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Book Trade – No one has to visit your bookshop today to buy a book

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

The seminars at London Book Fair are often tucked away in an obscure location but are worth seeking out. Perusing this year’s programme, I noted the ‘International Retail Seminar: The Bookshop of the Future’. Sure enough, the room was tortuous to find and when I did so, it was absolutely packed with booksellers … from Sweden. Then I caught the beaming face of Dave Lock from Manna Christian Centre, Streatham across the room – and relaxed!

London Book Fair 2014

Ably chaired by Philip Jones, the insightful editor of The Bookseller, three retailers from Europe, Asia and the USA shared their thoughts of the physical bookshop of the future. This was a fascinating session; wide in scope and exceptionally positive in its view of the sustainability of bookselling. The session explored the current rebirth of the bookshop. It underlined clearly that physical bookshops continue to have a future. Viability remains possible. This positivity obviously comes with caveats. The ‘shopping experience’ model as advanced by these three speakers is unlike much of what we know today. Changing the way we have always operated is a given, as customers will no longer put up with either mediocre service nor second-rate shops.

Sion Hamilton, Retail Operations Manager of Foyle’s London, spoke of his work in delivering one of Europe’s largest and newest bookshops, which opened on Charing Cross Road in June 2014 (pic below). He highlighted the importance of making physical space work for your business and of the imperative to learn from the customer. Hamilton stated that providing storewide public WiFi is a growing customer requirement. Without it, they will go elsewhere.

Foyles Charing Cross 2014

Hiroshi Sogo is Director of Kinokuniya Bookstores Ltd, started in Japan in 1927 and with shops now across Asia and the UAE. He commenced by saying ‘real bookshops still exist‘, stressing that establishing viable bookstores remains eminently do-able. The key to Kinokuniya’s success is ‘events, events, events’. For Sogo, ‘Big Data’ alone is not enough. Human interaction remains at the heart of the business: In-store hospitality, politeness and customer care are a must.

My top ‘take-away’ of the day came from Steve Bercu, President of the American Booksellers Association and owner of the Book People in Austen, Texas. His photo-session was an eye-opener; a testimony to an amazing business full of extraordinary energy and remarkable innovation; in short, Bookshop Theatre. Events, festivals, school fairs and birthday parties all help to provide the opportunity to extend the brand and grow the business. Interestingly, he maintains that store blogs should be used to promote books, not the company.

Buried within Bercu’s presentation, given at breakneck speed, was this one telling but vital truth, ‘No one has to visit your bookshop to buy a book today’. We have to earn that custom.

Ask yourself – Why should anyone decide to visit me today?

This article was written in early June for publication in Together Magazine (July to August 2014).

Book Trade – New Foyles bookshop opens in London

June 13, 2014 2 comments

Wow @Foyles. A major new bookshop opened in London’s Charing Cross Road last Saturday.

Foyles at Charing Cross Road, London

Now this really is a bookshop! It was still a bit rough around the edges when I was there due to the earlier move and has no cafe yet (this will open shortly on an upper floor).

Foyles London

The range of titles is tremendous, as is the easy access to eight levels.

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If you’ve seen this brilliant new Foyles shop, you’ll appreciate that good bookshops are not dead yet. The shop was heaving at 7pm in the evening with customers buying armfuls of books.

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The Christianity section is good with a decent range of Bibles, but I’m not sure it’s quite as extensive a department as in the previous shop? Anyway, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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A month long ‘Grand Opening Festival’ is due to start this weekend. ‪#‎Foyles107‬

Book Trade: Amazon – ‘Industrial scale tax avoidance’

May 9, 2014 1 comment

Unbelievable: Amazon UK have paid just £4.2m tax on £4.3bn of sales, described in the Guardian as ‘Industrial scale tax avoidance’.

Surely the time has come for publishers to stop supplying Amazon? If I owned or managed a publishing house, I would be reviewing any policy that involved selling to them. Some will say that this is totally impractical and unrealistic. I’m not so sure. Many publishers privately say that they hate doing so, but love the sales that come from them and that it is commercial suicide not to supply them.

