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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)

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Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 4

April 29, 2010 3 comments

Final thoughts

My title for this talk at the LCF Annual Conference was; UK Christian Retailing; Albatross, Dodo or Jewel?  I chose the title because each one of these three images could be used to describe or sum up the Christian retail trade depending on your point of view;

  • Albatross; a large seabird, majestic in flight or as in Coleridge, a ‘burden or encumbrance’
  • Dodo; a flightless bird known only in history; extinct, long gone, utterly dead and finished
  • Jewel; beautiful to look at, highly valued. precious to its owner, ‘the jewel in the crown’

I believe I had a definite calling to what for me is the vocation of Christian literature. For the past 30 years I have engaged in this activity in various forms; as a bookseller, a writer, a distributor and a publisher. I retain a fundamental belief in the importance of maintaining a Christian witness on the High Streets of our country. I therefore cannot but help feel that the loss of any Christian shops on the High Street is a bad thing and I, for one, mourn the recent demise of those that have failed particularly so many of the SPCK shops. This has thrown up fundamental questions as to how the collapse of quite so many shops was allowed to happen in the way that it so tragically did.

My 1992 title is still available on Amazon for 1p +P&P!!

Controversially, I have long pondered whether the separation of Christian bookshops into a specific subset of the wider book trade will turn out in the longer term to have been a mistake? Would it have been better for these specialist outlets simply to have remained part of the wider general bookselling community as it is elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA?  To outsiders, our bookshop names must inevitably seem a little twee and out-of-touch. Does such a separation help or hinder our aspirations for engaging in Christian witness? I still don’t really know the answer to that one.

Many commentators would argue that to be a truly national retail chain, you need at least 600 outlets to be represented in the main towns and cities. No Christian operator has ever come close although at one point in the 1990’s there were probably over 600 Christian Bookshops of some shape or size across the UK, but operating independently.  Those numbers have dwindled and are dwindling still. There is some evidence of new players entering the market year-on-year but, on the whole, numbers of Christian bookshops are consistently down.

Most Christian publishers work today on the basis that there are around 150 – 200 bookshops in the Christian niche capable of carrying out a viable trade.  Interestingly, official figures from the BA suggest this is much higher with the membership of the Christian Group of the Booksellers Association holding steady at around at 400 outlets;  

Year Group No.
Aug-05 Christian 408
Aug-06 Christian 420
Aug-07 Christian 431
Aug-08 Christian 418
Sep-09 Christian 400

Due to its unique history, Northern Ireland remains the strongest market for Christian product when compared to its population size; this region continues to sell more Christian books per head than anywhere else in the UK. In the other regions, Scottish shops are now mostly sited in the Central belt and conurbations and there are virtually no Christian bookshops in Wales outside of the Cardiff area.

In my view, internet retailers will win every time on the basis of price, range and convenience.  If ‘Bricks and Mortar’ booksellers are to succeed in the future, they will have to provide that illusive and intangible ‘sense of experience’ to their customers.  In some respects, that’s all bookshops have to offer but maybe, done well, that’s all they need? The challenge we face today is to ask and answer the question, ‘what should the Christian bookshop of the 21st century look like’?  Is it, as the always-incisive Phil Groom has suggested, best seen as a ‘sacred space’ or will it, as a commercial entity, cease to exist at all, lost as an irrelevance in an increasingly secular world? 

As Phil Groom has pointed out elsewhere, why do we buy expensive coffee in the surroundings of our local Starbucks or Costa Coffee when we could make the same cup of coffee at home far, far cheaper? The answer of course is that we are buying into the ‘experience’ and the ‘sense of community’. Therein may lie the solution to the question-mark hanging over the local Christian bookshop.

This new ‘old’ model using innovative and collaborative local community initiatives is most definitely returning.  Yes, of course you can buy books cheaper elsewhere but if the experience is delivered well, then people will continue to shop with you particularly if you are an integral part of their local community and if, more importantly, their experience of your retail offering is consistently good.  

Nick Page in a blog last year is of the view that ‘average’ is no longer good enough.  If there is to be a future, then the bookshops have to be ‘really good’ and run by people who love books and love selling books. They have to be ‘exciting, memorable, fascinating’ where events are held and reading encouraged. In short, to be successful, this bookshop has to have ‘personality’! 

For me, one striking fact is the high level of quality debate amongst bookshop practitioners today which in itself should encourage us that a new kind of future could emerge. Thanks for sticking with me throughout this 200-year history! I hope it didn’t feel that long and that you picked up some useful thoughts en route. We have a lot to thank those early pioneers in Derby for. I would have loved to have worked in a shop where you answered the phone with ‘Good morning, this is The Derby and Derbyshire Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society, can I help you’! 

Let’s celebrate those 200 years of Christian bookselling in this country. The Christian message of love and hope through Jesus Christ, delivered via whatever format you might choose, still has the power to change lives and circumstances. May God bless you.

This brief history of the ‘Christian book trade in the UK’ is extracted from a lecture given by the author to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) Annual Conference in London on Saturday 24 April 2010. For further information see www.librarianscf.org.uk.

Opinion – UK General Election; Faithworks Statement

April 21, 2010 1 comment

I am indebted to my good friend, Phil Groom for looking incisively – as he usually does – at the Westminster 2010 Declaration. Clearly, as Phil indicates, there is concern amongst other Christians regarding the wording and general thrust of the said Declaration. Good debate is always healthy and I for one have enjoyed reading and appreciating the various arguments.

For my part, I continue to find the Westminster 2010 Declaration useful as I tend to take its general points at face value. I regard it as helpful in terms of highlighting more widely the growing concerns about the continuing assault on Christian values and rights in this country – perceived or otherwise.

There are always two sides to every story. So – for the sake of balance – here is the Faithworks Statement that Phil has mentioned;

Faithworks believes that participation in democracy is crucial, and welcomes initiatives that facilitate this.  However Faithworks will not be signing the Westminster Declaration, as it suggests that government should be chosen according to their responses to only three issues – protection of human life, marriage and conscience – rather than the impact of the spectrum of their policies locally, nationally and internationally.    Faithworks rejects the implicit suggestion that a government who protects embryos, upholds the uniqueness of heterosexual marriage and protects freedom to express Christian beliefs is the government Christians should vote for without first examining their stance and policies regarding education, health care, welfare, poverty reduction, international development and the commitment of the local MP to the community he / she serves.  Faithworks represents 22,000 Christians from a variety of theological and political backgrounds, our theology is inclusive and not imposing, and our purpose is to encourage people to express their faith through serving others without discrimination.  In contrast, the Westminster 2010 Declaration sets Christians up on a moral high ground and implicitly creates divisiveness. It does this at just the time when the church’s morality has been called into question across the world.     

I have a great deal of respect for Steve Chalke and for the amazing work that he does through so many of his organisations around the world. For that reason, I am a torn between the two positions. There is much truth in both statements.

Perhaps someone should try to put the two statements together and reach a Declaration that all Christians can sign up too with good conscience? Maybe I’m just being an idealist and perhaps that is simply impossible. What do you think?

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