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Review – These 25 Books have shaped my spiritual life …

November 12, 2012 3 comments

Over the years I have built up quite an extensive library. Occasionally I’m informed of a potential clear-out coming my way but the threat has yet to materialise! However, if I did have to select my top 25 titles, which books would be the most important for me to keep? 

I’ve thought long and hard and here is that list – these are the books which have fed my soul, impressed my spirit and directed my life as opposed to simply informing my theology.

The main 10 – in order of priority

Celebration of Discipline               Richard Foster                Hodder 

Return of the Prodigal Son           Henri Nouwen                 DLT 

The Wonder of Worship               David McKee                     Faith Mission 

Enjoying Intimacy with God         Oswald Sanders             Moody Press 

Border Lands                               David Adam                      SPCK

In the Name of Jesus                   Henri Nouwen                  DLT

Awake my Heart                            J. Sidlow Baxter               MMS

The Glory Man – Billy Bray            Cyril Davey                      Hodder 

An Unfading Vision                         Edward England               Hodder 

Literature Evangelism                    George Verwer                 Authentic

Those next in significance

Unlocking the Bible                         David Pawson                    HarperCollins

Dynamics of Spiritual Life              Richard Lovelace             Paternoster

Knowing God                                     James Packer                   Hodder

The Church on the Way                 Jack Hayford                      Chosen Books

Wisdom                                               Larry Lee                          Highland

The Life God Blesses                      Gordon MacDonald          Word Books

Circle of Love                                     Anne Persson                    BRF

Ruthless Trust                                   Brennan Manning            SPCK

A Glimpse of Jesus                          Brennan Manning            SPCK

Soul Survivor                                     Philip Yancey                   Hodder

Those too hard to leave out!

Finding Sanctuary                         Christopher Jamison       Orion

Purpose Driven Life                        Rick Warren                        Zondervan

Walking the Edges                          David Adam                        SPCK

Epiphanies of the Ordinary            Charlie Cleverley              Hodder

Soulful Spirituality                            David Benner                     Baker

If you were hoping to find here a Guide to the 25 Essential Spiritual Classics, that book has already been written (25 Books Every Christian Should Read : Harper One : 2011) and is in itself highly recommended. It contains all the major Christian writers from past centuries and has been put together by a specially selected group of advisors by Renovare.

As a personal exercise, why not post here which books are important to you?  What titles would your own list include?

 

Christian Book Trade – It’s time to change the mood music

October 29, 2012 2 comments

Last week the UK came out of recession and into growth, albeit at just 1%. The naysayers feel that we may well slip back again but hey, for the moment even the media is upbeat about the economy.

For me, this underlined how important the mood music is to how we feel about our lives. For as long as I can remember, the Christian book trade has always ‘been getting worse’! We seem to believe that things are ‘not as good as last year’ or ‘sales are not what they used to be’. Now it’s possible that this could all be true but it could also be that we are creating (and believing) our own negative PR and adding to our own gloom. No-one likes to be around gloomy people – or patronise gloomy retailers. Or for that matter read gloomy blogs!

It really is time to change the mood music in this trade. Someone else said last week, ‘This is the new normal, get used to it’. Change is here to stay; trade structures and loyalties are shifting before our very eyes and the way people shop has already altered – just look at the recent Argos announcement.

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a new Facebook group dedicated to the sharing of useful retail tips – and maybe I will do just that. Somehow we must ramp up our effectiveness for the sake of the business and the ministry. There are some things out there that we simply cannot change but we do not have to cower as victims. The Gospel demands that we live our lives with joy, optimism and hope; how much more so when we are in this particular trade.

So how to move on?  Well, we have to accept that, for starters, it’s not all bad. This has definitely become the day of the Indy bookshop, no question. Chains no longer work for all the reasons we know so well. There are many new, vibrant entrants to the trade. This is bringing in new – and hopefully younger – blood, and better ideas with different ways of doing things.

Actually, despite appearances sometimes to the contrary, publishers and suppliers still need the whole retail piece to make their own numbers work. I would hazard a guess that for most product originators, retail still represents c. 55% (maybe more) of their turnover. The balance of power within the industry has substantially altered in recent years; retailers’ are better off, suppliers less so (I know to some of you it doesn’t always feel that way). There is still way too much product out there so retailers can and should use their buying power to favour some suppliers over others – and therefore certain product lines over others. You just cannot buy or stock everything you are offered!

