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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)

Review – ‘A Glimpse of Jesus’: Brennan Manning

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

I first came across Brennan Manning as the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel. I came quickly to the conclusion that it was worth reading anything by him. I rate him highly.

In my view, his writing is up there with Richard Foster, Philip Yancey and Henri Nouwen, helping us make sense of the complexities and yet the utter simplicity of the spiritual life.

This little book, A Glimpse of Jesus is no exception. This is a small book and it should be easy to read through in one sitting. It’s not. It’s hard-hitting and therefore tough to read. Each paragraph requires thought and invites action. Spiritual writing of this quality is often quite unsettling, challenging as it does our preconceptions and long-held views.

Brennan Manning is a Franciscan Catholic but his understanding of the major Christian traditions is pretty wide-ranging although somewhat centred on his North American roots. He is clearly no fan of the moral majority nor of right-wing Evangelicalism!

Richard Manning came from a dysfunctional family. He became a monk and then took the name Brennan. His life is full of what many would consider to be failings; he was an alcoholic and he experienced divorce. But it is these very ‘failings’ that give his writings both humanity and compassion and which have led him to his main message: ‘God loves you as you are – and unconditionally’.

Read some of it here for yourself, in this, a small flavour of the book:

‘The habit of moralising spoils religion. Personal responsibility to an inviolable moral code replaces personal response to God’s loving call’ p9

‘Salvation cannot be earned or merited but only humbly and gratefully received as a loving gift from the Father’s hand’ p13

‘Christian freedom is the joyful acceptance of (an) unprecedented and scandalous reversal of the World’s values’ p27

‘Christianity is not about ritual and moral living except insofar as these two express the love that causes both of them. We must at least pray for the grace to become love’. p29

‘The love of the Father for His children plunges us into mystery, because it is utterly beyond the pale of human experience’. p45

‘There is a beauty and enchantment about the Nazarene that draws me irresistibly to follow Him.  He is the Pied Piper of my lonely heart. It is not pious prattle to say that the only valid reason I can think of for living is Jesus Christ’. p49

‘It’s a tired cliché, a battered bumper sticker, an overused and often superficial slogan but it’s the truth of the Gospel: Jesus is the answer’. p50

‘The Christian’s warmth and congeniality, non-judgemental attitude and welcoming love may well be the catalyst allowing the healing power of Jesus to become operative in the life of an alienated, forlorn brother or sister’. p65

‘Whatever else it may be, prayer is first and foremost an act of love … born of a desire to be with Jesus … to really love someone implies a natural longing for presence and intimate communion’. p83

‘Why the symbol of the crucified Christ? Because it is an icon of the greatest act of love in human history …the Christian should tremble and the whole community quake when contemplating the cross on the Friday we call Good’ p90

‘With time slipping away like sand in an hourglass, the church has no more urgent priority than proclaiming the values of Jesus, preparing the way for Him, and restraining panic when He appears on the scene’ p101

‘When we ‘put on Christ’ and fully accept who we are, a healthy independence from peer pressure, people-pleasing and human respect develops. Christ’s preferences and values become our own’. p111

‘When the Crucified One says, ‘I’m dying to be with you’ and then whispers, ‘Will you die a little to be with me’? my sluggish spirit is stirred’. p114

‘The cross of Jesus will ever remain a scandal and foolishness to discriminating disciples who seek a triumphal Saviour and a prosperity Gospel. Their number is legion. They are enemies of the cross of Christ … Jesus ministry was a seeming failure, His life appeared to have made no difference. He was a naked, murdered, ineffectual, losing God. But in that weakness and vulnerability, the world would come to know the love of the Abba of the Compassionate One. p139

‘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’ p139

‘If you call Jesus Goodness, He will be good to you. If you call Him Love, He will be loving to you; but if you call Him Compassion, He will know that you know’. p145

In so many ways, this is a beautiful book – in sentiment, content and sheer grace.

Here is the contrast between authentic faith and legalistic religion. If you too have failed, in whatever way, then this is the book for you, pointing you to experience God’s ‘lavish, indiscriminate and unconditional’ love.

A Glimpse of Jesus

Brennan Manning

HarperOne : 2004 : 145pp

ISBN 978-0-06-072447-4

Meditation – ‘It all slowly fades’

June 29, 2010 3 comments

It’s just two years since I had a serious accident. During a sunny summer’s day out, I slipped into a lock from a canal boat on the River Wey near Guildford and broke my arm. More drastically, I had badly damaged the radial nerve which left me with no left hand or finger movement for a good while. It took a lot of skill and knowledge on the part of the medics and particularly the physios to restore things back to some kind of normality.   

'Little did we know that this was the spot where it would all end in tears'?

 

I rarely think about using my arm and fingers now – mostly it all works OK – and I’ve begun to take it a bit for granted. Sometimes when the air is damp I know it’s still not quite back to rights – not just yet anyway. I can vividly remember the time when I seriously wondered if I’d ever be able to use my arm again properly. It didn’t seem to me that it would be possible and yet my surgeon almost called it to the day in terms of the time that would be required for the healing!   

I had a lot of faith in him and, I think, even more in God. I knew that in some way or other, something good would come from this. That something for me may have been to develop a better perspective on life. I was/am guilty of rushing on, always onto the next thing – having a full diary etc. This ‘shock’ taught me to treasure each moment and to reflect with ‘awe’ on the wonder of each minute that we are each given.   

This morning, as I thought about the events of two years ago, I picked up Brennan Manning’s ‘Reflection for Ragamuffins’ (SPCK) and read this;   

Following surgery for prostate cancer, I walked (catheterized) every morning for an hour through our Old Algiers neighbourhood in New Orleans with a new pair of glasses. One vital aspect of the post-mortem life, it seems, is that everything gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and babies, by the mighty Mississippi and the inner beauty of your wife, by the loveliness of a plethora of things. And, of course, it all slowly fades …… (p163)   

I was captivated by this passage and I experienced those same feelings all over again. I don’t want the joy of living and of being alive, of being able to pick things up and move my arm around to ever ‘slowly fade away’. I remain truly grateful and impressed with the body’s ability to heal itself. It’s all so amazing – the miracle for me is that it seems incredible that any of it works at all! We are truly ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.   

And I thank God.

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