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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)

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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)

Book Trade – Booksellers Association Conference 2013

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Here’s a flavour of the delegate sessions (lifted from my Tweet stream) at last week-end’s very positive Booksellers Association annual conference held over 24 hours at Warwick University, near Coventry, England.

Sunday 22nd September

  • Heading to #BA13 Warwick this w/e. Should be good fun, representing #CLC Bookshops. Trade is on top form after success of @booksaremybag
  • So warm. Like a summer’s day here in Warwick. Actually l think we’re probably nearer Coventry. Good to catch up with old friends. #BA13
  • Great start to #BA13. Warwick is almost tropical. Excellent Bookseller debates earlier: Thx @unicorntreebks @storytellersinc & Andy Rossiter
  • #BA13 ‘Selling’: three fast-paced practical cameos – Effective selling online, Maximising Christmas sales, Promoting books to schools

BA Conference 2013

Monday 23rd September

  • #BA13 underway in Warwick. 250 delegates in conference. Sense of positive energy palpable this a.m. @booksaremybag judged a big success
  • #BA13 68% of people prefer to discover books in physical shops. Discoverability is key. Need to place emphasis on physical environment
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop environment – more sofas, cafe/coffee/wine, singles night, in-store book clubs. Employ best people you can
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop loyalty is created through having good staff. Important to have an ability to sell without hassling customer
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Amazon is not going away! If you can’t beat them … digital interaction and information gathering is vital in-store
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Keep @booksaremybag going. Use your shop, your window, your counter. Use big bold messages. Not end of the campaign
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Your brand can be defined as what your customers think of your bookshop. It’s their experience of YOU
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Best search engine is you, the bookseller. Curation of stock should be an expression of bookselling skills
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Nielsen:Data suggests that ebook sales are plateauing (consensus emerging). 7 in 8 books still bought in physical format
  • #BA13 Joe Henry/Nielsen: Why people buy from bookshops? Strong evidence of impulse purchase. 1 in 4 bookshop purchases are pure impulse
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Neilsen: Bookshop strengths: curated stock selection, customer ability to browse stock. Note scepticism of online reviews
  • #BA13 Miriam Robinson/Foyles: Onus should be on bookshops that empower customers to do discovery for themselves, not spoon-fed reviews
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: 60 shops across Ireland. Books equal 50% of turnover. Challenges of past 5 years; economic + trade volatility
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: Changing the face of Irish bookselling. New shop design implemented in Cork and Belfast. New bright colour scheme
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: In an Internet age, range is no longer the key selling point in-store, it’s now all about relevance to the customer
  • #BA13 Bill Bryson closing keynote: It’s a great chance for me to say thank you to booksellers. Keep going and don’t quit!
  • #BA13 Thanks to @BAbooksellers for an excellent conference; full of warmth, great information & practical advice

Bill Bryson closing #BA13

To sum up – as I posted on Facebook yesterday:

‘Just back from a brilliant Booksellers Association conference in Warwick over the weekend. Good to spend time with Melanie Carroll and John Keble amongst others. Good energy and a positive buzz, much of it down to the very good ‘Books are my Bag’ Saatchi campaign. People are now talking about AA (after Amazon) i.e. in the the sense that Amazon, digital and ebooks are a reality and here to stay so we need to get over it, move on and go for the sales that are still there for those who are adapting in order to do business in the new environment. It’s now very clear that whilst Amazon is not going away, neither is the independent bookshop sector. The evidence of the weekend is that we are a hardy lot! I agree with Melanie that it would be good to see more of our Christian colleagues at the event. Sometimes our niche works against us and makes us look like we inhabit a religious ghetto. I learnt a lot and was very glad I attended’. 

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)

Book Trade – Photo Report from the CLC UK Conference 2013

June 1, 2013 1 comment

Around 60 CLC workers from the UK bookshops and Alresford wholesale warehouse came together in mid May for three days of spiritual refreshment and ministry planning. 

Eddie Olliffe leading a morning session at High Leigh

Conference was addressed by Carlos Cunha of CLC Portugal; an inspirational and passionate retailer switched on to social media and in connecting with his local community.

Carlos Cunha of CLC Portugal

#Holymoments CLC met against a backdrop of serious economic pressures but when the pressure is on, reliance of God becomes more apparent. There was a wonderful sense of the Spirit of God in the place, the presence of God was so evident and prayer permeated the conference. This tone was set by each of the speakers and there was a real sense of unity and missional purpose.

Neil Wardrope, International Director of CLC

#Faithstories A strong feature of the conference were the international reports from Portugal, Austria, Spain, Canada, the Caribbean, Bolivia, Colombia, Indonesia, the Philippines, PNG, Swaziland, Liberia, Kenya, the UK … and more; Challenging and inspirational when you hear how others struggle, often against extraordinary odds to get the message out. In particular, Sierra Leone where the CLC shop reopened after many years of conflict and, Liberia with a return to Monrovia after 15 years of war.

Break out session for coffee

The main speaker was former CLC and WEC missionary, Patrick McElligott, author of ‘On Giants’ Shoulders’ His ministry was practical, funny, powerful but winsome. He called for ‘a sustaining vision in our work, to look up and see the Glory of God and not to look down and see the problem’William Mackenzie of CFP closed the conference with the text; ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms‘ (Deut 33), reminding us all that this was true ‘whatever our circumstances’.

William Mackenzie of CFP

As I left, I mulled over in my mind; just what drives CLC? I’ve concluded that it’s a blend of faith, prayer, committed people, a mission purpose plus a love for God and a clear calling. To be at this conference was a humbling experience.

Amanda Lutes of CLC

CLC’s is an important ministry which is facing the reality of change courageously and creatively. It recognises that its ministry is in no way finished as its takes steps to shift its focus from simply selling books to distributing life changing content around the world.

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