What action can retailers take – practically – to avoid falling sales? Let me sketch out some of the more obvious ways here. Feel free to offer your own as a comment and let’s start a conversation.

Here are my top two observations and recommendations which I believe can quickly impact your sales for the better. You may have to readjust your timetable and your shop to carry these out:

  1.  Re-engage with your local churches and church leaders – but make friends with them first. Even the best of shops can do better in this area. What prevents you from getting out there?
  2. Increase the amount of space given to Children’s books – ramp up your range – stats prove that this is the ONE area in publishing that continues to thrive despite the ongoing shift to digital.

Try these other top tips: 

  1. Become known locally for doing great deals – be flexible – match online prices if you have to. Join the fight-back against the online competition. Badger suppliers into helping with margin. Take a lower margin if you really have to as ‘less margin is better than no margin’.
  2. Stats prove that it’s wise to trade upmarket with card and gift – avoid tat, embrace quality.
  3. Make more use of staff and personal recommendations when speaking with customers.
  4. Keep stock looking fresh. Return stock wherever possible; mark-down stock, dump old stock. Take extreme care with stock levels. Buy wisely. Buy tight. Make sure stock works for YOU.
  5. Engage in positive PR – let your customers know what’s new and what’s happening.  Use social media – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – and make yourself heard in your own locality. Build community. Build links. Do visits. Share ideas. Above all, realise that you are not alone in this trade. Use the Facebook CABP group and get help and advice from others online.
  6. Keep up with digital developments – sign up to KOBO, HIVE and others as yet unknown!
  7. Stay positive and avoid the ‘numbers’ game (bigger, better, more). Be proud of your own calling and work.
  8.  Pray constantly – on your own, with your trustees, with your staff and with your customers.

Maybe together – and ever so slowly – we can change the mood music? Together we should strive to build a vibrant trade sector where we feel proud to be known as Christian retailers. Eschew any perceived downward spiral and stay positive. Don’t despair. Don’t lose heart.

If you really have had enough of the trade, then perhaps you should call it a day because life is too short to be gloomy!

Book Trade – Christian Resources Together 2012: A Perspective

June 18, 2012 1 comment

Almost 300 delegates and over 50 suppliers met together in June at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick for Christian Resources Together 2012. The conference hashtag #CRT2012 reveals a Twitter stream full of pertinent observations, not least by super-speedy-trade-tweeter, Melanie Carroll.

CRT’s latest venue (in 2011 it was held at the smaller Highleigh centre) meant that almost 100 extra people registered for this year’s extremely well-run one-night, two-day retreat, a tribute to the meticulous organising skills of Steve and Mandy Briars.

For me, the most memorable aspect of the two days was the chance to hear not one, not two, but three really engaging speakers:

Mark Stibbe, The Father’s House Trust

Charlie Cleverely, Rector, St Aldate’s, Oxford

Alister McGrath, King’s College, London

The worship for each session – full of the presence of God – was sensitively and powerfully led by Lou Fellingham (Lead singer, Phatfish). Her new refrain to the Welsh hymn, Here is love vast as the ocean, particularly affected me:

Grace takes my sin,

Calls me friend,

Pays my debt completely

Love rescued me

And seated me with my King forever.

Opening the retreat, Mark Stibbe described Borders Bookstores as ‘an icon of a bygone age’! He spoke of the Book-trade facing huge challenges and being in ‘the perfect storm requiring prayerful and careful navigation’.

These points particularly struck me as Mark Stibbe worked through his five key ideas:

Passion – He spoke movingly of his adoptive father stimulating his own great love and passion for reading and writing, by deluging him with books during his youth!

Perspective – ‘There are never enough books to contain the wisdom of God’, ‘the Christian bookshop is an outpost of heavenly wisdom in the midst of a land of barren ideas’ and ‘we are in the business of the Kingdom and not the kingdom of business’.

Partnership – ‘All parts of the trade need the other’.

Proactivity – ‘We need not to be reactive but to breakout … Christian bookshops have immense value … the Starbucks founder talked of a third place, not at work or at home but of somewhere just to hang out … Bookshops can offer that sense of the presence of God … Indy’s can thrive again … we need a creative business model’.

Pliability – Stibbe especially recommended Jim Collins, ‘From Good to Great’.

