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Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

Blessing (2)

DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

Deep calls to Deep

DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

George Muller

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

good shepherd

HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

Hilda of Whitby

JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

Jesus without Borders

POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

Pope Francis

THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

978-1-4964-0531-9

THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

TTTEM lion

WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

Where is God

Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

10 to Note 40 days 40 bites10 to Note Footsteps of Jesus

In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

10 to Note In Gods hands10 to Note Love so amazing

Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

10 to Note Miracles10 to Note New Rules

On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

10 to Note On rock or sand10 to Note Presence encounter

When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

10 to Note When God breals in10 to Note Wisdom House

This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Autumn 2014

September 28, 2014 2 comments

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

EAGER TO LOVE

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love10 to Watch - Gatecrashing

GATECRASHING

A remarkable book and a content-rich ministry title from one of the UK’s newest publishers. Gatecrashing is the account of the ‘24-7 Prayer Ministry’ as it has developed on the non-stop party island of Ibiza. This book deserves to do very well and is well worth stocking in some depth.

10 to Watch - Growing up socialHeartLioness_cover

GROWING UP SOCIAL

OK, so how long do you spend on a screen these days? For children, the statistics relating to screen time are astonishing. Gary Chapman (of 5 Love Languages fame) and Arlene Pellicane look at ways in which families can ‘remain relational’ despite the continuing impact of technology. A timely title.

HEART OF A LIONESS

A moving testimony of a life lived with ‘sacrifice, courage and relentless love’ among the children of Uganda. Irene Gleeson or ‘Mama Irene’ describes an incredible journey of faith which led eventually to Africa and to her work for justice and child advocacy. A strong cover; this should do very well.

10 to Watch - Journalling the Bible10 to Watch - Killing Lions

JOURNALLING THE BIBLE

Spiritual Journalling is becoming increasingly popular. Corin Child, a Norfolk vicar and the vice-chair of ACW, demonstrates some creative ways to help engage with this spiritual discipline. It’s practical, easy-to-use and includes 40 ‘road-tested’ writing exercises. This surely is the type of book that cries out for effective hand-selling!

KILLING LIONS

There are not many books out there that appeal to younger men. Bestselling author, John Eldredge has teamed up with son, Samuel to explore what it means to be young and male in a western culture. Here is a series of meaningful conversations between a father and son. A fascinating topic.

10 to Watch - Play through the Bible10 to Watch - Running into No Man's Land

PLAY THROUGH THE BIBLE

Hurrah – it’s the sequel to Bake through the Bible which I just loved! Here are stories and activities for 20 weeks of games, crafts and play with young children which explore the Gospel of Luke. Described as fun and messy, obviously just right for a grandparent to buy for a grandchild, I think!

RUNNING INTO NO MAN’S LAND

The well known World War 1 poet, Woodbine Willie was not a soldier, but an Anglican chaplain who won the Military Cross for bravery. This account of his life is beautifully written, each chapter is engaging and it deserves to reach out to a very wide audience. Thought-provoking and well timed.

10 to Watch - Surprised by Scripture10 to Watch - Vanishing Grace

SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE

Not another Tom Wright, I hear you say! Described as ‘thoughtful and provocative’, here is a collection of sermons and talks that seek to show how Bible principles can be applied to pressing contemporary issues. It’s sure to sell well, so you’ll need to extend your shelf space yet again for Professor Wright!

VANISHING GRACE – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD NEWS?

Journalist and popular writer, Philip Yancey asks why the church tends to so often stir up negative vibes in our society. Here he poses the question, ‘How is Christianity still relevant in a post-Christian culture’? Yancey is one of the best writers of our time, with his books already regarded as classics.

Killing Lions John & Sam Eldridge Thomas Nelson 9781400206704
Eager to Love Richard Rohr Hodder Faith 9781473604018
Journalling the Bible Corin Child BRF 9781841017365
Surprised by Scripture Tom Wright SPCK 9780281069859
Running into No Man’s Land Jonathan Brant CWR 9781782592655
Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey Hodder Faith 9781444789027
Heart of a Lioness Irene Gleeson Authentic 9781780780474
Growing up Social Gary Chapman Moody Publishers 9780802411235
Gatecrashing Brian Heasley Muddy Pearl 9781910012093
Play through the Bible Alice Buckley Good Book Co. 9781909559196

This article was written in August for publication in Together Magazine (September to October 2014).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Reflection – Iraq, ISIS, Islam and Saint Francis

September 27, 2014 3 comments

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love

Hodder Faith recently sent a reading copy of Richard Rohr’s latest book, Eager to Love. In fact, I selected it as one of my ’10 to Watch’ titles in the September/October issue of Together magazine.

Eager to Love is not a difficult book, but it’s far from an easy read. Words tend to pop up and shout, and phrases seem to have specific resonance for a given situation.

I read this during the massacres and genocide of Christian and other religious minorities across the Middle East and was stopped in my tracks by one very short 4-page chapter, ‘Entering the world of another’, a timely cameo of St Francis of Assisi and his two-week visit to the Muslim Saladin in Egypt.

The record of this extraordinary encounter in 1219 between the apparently powerless Christian monk and the all-powerful Islamic ruler sends a clear echo down through the centuries of just how costly it is to ‘love your enemies’.

Parallels between the nine Crusades and now in our own day, ISIS, are plain.

Reading Rohr’s words, it seems a case of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. He writes of how Saint Francis spoke at great personal cost against the Crusades, telling the Christian soldiers that ‘this was not of God’. Rohr comments on how the Sultan honoured Francis for his courage, sending him away with his protection and a gift of a prayer horn, which to this day is kept in Assisi.

St Francis’s view of how the Christian Church, in supporting the Crusades, actually caused the greater sin of damage to the wider principles of the Kingdom of God is one for us to ponder again for ourselves.

Today, in returning violence with violence, do we once again negate the values of the Kingdom? Good writing has the ability to challenge our assumptions and make us more thoughtful people.

Hodder and Stoughton – 9781473604018  – Published 14-Aug-2014 

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 – 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: 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 – 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)

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