I am increasingly of the view that publishers are utterly complicit in this unfolding outrage. They have always treated Amazon to far better terms and now, like a drug they cannot stop using, they are hooked on the need for bigger and bigger sales, albeit at higher and higher discounts. These are terms that stock-holding bookshops can only dream about. Only this week, Amazon in the USA are said to be punishing Hachette by slowing down despatches from their warehouse until better terms are extracted.

This situation is intolerable, unethical, unfair and unjust. It is killing the UK High street and wrecking many a local economy. Society overall is worse off as the country receives less and less in taxes. Utter, utter madness and all in the name of speed, price and convenience. It seems perfectly summed up in the phrase; ‘Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Consumers and, I might add, publishers too are sleep-walking into a dependency on this monolithic and monopolistic giant. I hope that they feel it will have been worth it once there is nothing and no-one else left.

The daft thing is that there are some very good alternatives out there, Waterstones, W H Smith, Foyles and the Book People for general books, and for Christian titles; Eden.co.uk and other smaller Christian websites as well as the dwindling band of local Christian bookshops. The current call for a consumer boycott of Amazon is timely. We need to encourage as many of our own customers and friends as possible to join in.

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 – Booksellers Association Conference 2013

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Here’s a flavour of the delegate sessions (lifted from my Tweet stream) at last week-end’s very positive Booksellers Association annual conference held over 24 hours at Warwick University, near Coventry, England.

Sunday 22nd September

  • Heading to #BA13 Warwick this w/e. Should be good fun, representing #CLC Bookshops. Trade is on top form after success of @booksaremybag
  • So warm. Like a summer’s day here in Warwick. Actually l think we’re probably nearer Coventry. Good to catch up with old friends. #BA13
  • Great start to #BA13. Warwick is almost tropical. Excellent Bookseller debates earlier: Thx @unicorntreebks @storytellersinc & Andy Rossiter
  • #BA13 ‘Selling’: three fast-paced practical cameos – Effective selling online, Maximising Christmas sales, Promoting books to schools

BA Conference 2013

Monday 23rd September

  • #BA13 underway in Warwick. 250 delegates in conference. Sense of positive energy palpable this a.m. @booksaremybag judged a big success
  • #BA13 68% of people prefer to discover books in physical shops. Discoverability is key. Need to place emphasis on physical environment
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop environment – more sofas, cafe/coffee/wine, singles night, in-store book clubs. Employ best people you can
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop loyalty is created through having good staff. Important to have an ability to sell without hassling customer
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Amazon is not going away! If you can’t beat them … digital interaction and information gathering is vital in-store
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Keep @booksaremybag going. Use your shop, your window, your counter. Use big bold messages. Not end of the campaign
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Your brand can be defined as what your customers think of your bookshop. It’s their experience of YOU
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Best search engine is you, the bookseller. Curation of stock should be an expression of bookselling skills
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Nielsen:Data suggests that ebook sales are plateauing (consensus emerging). 7 in 8 books still bought in physical format
  • #BA13 Joe Henry/Nielsen: Why people buy from bookshops? Strong evidence of impulse purchase. 1 in 4 bookshop purchases are pure impulse
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Neilsen: Bookshop strengths: curated stock selection, customer ability to browse stock. Note scepticism of online reviews
  • #BA13 Miriam Robinson/Foyles: Onus should be on bookshops that empower customers to do discovery for themselves, not spoon-fed reviews
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: 60 shops across Ireland. Books equal 50% of turnover. Challenges of past 5 years; economic + trade volatility
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: Changing the face of Irish bookselling. New shop design implemented in Cork and Belfast. New bright colour scheme
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: In an Internet age, range is no longer the key selling point in-store, it’s now all about relevance to the customer
  • #BA13 Bill Bryson closing keynote: It’s a great chance for me to say thank you to booksellers. Keep going and don’t quit!
  • #BA13 Thanks to @BAbooksellers for an excellent conference; full of warmth, great information & practical advice

Bill Bryson closing #BA13

To sum up – as I posted on Facebook yesterday:

‘Just back from a brilliant Booksellers Association conference in Warwick over the weekend. Good to spend time with Melanie Carroll and John Keble amongst others. Good energy and a positive buzz, much of it down to the very good ‘Books are my Bag’ Saatchi campaign. People are now talking about AA (after Amazon) i.e. in the the sense that Amazon, digital and ebooks are a reality and here to stay so we need to get over it, move on and go for the sales that are still there for those who are adapting in order to do business in the new environment. It’s now very clear that whilst Amazon is not going away, neither is the independent bookshop sector. The evidence of the weekend is that we are a hardy lot! I agree with Melanie that it would be good to see more of our Christian colleagues at the event. Sometimes our niche works against us and makes us look like we inhabit a religious ghetto. I learnt a lot and was very glad I attended’. 

