause for enormous regret. Many fine, committed retail staff were displaced as a result of these two catastrophic events; a major loss of skills, spirituality and calling to the wider ministry.

And yet – ministry through print and through bookshops continues on a daily basis, often-times unseen and unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how it should be? A verse from the Psalms speaks to this, ‘The Lord will not let you stumble. The One who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord Himself watches over you’ (121:3 NLT). There remain many fine exemplars of Christian bookselling in this country; a good example of which is Faith Mission Glasgow.

Our calling is not primarily to run bookshops or publishing houses but to disseminate the Christian message in such a way as to reach as many people in this country and around the world as possible. As a colleague put it recently,

Lives changed, hearts changed, through the power of God’s word’.

Our ministry is all about distributing gospel content, however that is packaged. Once we understand this, then criticism of those who choose to package truth digitally should cease. Personally, I’m relaxed about digital, as it seems to fit St Paul’s dictum ‘by all means, to save some’. If we keep these aspects of our trade in balance, we will be far less stressed by any seeming unfairness. There has been an irreversible way to how people consume content. No one can change that. Does this reality negate ministry through bricks and mortar? Of course not. In fact in some ways it strengthens it. We are certainly not going to see the complete disappearance of either physical shops or on-street shopping. I remain optimistic. Justin King, the well respected CEO of Sainsbury’s said in a December interview in relation to on-line competition:

On-line is more than a decade old. The truth remains that 96p in every pound is spent by real customers in real shops doing their own shopping’.

Many people and groups remain committed to maintaining a physical High street presence. Don’t believe all you read about digital. Statistics in this area are wildly variable. Independent physical bookshops, run well, with a eye on costs and in partnership with their local community can and do succeed, especially where they are equipped with space in which to provide local services such as debt counselling, childcare etc. New and imaginative ways of providing spiritual care and counselling can be found which, when allied to a good bookshop, can and does make a real difference to that community.

The new Foyles Bookshop at London's Waterloo Station

Together magazine exists to celebrate all that is best about this trade. There is so much that is good. An unbalanced but persistent tidal wave of bad news can knock us off our feet but Scripture exhorts us to ‘stand firm’, ‘to take heart’ and ‘to work whilst it is still night’. These are encouragements to not let circumstances dictate our feelings and deflect us from the joy of serving God through this ministry.

God give me strength’ should be our exclamation, but in a prayerful and positive way!

This article was written in mid January for publication in Together Magazine (March to April 2014).

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 – Memorial to C S Lewis in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, London

November 22, 2013 3 comments

Friday 22nd November 2013 is the 50th anniversary of C S Lewis’s death in 1963; a date he shares with USA President J F Kennedy. A permanent memorial to Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963); writer, scholar and ‘one of the most significant Christian apologists of the twentieth century’, was laid today in the floor of the South Transept at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

C S Lewis: Memorial Stone

The service to dedicate the memorial was uplifting and joyful, a spiritual occasion with shades of a funeral farewell. Hymns were sung which I hadn’t heard since my school days – John Bunyan’s He who would valiant be – a throwback to Lewis’s world of the 1950’s; so all the more significant then that Lewis’s books continue to sell in such volume, and with such wide appeal. The Chronicles of Narnia have sold upwards of 100m copies around the world! Mere Christianity continues as a classic.

The rather pronounced English voice of Belfast-born ‘Jack’ Lewis (taken from his wartime talks for the BBC) was broadcast in the Abbey on this bitterly cold but sunlit November day in London;

Look for Christ and you will get Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair and ruin’.

C S Lewis’s last pupil read a lesson; the service was seamless and beautifully choreographed.  The Abbey was filled with a soft light suffused through the glorious stained glass and with soaring choral music which echoed off the ancient stonework. As the memorial was dedicated, there was a reading from The Last Battle:

Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before’.

The draw for many in this audience was the past Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and a Lewis author (The Lion’s World : SPCK) who gave a short but erudite address. On this occasion he wisely left Narnia alone, concentrating instead on Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Lord Williams of Oystermouth homed in on how Lewis deplored the misuse of language; how he saw it is used to hide from ourselves and to hide from reality.