‘No man can be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books’.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On the second day, Charlie Cleverley was the guest devotional speaker and commenced with ‘God has not yet finished with the printed book’!

His latest book is about God-appearances: ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’ (Hodder Faith).

Charlie’s theme was ‘regaining vision’. In visions become realities. The vision of how good God is drives mission: ‘Grant unto me a vision that changes everything’.

In Revelation, John saw the heavens open. He saw the Divine. In Exodus 34, Moses boldly asked God ‘to show him His glory’ and Ezekiel wrote down the vision that he saw: colour, flashes and lightening, an awesome sight. On Patmos, John called the Church back to its first love. When we behold God’s glory, it will refresh and restore us.

Cleverley moved on to talk about stillness and discipline: Stop – Look – Listen. The discipline of living in the presence of God – not activism but contemplative prayer. He quoted Nouwen and Fenelon (Be silent and listen to God) and embarked on a tour of some of the great mystic writers of the Christian tradition.

He spoke about ‘being Charis-mystical’, of seeing the Lord and of the Prayer of Quiet. Then … of being stilled, of union and communion and of spiritual ecstasy. To be on fire with devotion. Of the patrimony, the inheritance of God.  He encouraged retailers to so strive to hold resources in our outlets that will enable people to ‘see’ God.

Alister McGrath was the final speaker. It was a privilege to finally get an opportunity of listening to such an important theologian and apologist.

McGrath is author of the best-selling The Dawkins Delusion (SPCK) and he commented first on the Diamond Jubilee of Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis, 1952); the 60-year spiritual impact of which since publication has been ‘simply colossal’.

McGrath moved on to discuss the development of the New Atheism kicked off by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins in 2006. Ironically the public debate had rekindled interest in God and, as a result, it’s now much easier to talk about faith and spirituality. There seems less enthusiasm for the new atheism, which indeed seems to be fading, but there remains in society a lingering interest in who God is and in the ‘Big Questions’.

Finally, Alister complimented all that was being done through Christian resources. His theme for the remainder of the session was ‘Building a vision of God, the Gospel and of who we are’. He drew our attention to Isaiah 6 and the need to refresh and renew our vision of God.

McGrath concluded by stressing the absolute constancy and faithfulness of God. God is utterly trustworthy even in the midst of much change.

Click here for a comprehensive report of the #CRT2012 industry awards: the People and Products.

Next year, Christian Resources Together will again be held at The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick on Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th April 2013.

Christian Book Trade Meditation: Be encouraged today

March 9, 2012 3 comments

Be encouraged – even when it seems tough.

Christian Bookshops can sometimes be lonely places in which to work. Lots to be cheerful about but occasionally we can get disheartened. I’d like to encourage you in your work today. That book or card or piece of music you’ve just sold has the most amazing potential – with the power of the Holy Spirit – to change someone’s life. You have no idea!

Be encouraged.

Recently, I’ve been amazed – and myself encouraged – to read and hear so many accounts of people being helped, turned around, challenged and faced with the truth of the Gospel by a particular Christian book or Daily Reading booklet. Sometimes its surprising which title is involved but this only goes to remind me that this is God’s work, not ours.

Multiplied many times over – all around the world today – the same is happening with so many items of Christian material. You are part of an incredible and powerful worldwide ministry. None of us can ever know this side of eternity the eternal impact our work will have for the Kingdom of God.

Be encouraged.

As you read this, let me pray for you right now:

‘May God through His Holy Spirit anoint your work today and bless you in all that you do for Him’.

The Bible provides this compelling perspective of the purpose of our work:

‘But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name’. John 20:31.

Be encouraged in God today.

Book Trade – A Tsunami of Bookshop Closures

January 28, 2012 15 comments

It has felt like a tsunami of bad news of late with so many Bookshop closures. The UK has lost 26% of its Bookshops since 2006 (over 400 outlets according to the Booksellers Association) and many of these are Christian Bookshops. This decline seems to be quickening with various shop closures announced almost weekly. Even the once-invincible Christian chains have succumbed, weighed down by high central costs and slow decision making: Scripture Union, The Church of Scotland, SPCK, Living Oasis and now Wesley Owen. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the future belongs to a well-run and nimble independent sector. Have we simply gone full-circle?