Book Trade – Photo Report from the CLC UK Conference 2013

June 1, 2013 1 comment

Around 60 CLC workers from the UK bookshops and Alresford wholesale warehouse came together in mid May for three days of spiritual refreshment and ministry planning. 

Eddie Olliffe leading a morning session at High Leigh

Conference was addressed by Carlos Cunha of CLC Portugal; an inspirational and passionate retailer switched on to social media and in connecting with his local community.

Carlos Cunha of CLC Portugal

#Holymoments CLC met against a backdrop of serious economic pressures but when the pressure is on, reliance of God becomes more apparent. There was a wonderful sense of the Spirit of God in the place, the presence of God was so evident and prayer permeated the conference. This tone was set by each of the speakers and there was a real sense of unity and missional purpose.

Neil Wardrope, International Director of CLC

#Faithstories A strong feature of the conference were the international reports from Portugal, Austria, Spain, Canada, the Caribbean, Bolivia, Colombia, Indonesia, the Philippines, PNG, Swaziland, Liberia, Kenya, the UK … and more; Challenging and inspirational when you hear how others struggle, often against extraordinary odds to get the message out. In particular, Sierra Leone where the CLC shop reopened after many years of conflict and, Liberia with a return to Monrovia after 15 years of war.

Break out session for coffee

The main speaker was former CLC and WEC missionary, Patrick McElligott, author of ‘On Giants’ Shoulders’ His ministry was practical, funny, powerful but winsome. He called for ‘a sustaining vision in our work, to look up and see the Glory of God and not to look down and see the problem’William Mackenzie of CFP closed the conference with the text; ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms‘ (Deut 33), reminding us all that this was true ‘whatever our circumstances’.

William Mackenzie of CFP

As I left, I mulled over in my mind; just what drives CLC? I’ve concluded that it’s a blend of faith, prayer, committed people, a mission purpose plus a love for God and a clear calling. To be at this conference was a humbling experience.

Amanda Lutes of CLC

CLC’s is an important ministry which is facing the reality of change courageously and creatively. It recognises that its ministry is in no way finished as its takes steps to shift its focus from simply selling books to distributing life changing content around the world.

Book Trade – Trends in the Wider Market

April 13, 2013 2 comments

Canadian retail blogger, PaulThinkingOutLoud was upset recently by one publisher’s website and its aggressive discounting policy. Writing in his blog – which is well worth following – he saw this as

 ‘Another example of a publisher or distributor bypassing the brick and mortar stores. Although some of this might be legitimate overstock inventory, it raises the expectation of consumers for this level of discounting to be normative, which adds to the discouragement of already battered retailers’.

In another post, Paul writes movingly of competing emotions during the closure of one of his stores. He ends with an appeal to press on towards the goal of in-store ministry.

Do you feel battered by falling sales or emboldened by spiritual opportunity? Yes, Christian bookshops continue to close, footfall is in decline, competition from online is savage and at best support from churches is patchy. Yet we are not always that well informed of current trends in the wider publishing scene. In the same way as what happens in the USA often affects the UK, the same is true of events in the general market impacting the Christian trade.

Wesley Owen Birmingham

Generally speaking, our grasp of the financials on both ‘sides’ is often lacking. Retailers operate on lower margins with high fixed costs (upward only rents, rising business rates – up 2.6% again in April) whereas publishing in the main has higher margins and a far more flexible cost base. Clearly there are worries on all sides and as publishers face lower physical sales, print-runs continue to fall making the viability of mid-list titles ever more tenuous. Many publishers struggle with storing high levels of physical stock, much of which will eventually be written-down. Ironically for publishers, digitalisation represents yet more cost and a growing overhead; this, coupled with falling average cover prices (ebooks sell at half the average price of a paperback: £3.21 v. £6.31).