Our questions fall away; we have nothing to say because we have too much to say.

Rowan Williams noted Lewis’s aversion to the King James Bible which he saw as getting in the way of our understanding. Instead Lewis preferred the Moffatt and J B Phillips translations of the Bible in order to best ‘hear’ the freshness of the text.

The one-hour service ended with a choral anthem based on verses written by C S Lewis and specially commissioned for today’s service. Then the long queue began as almost the entire congregation snaked around the Abbey to view the new slate memorial stone set at the base of one of the stone pillars in Poets’ Corner, engraved with Lewis’s words:

‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’.

Book Trade – Return to the shop floor

November 3, 2013 1 comment

On British TV, Back to the Floor programmes are a ‘must-see’. Viewers watch bosses mix with workers, sometimes culminating in an epiphany of goodwill after their stint at the coalface, sometimes not!  Management Today runs a monthly piece where it sends one of their unwitting writers to spend a day in a workplace. Well, in July, CLC did similarly in placing me for a spot of holiday cover in Guildford.

Guildford is one of CLC’s smaller branches – probably they didn’t want to tax me too much – tucked away somewhat off the main drag. This shop has been trading in upmarket Surrey for many years; first opened by Challenge Literature Fellowship in 1930, and subsequently acquired by Wesley Owen in later years, it was one of the six shops rescued by CLC from the STL Distribution demise in 2009.

CLC Guildford - front

I was really struck by the shop, its history, the staff, customers and the locality. I asked myself, what would change in this community if this shop was not here? This is an unremarkable shop. It’s small-to-medium in turnover and similar to many other shops up and down the UK. But it’s there. And, for me, that makes the difference. Keeping shops open is a particular burden of CLC. Of course, shops sometimes have to close as they reach a natural end point. In this case, the shop is there – and I think Guildford is all the better for it. What about those towns and cities where there is no shop? My contention is that these places are poorer spiritually without such a presence.

Once again I saw the importance of ‘talking up’ Christian retailing – It’s not at the bottom of the resources food chain. Christian retailers can be poorly regarded, even by fellow Christians. I applaud the Waterstones initiative raising the role of ‘Bookseller’ to an enhanced status within their branches. We rightly demand a lot from our shop floor staff, but we need to applaud and encourage them whenever possible.

This entire experience reinforced a cast-iron conviction that an on-street ‘Presence’ is critical to our Christian witness. I came away with this clear challenge to suppliers: Why are you not more supportive? Why do you act as if it doesn’t matter if shops disappear? Now I know these questions can seem subjective. I’m sure that, right now, some of you are indignantly putting pen to paper – but please hear this; this really is how it feels on the ground.

Anyway, to return to my experience of ‘Back to the Floor’. I’d been for a day’s induction as it’s clearly some while since I stood behind a counter. What fun … for me, at least. Although acting manager, Jill may have thought otherwise, she didn’t voice it, not to me anyway!  I’d forgotten so much, but like riding a bike, things came back fairly quickly and I’d actually hand-sold a quality, leather NIV Bible towards the end of that first day. A truly good feeling!

The manager impressed me. She showed sheer tenacity and a real dedication to the job, well beyond the call of duty. There was an incident in the street involving the Police and a couple of ambulances. This was well handled by the staff; they were on-hand, got stuck in and this put the shop in a positive light as a part of their local community. Time and again, I was struck by the dedication of this small team, often with very limited backup. And this doesn’t just happen in Guildford; it happens all over the UK on a daily basis. When you open your shop today, you will make a difference to the people you come alongside.

I found it hard. I found it physically demanding and on occasions, I found it boring! It was the hottest day of the year so far, the till was situated in the front window and it felt like I was being cooked every time I served a customer. I battled to get home on that first day. The trains were delayed due to the rails buckling in the heat and my 30-minute journey took two hours. In the shop, I had a schedule but it was next to useless as everything took far longer than planned. Customers and phone calls have this habit of obstructing the routine! Then there are the practical difficulties caused by having too few staff or volunteers to call on. You’re pulled in so many directions. You’re tied to the till. Having a break and even getting to the loo becomes a logistical challenge.