The whole sorry saga of these closures came home to me as a bitter blow when I heard of the closure of Wesley Owen on Park Street in Bristol. This was originally the venerable ECL shop where I had cut my bookselling teeth in 1980 under the watchful eye of dear Alan Maynard, God bless him. The ECL Bookshop was originally opened in 1852 by Bristol’s famous George Muller and the building is still owned by the George Muller Charitable Trust.

I wrote on Twitter this week:

Sad times – iconic and memorable homes of Christian Bookshops have disappeared: Wigmore St London, George St Edinburgh & now Park St Bristol’.

Let’s remind ourselves of why we do what we do. My esteemed ex-colleague, Steve Bunn replied on Facebook:

‘What powerful ministries these stores and their dedicated workers had; there will be many when we get there (heaven) who will have come through their doors’. 

Our trade urgently needs the rationale for a new approach. The bulk of Christian bookshops, developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were a response to what God was doing in the wider church. They embodied a strong pastoral thrust through staff with a vocational calling. Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic. They are seen as disconnected from the Church and overtaken by changes and events in wider society.

It’s fashionable even amongst some Christians to decry and downplay the significance of Christian Bookshops but, make no mistake about it, where these shops have closed, they will be missed.

I believe that if Christian shops are lost from the High Street, it will be impossible to replace them. 

Yes, I accept that we do need to pose some important questions – what is God saying and doing today? What does the Church want? Where is the new market for resources? How does digital affect sales and delivery? Can we sustain the passion to remain as Christian ministries on the High Street? And if so, how?

Is there still a place for a Christian Resource Centre on the High Street? In my view, emphatically YES. Would a local community be worse off without a Christian presence on its streets? Again, emphatically YES. However, I accept that some ministries may need to be repositioned to serve God’s purposes today and we may need to build a new expression of Christian retailing through which to develop new local relationships. 

We need a fight back. We need to show why selling Christian material on the High Street has never been more important. Closures are insidious. They weaken all of us across the entire trade. It’s bad for Churches, it’s actually worse for our culture – Christian values should be at the heart of society, plain for all to see. It lessens the availability of prayer and pastoral advice in the community, it damages the visibility of Christianity on the High Street and it severely diminishes the reach of suppliers.

I know of what I speak. For Publishers’ to survive they need markets. They must maintain their print runs and they need a sales network. Already print runs are falling and sales (and margins) are simply not being replaced by the Internet or via digital networks. Gradually, publishers are recognising the magnitude of the problem that shop closures are creating. Just where is the required volume of replacement sales going to come from?

That elusive balance of mission and business is constantly shifting. The line continually needs to be recalibrated. My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material. We may have strayed too far into the territory of mammon and lucre.

It’s not too late. Publishers can still support the Indy’s and what’s left of the Chains. I remain a retailer at heart. I’ve worked for a distributor and a publisher but always with a retailer’s instinct. Other publishers too are doing their best. Consistently, Lion Hudson and IVP have won accolades for their support of the trade – and deservedly so. To my mind, the mantle of the original OM STL has transferred to IVP. They have built on that all important sense of deep concern and support for the ministry of Christian literature. CLC continues to plough a steady and significant furrow in UK retail.

It’s not too late for all suppliers to give retailers a better deal. Sometimes it’s more about their tone, not discount. Some give lip-service to supporting shops but go headlong and unfairly into chasing other markets. Retailers aren’t stupid, they know when they are being strung along and unjustly treated.

As I was contemplating this post, I listened to this moving song by Don Moen. I feel it’s apt for our present situation:

‘You are brighter than my darkest night, stronger than my toughest fight
Just one touch from you my King, my Friend and I’ll never be the same again’. 

 Soli Deo Gloria

Book Trade – is News Corp a ‘Fit and Proper’ entity to be a Bible publisher?

November 1, 2011 1 comment

Last evening, a bombshell exploded in the worldwide book trade with the announcement by HarperCollins in New York of their proposed purchase of Thomas Nelson USA (Publisher of Billy Graham, Max Lucado and the New King James Bible).

This is astonishing. News Corporation already owns Zondervan (the Publisher of the New International Version, on licence from Biblica USA) and HarperCollins (the Publisher of the Good News Bible).

I, for one, am not hugely keen on the news that an ethically discredited NewsCorp may shortly own two major USA Christian publishers; Zondervan & Thomas Nelson; thus – incredibly – making Rupert Murdoch the largest Christian publisher in the world, in control of many of the major English translations of the Bible!