Our industry is a torrid place. The physical consumer book market declined by 4.6% in value in 2012, with fiction down 4.5% and non-fiction down 6.3% – only Children’s books held steady. The value of print sales slumped by £74m last year. (It could be worse – in Australia their market fell 6.3%). The marketplace churns violently in a volatile landscape; over 200 libraries were closed between 2011/12 and in another sign of turbulence, Cambridge University Press ceased print production on their Cambridge site after 400 years.

Yet 2012 saw the continued growth in digital publishing, social media marketing and self-publishing. Hive became established. Amazon’s Kindle grew faster than ever and a number of other e-readers, notably Nook, Kobo, and Nexus gathered momentum. Controversially Waterstones began to sell Amazon’s Kindle, recognising that they had neither the time nor money to develop their own platform. The Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon came out of nowhere ending the year with sales of £47.3m.

The market for ebooks was revised upwards to £300m late last year and continues to grow, albeit more slowly. Major publishers report e-sales of between 8% and 17% of overall revenue. In November, the ebook agency price probe in the USA and the EC brought a chill to the major houses as they battled against what felt like unfair external pressures. Now ebooks sell for an unsustainable 20p (a marketing idiocy pioneered by Sony) and most slots in the Kindle top 20 are populated by cheap ebooks. Nielsen data suggest that there are 7m UK ebook adopters, with heaviest use amongst ages 35-44, lowest in the under 20’s. However, the BBC reports that just as many UK adults, 7.4m or 15% of the population have yet to access the Internet.

Bookshop closures continue apace with The Booksellers Association figures documenting ongoing decline: down to 1,028 shops (2012) from 1,535 in 2005 – conversely Children’s bookshops are thriving with more opening this year. In the USA, the one surviving major bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble announced after Christmas that they expect to slim down store numbers by a third. B&N have 689 stores currently with 190-240 of these slated to close over the next decade. It’s a widely held view that the holy grail of ‘Discoverability’ is best achieved in a physical bookshop; browsing activity is their USP.

The debate over the future of our libraries is equally as fierce. The UK Government’s Sieghart ebook library lending review is yet to report but author, Terry Deary said recently: ‘Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in the electronic age’. How to win friends! It’s worth noting that the PLR on printed books from library lending is more than £6m paid out to 23,000 authors. The debate remains live as people continue to ask if digital will trounce the physical book or whether in due course it will all settle down benignly?

There’s a lot of anger amongst booksellers towards the perceived lack of a level playing field. Writing in The Bookseller, Charles Tongue of the Stroud Bookshop said, ‘I believe Publishers are blindly colluding with Amazon and the result will be the destruction of High street retailing’. He was widely applauded.

I like Foyle’s of London advertising slogan; This Bookshop Will Change Your Life – no ambiguity there! Earlier this year, Sam Husain, CEO of Foyle’s sent an open letter to publishers arguing the need for better terms (an average of 60%) and increased support (promotional stock on consignment). He stated that the current bookshop model is broken, needing a complete rethink. This at a time as Foyle’s announced eight redundancies. Bravely, Foyle’s and The Bookseller have since conducted a two-day ‘Re-imagining the Future Bookshop’ workshop, held in London, allowing the trade to collaborate on what the bookshop of the future might look like. 

WH Smith continue to do a sterling job in showcasing books but even their sales fall year on year; down 7% to the end of August 2012 and down a further 6% in the 20 weeks to mid-January 2013. Another indication of the parlous state of the High Street trade is wholesaler Gardners sales results which dropped 3% to the end of February last year. Blackwell’s did improve their results last year but remain loss making.

Waterstones is far from being out of the woods with the release of poor results (admittedly pre-James Daunt) showing a £37.3m loss. I wish Waterstones well because if their 290 branches were to disappear from the High Street then it would be a very serious matter, and I might add, particularly for publishers. However, I’m encouraged for two reasons: anecdotally, people seem very warm towards the ‘W’ brand and some are switching their buying away from the mighty ‘A’. The question is, will it be enough? Waterstones iconic branding campaign last autumn was well received and this year it has plans for the refurbishment of another 60 shops.

Waterstones Guildford

My other reason is that when I visit Waterstones, they generally prove to be busy places and people are markedly buying books. It’s just a shame that Waterstones do not ‘do’ Christianity better and with more visibility. On a positive note, I welcome the announcement by Waterstones of the launch of its staff-training academy and Certificate in Bookselling (accredited by the University of Derby); surely a vote of confidence in its own future by a visionary book chain?