As you can see, it was all going so well. It got worse. I became irritated by someone using the shop as a library, spending literally hours reading their way through the books. Do you know; they were back again the next day? Oh dear, I knew that I was supposed to be welcoming and caring but in a rather small shop on a very hot day that too was hard. I decided that there are some really odd customers out there; an eclectic bunch indeed. Can I also say with some authority that people buy the oddest of items in the gift line! But there again, we were the one’s stocking them. Oh well …

I was blown away by how technology is now so central to the whole operation. It really is a whole lot easier to run a shop; from mobiles for texting customers to websites for accessing information. In the past this would have taken forever and then the result would probably have been wrong! The sheer immediacy of information was the most striking. There is so much bibliographic help available. PubEasy was a delight to use and I was able to build my order as the day progressed. Then there is the delicious irony of using Amazon as the shop database. Amazon is obviously a double-edged sword but it’s superb for in-store use – providing you don’t show the interface to the customer (as I did) and then spend ages having to explain pricing policy to a disgruntled purchaser! Credit card usage, especially for inexpensive greetings cards, made me smile. The daily cash take is minimal as more and more customers use plastic for even the smallest of purchases. It makes end of day cashing up much quicker and the card companies cannot really lose as they gain from both parties. As purchasing moves on to Smartphones, this too will have an effect on retail procedures.

What did I learn? That I loved working in the shop. Despite what I’ve said, there was an enjoyment of the day and particularly of serving people that you’d have to go a long way to beat. Good people skills remain absolutely key despite the tech. It’s still possible to hand-sell; indeed I think it’s a requirement! I know licensing is contentious but there is something when playing CD’s that does help the sale of music. On two occasions in as many days, I sold music that, at the time, was being played in-store. I noted the strong appeal of fiction. Fiction sells and it’s not correct to say otherwise.  Authentic, CWR, BRF and Lion are each producing beautiful Children’s books, the standard of which is second-to-none and a delight to sell.

To me, the sale of the Bible remains central and deeply fulfilling. The range of Bibles available is extremely good, regardless of version. All Christian shops must concentrate on Bibles in depth as their core stocking statement. At the time, the lack of Tyndale NLT’s was a huge frustration resulting in two almost empty shelves – not good for all concerned. Hodder Faith have a superb range of British text NIV’s in attractive bindings and boxes, although I’m certain an enhanced large print series would be welcomed.

Bible department, CLC Guildford

The necessity of good stock knowledge was rammed home yet again to me. For shops, it’s an Achilles heel and one where we fail so often. We do have to get a whole lot better at this. Basic product training is absolutely key. Publisher core lists are useful but I’d like to see the ‘must-haves’ from each publisher; a smaller selection of titles you simply cannot do without, as core stock lists tend to be way too long. I cannot over-estimate the importance of office-based staff being ‘hands on’ in the shop. It set me thinking – the general market has held a number of successful ‘publisher/retailer swap days’. Why not the same for our niche – and for authors too? Anyone up for it? There’s such a lot we can learn from each other. It’s totally different when you move from the spreadsheet to the till; from theorising about what should happen, to seeing what actually does happen on the ground.

Two stories and I close. Two young foreign students came in. Initially I was fairly suspicious as they took what seemed like ages checking the shelves. I wondered why they were there (shame on me). As they paid, they told me in their limited English – I speak no Spanish – that the two books they were buying were presents for their mothers at home. A pointed lesson not to judge either appearance or motive too quickly!  Someone else came in and told me they’d been healed of a condition through prayer. He was clearly OK now. As he left, he said to me, ‘God bless you’. His words really cheered me that day and I was moved both by the power of blessing and by the power of encouragement. That’s what you and I do, despite the daily challenges. We bring a mixture of blessing, encouragement and presence to our local communities.

Well, what great fun. It had been an age since I’d done this. Anyone out there interested in holiday cover, do let me know – but only if you’re by the seaside! I cannot promise to double your turnover but, on the strength of these few days, I will at least keep the doors open! Oh, and by the way, CLC have asked to return but funny this … I’ve not been given a date yet!

This article was written in early September for Together Magazine (October – November 2013)

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