I believe, in the light of the phone-hacking scandal here in the UK, that NewsCorp is not a ‘fit and proper’ entity to control such a major percentage of English Bible translations. To me, this is extremely worrying.

As John Duncan said on Facebook today;

 ‘By my reckoning this now makes HC owners of the companies that produce the NKJV, a large percentage of the KJV (both Nelson and HC), the NCV, the NIV (US editions), the GNB, the ESV (UK editions), and some NRSV – rather a lot of bibles, really’.

Christianity Today reported in September 2010 that:

 ‘The American Bible Society says there are 32 translations on the North American market, while Christian Book Distributors offers over 50. BibleGateway.com offers 23 English versions’.

Whilst this is true, CBA USA figures indicate that the list of best selling Bibles by unit sales in 2010 is actually a much smaller group of translations;

    1. New International Version
    2. King James Version
    3. New King James Version
    4. New Living Translation
    5. English Standard Version
    6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
    7. The Message

Make no mistake; News Corp may soon control the majority of the bestselling English translations of the Bible. In this list, the only independent translations are The New Living Translation (Tyndale), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (Broadman and Holman) and The Message (NavPress).

I have known and worked with good people in all of the companies mentioned above and I have no wish to cause offence but this seems to be a rather perilous and serious state of affairs. Thomas Nelson is a privately owned USA company – maybe the owners will see sense and reconsider the sale.

2 Corinthians 2:17 states; ‘Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God’.

These are salutory and hard words indeed for all of us working in this industry.

Book Trade – Reflections on the UK specialist wholesaling model

October 29, 2011 8 comments

TMD’s announcement this week of its imminent withdrawal from wholesaling for UK publishers came as no surprise. The surprise to me is that it’s been able to carry on as long as it has.

Even at the height of STL Distribution’s involvement with wholesaling, it was incredibly cash, stock and shelf-space intensive. The breakthrough for STL in those early days came when it moved into trade distribution (starting with Kingsway) and began to develop its own extensive retail infrastructure. Without those two elements, in my view STL may not have survived beyond the 1990’s.

In the late 19980’s, STL tried to emulate the likes of Gardners and Hammicks. Now the competition is even fiercer with Amazon taking on a quasi-wholesale supply role within the book trade. It seems crazy that it makes sense for shops to buy from Amazon and receive better terms than from publishers!

The retail sector has to take its own share of responsibility for the difficulties experienced by suppliers in recent years. Too often shops use their distributors as bankers – by not sticking to agreed payment terms and by often paying late. This has had a rolling, detrimental and destabilising effect across the whole trade putting a lot of pressure on companies’ cash flow.

For TMD to concentrate on its American lists makes a lot of financial sense. These are usually high margin transactions, with stock often placed on consignment and a much healthier impact on cash management.  USA Publishers can afford to throw greater margin and to slightly increase their already high print runs for sale to the UK market. One negative effect may be to further accentuate the already disproportionate USA / UK title balance on display within UK bookshops. 

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ behind the TMD decision is the hugely shrinking pool of retail outlets for suppliers to sell into. The UK market has lost a very large number of shops in a relatively short period of time. There is simply much less shelf space to go around. There is just not as much business to be had. Everyone involved is ‘competing’ for less space on shelves and seemingly for fewer customers. TMD do not own their own outlets as STL did and so the vertical integration model does not work for them.

I’ve said elsewhere that I wish CLC Wholesale well. However, I remain unconvinced that they can pick up the slack due to two reasons; (1) their remuneration policy which mitigates against being able to attract enough competent and professional staff (no slight whatsoever intended to existing CLC’ers, all of whom do an amazing job in often difficult circumstances) and (2) the need to significantly widen their stock holding policy at the wholesale warehouse level. If these points are courageously and urgently addressed, then the chance still exists for CLC to fill the current vacuum and grow their own market share considerably.

This is now such a seriously changed landscape; one in which specialist Christian trade wholesaling may possibly have had its day.  Like so often in life, we’ve gone full circle from a viable wholesale model – brilliantly pioneered for this market by the likes of Raymond Stanbury, Daan van Belzen and Keith Danby– to again buying direct from Publishers with all of the built-in inefficiencies and additional costs.  C’est la vie!

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