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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.

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Book Trade – Return to the shop floor

November 3, 2013 1 comment

On British TV, Back to the Floor programmes are a ‘must-see’. Viewers watch bosses mix with workers, sometimes culminating in an epiphany of goodwill after their stint at the coalface, sometimes not!  Management Today runs a monthly piece where it sends one of their unwitting writers to spend a day in a workplace. Well, in July, CLC did similarly in placing me for a spot of holiday cover in Guildford.

Guildford is one of CLC’s smaller branches – probably they didn’t want to tax me too much – tucked away somewhat off the main drag. This shop has been trading in upmarket Surrey for many years; first opened by Challenge Literature Fellowship in 1930, and subsequently acquired by Wesley Owen in later years, it was one of the six shops rescued by CLC from the STL Distribution demise in 2009.

CLC Guildford - front

I was really struck by the shop, its history, the staff, customers and the locality. I asked myself, what would change in this community if this shop was not here? This is an unremarkable shop. It’s small-to-medium in turnover and similar to many other shops up and down the UK. But it’s there. And, for me, that makes the difference. Keeping shops open is a particular burden of CLC. Of course, shops sometimes have to close as they reach a natural end point. In this case, the shop is there – and I think Guildford is all the better for it. What about those towns and cities where there is no shop? My contention is that these places are poorer spiritually without such a presence.

Once again I saw the importance of ‘talking up’ Christian retailing – It’s not at the bottom of the resources food chain. Christian retailers can be poorly regarded, even by fellow Christians. I applaud the Waterstones initiative raising the role of ‘Bookseller’ to an enhanced status within their branches. We rightly demand a lot from our shop floor staff, but we need to applaud and encourage them whenever possible.

This entire experience reinforced a cast-iron conviction that an on-street ‘Presence’ is critical to our Christian witness. I came away with this clear challenge to suppliers: Why are you not more supportive? Why do you act as if it doesn’t matter if shops disappear? Now I know these questions can seem subjective. I’m sure that, right now, some of you are indignantly putting pen to paper – but please hear this; this really is how it feels on the ground.

Anyway, to return to my experience of ‘Back to the Floor’. I’d been for a day’s induction as it’s clearly some while since I stood behind a counter. What fun … for me, at least. Although acting manager, Jill may have thought otherwise, she didn’t voice it, not to me anyway!  I’d forgotten so much, but like riding a bike, things came back fairly quickly and I’d actually hand-sold a quality, leather NIV Bible towards the end of that first day. A truly good feeling!

The manager impressed me. She showed sheer tenacity and a real dedication to the job, well beyond the call of duty. There was an incident in the street involving the Police and a couple of ambulances. This was well handled by the staff; they were on-hand, got stuck in and this put the shop in a positive light as a part of their local community. Time and again, I was struck by the dedication of this small team, often with very limited backup. And this doesn’t just happen in Guildford; it happens all over the UK on a daily basis. When you open your shop today, you will make a difference to the people you come alongside.

I found it hard. I found it physically demanding and on occasions, I found it boring! It was the hottest day of the year so far, the till was situated in the front window and it felt like I was being cooked every time I served a customer. I battled to get home on that first day. The trains were delayed due to the rails buckling in the heat and my 30-minute journey took two hours. In the shop, I had a schedule but it was next to useless as everything took far longer than planned. Customers and phone calls have this habit of obstructing the routine! Then there are the practical difficulties caused by having too few staff or volunteers to call on. You’re pulled in so many directions. You’re tied to the till. Having a break and even getting to the loo becomes a logistical challenge.

As you can see, it was all going so well. It got worse. I became irritated by someone using the shop as a library, spending literally hours reading their way through the books. Do you know; they were back again the next day? Oh dear, I knew that I was supposed to be welcoming and caring but in a rather small shop on a very hot day that too was hard. I decided that there are some really odd customers out there; an eclectic bunch indeed. Can I also say with some authority that people buy the oddest of items in the gift line! But there again, we were the one’s stocking them. Oh well …

I was blown away by how technology is now so central to the whole operation. It really is a whole lot easier to run a shop; from mobiles for texting customers to websites for accessing information. In the past this would have taken forever and then the result would probably have been wrong! The sheer immediacy of information was the most striking. There is so much bibliographic help available. PubEasy was a delight to use and I was able to build my order as the day progressed. Then there is the delicious irony of using Amazon as the shop database. Amazon is obviously a double-edged sword but it’s superb for in-store use – providing you don’t show the interface to the customer (as I did) and then spend ages having to explain pricing policy to a disgruntled purchaser! Credit card usage, especially for inexpensive greetings cards, made me smile. The daily cash take is minimal as more and more customers use plastic for even the smallest of purchases. It makes end of day cashing up much quicker and the card companies cannot really lose as they gain from both parties. As purchasing moves on to Smartphones, this too will have an effect on retail procedures.

What did I learn? That I loved working in the shop. Despite what I’ve said, there was an enjoyment of the day and particularly of serving people that you’d have to go a long way to beat. Good people skills remain absolutely key despite the tech. It’s still possible to hand-sell; indeed I think it’s a requirement! I know licensing is contentious but there is something when playing CD’s that does help the sale of music. On two occasions in as many days, I sold music that, at the time, was being played in-store. I noted the strong appeal of fiction. Fiction sells and it’s not correct to say otherwise.  Authentic, CWR, BRF and Lion are each producing beautiful Children’s books, the standard of which is second-to-none and a delight to sell.

To me, the sale of the Bible remains central and deeply fulfilling. The range of Bibles available is extremely good, regardless of version. All Christian shops must concentrate on Bibles in depth as their core stocking statement. At the time, the lack of Tyndale NLT’s was a huge frustration resulting in two almost empty shelves – not good for all concerned. Hodder Faith have a superb range of British text NIV’s in attractive bindings and boxes, although I’m certain an enhanced large print series would be welcomed.

Bible department, CLC Guildford

The necessity of good stock knowledge was rammed home yet again to me. For shops, it’s an Achilles heel and one where we fail so often. We do have to get a whole lot better at this. Basic product training is absolutely key. Publisher core lists are useful but I’d like to see the ‘must-haves’ from each publisher; a smaller selection of titles you simply cannot do without, as core stock lists tend to be way too long. I cannot over-estimate the importance of office-based staff being ‘hands on’ in the shop. It set me thinking – the general market has held a number of successful ‘publisher/retailer swap days’. Why not the same for our niche – and for authors too? Anyone up for it? There’s such a lot we can learn from each other. It’s totally different when you move from the spreadsheet to the till; from theorising about what should happen, to seeing what actually does happen on the ground.

Two stories and I close. Two young foreign students came in. Initially I was fairly suspicious as they took what seemed like ages checking the shelves. I wondered why they were there (shame on me). As they paid, they told me in their limited English – I speak no Spanish – that the two books they were buying were presents for their mothers at home. A pointed lesson not to judge either appearance or motive too quickly!  Someone else came in and told me they’d been healed of a condition through prayer. He was clearly OK now. As he left, he said to me, ‘God bless you’. His words really cheered me that day and I was moved both by the power of blessing and by the power of encouragement. That’s what you and I do, despite the daily challenges. We bring a mixture of blessing, encouragement and presence to our local communities.

Well, what great fun. It had been an age since I’d done this. Anyone out there interested in holiday cover, do let me know – but only if you’re by the seaside! I cannot promise to double your turnover but, on the strength of these few days, I will at least keep the doors open! Oh, and by the way, CLC have asked to return but funny this … I’ve not been given a date yet!

This article was written in early September for Together Magazine (October – November 2013)

Book Trade – 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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