Maybe I’m pipe dreaming? After all, Amazon had overall sales in the UK in 2011 of £2.91 billion (on which they famously paid £416m UK tax). They reported Q4 worldwide revenue growth of 22% to £13bn last Christmas! Latest innovations include customer collection lockers in railway stations and newsagents. This is an immensely powerful online juggernaut and our small trade faces a very significant challenge indeed!

Jessops Guildford

Yet I dare to believe that localism can prevail, customer attitudes can change and that people continue to care about their local shops – you must just hope that I am right! The demise of retailers, Jessops and Blockbuster earlier this year followed by HMV going into administration shows just how tough conditions are. Incredibly, HMV was selling 27% of all CD’s and 38% of DVD’s at the time of its demise.

HMV Birmingham

I would echo Philip Downer’s (ex-Borders) comment from last year;

 ‘The old days of Borders and Ottakars will not return … Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook offer are now essentials for Indies who want to stay in business and thrive for the future’

We have to give customers a reason to come to our shops. Why should they shop with you? I was recently handed a forward-dated 15% off voucher for a national (non-book) retailer. It worked. I visited the shop on the stated date, I used my voucher … and I bought far more than I had intended. In the Christian trade we must start thinking more creatively and connecting with customers in a very different way to the past.

CLC London

Church engagement is a hugely important topic that needs far greater attention and one to which we shall return in the next issue. Many shops find difficulty in communicating with ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to the Churches’ own financial constraints. Managers struggle to venture outside their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers have to get back in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.

The days of waiting for a church to contact you are long gone. It’s often a salutary task to record daily footfall and till data – but it may just serve as the severe jolt you need in order to take action?

This article was written in early March 2013 for Together Magazine (April – May 2013)

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: Pressing Issues facing the Trade: The PA Year Book 2011

May 8, 2012 1 comment

Last week the deputy editor of The Bookseller described the Book Trade asBystanders watching a race that began before we were ready’. Is this apt or just plain wrong? He was writing about the global growth of the e-reading market where the statistics continue to astonish and possibly frighten us in equal measure.

The Bookseller postulated in its leader that same week; 50/50 digital-print parity could be with us by 2020. It also posed the chilling question, ‘How many Indie and chain bookshops will remain’

Why such gloom? Well, the Publishers Association had released its 2011 Yearbook, containing all the sales value and unit numbers for last year. You’ll need a strong stomach to read this as for most printers, publishers and terrestrial booksellers it makes for grim consumption. On the other side of that particular coin; for self-published authors and for publishers in the eBook market, particularly in Romance or Horror, the future looks very bright indeed. In 2011, digital accounted for a sharply growing 8% of the book market.

Physical book sales declined 4.8% to £2.9bn but when you factor in the growth of the e-Market (up 55%) at £243m, the overall decline falls to 1.9% (at £3.2bn). This represents the first drop in total book sales in more than three years – not the best place for the industry to find itself. When you take inflation into account, this fall is actually much more serious. We are going backwards, not forwards. Even export sales fell, declining by 3% (£1.2bn). It’s worth noting that exports remain almost a third of all UK invoiced sales.

Sales of print fiction – the largest category of print falling victim to the e-Reader – dropped over 10% in the year, a loss of £57m. e-Fiction popularity grew strongly to £70m but by not quite enough to cover the losses in print. Non-Fiction and Reference also fell (down 4%) but these categories were not compensated at all by additional digital sales. In fact, all print categories declined apart from some growth in School and ELT sales. The value of Children’s book sales fell by 8% on the previous year (post-Twilight).

According to the commentators these are now the pressing issues facing our trade:

(1) The speed of digital migration, (2) the vexed question of ‘discoverability’ (and the related importance of browsing in a physical shop), (3) whether DRM should or should not be embraced by the industry (with strong views either way), (4) the growing dominance of Amazon and (5) the steeply falling price of eBooks online, thus devaluing books in general.

Oh, and it’s raining as well!

Note – the PA figures as published here often differ from the Nielsen BookScan figures for the UK book market. Both are correct but each takes slightly differing approaches when compiling the data – apples and pears spring to mind.

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

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