Why as a bookseller I would be pleased about the CLC/Eden tie up?

The relatively unregarded backwaters of Christian bookselling were churned up (again) yesterday when the leading wholesaler CLC, and Eden.co.uk,  the largest specialist UK online Christian e-tailer announced a shared property deal in Chester.

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So will this muddy the water or make for a healthier environment for all involved in Christian books?

I would suggest that this is a smart move for both Eden & CLC and will have tangible benefits for physical bookshops and their customers. But to see the opportunities that could come from this move require us to lift our heads up and look at what else is happening in the wider swampland of the Christian book world. When we do, we see the choppy waters that exist elsewhere:-

  • We see the changes in media & reading culture with social communities and immediate engagement on new platforms.
  • We see people reading more, but differently. In shorter pieces and different formats.
  • We see the changes in retail of where and how people are choosing to buy their reading material.
  • We see a church resourcing itself differently using new mediums of podcasting, blogging and social media – which aren’t replacing book reading, but they are significantly eating into the time that a lot of people would have spent in books.
  • We see church leaders not recommending books in the way they used to.
  • We see books losing their place as the sole repository for clearing thinking as the world look for an immediate response to issues.
  • With the rise of self-publishing we see the credibility factor of books reducing. (That’s not to say all commercially books are good, and self-published are bad, it’s the rules of the selection game have changed, and it’s more difficult to sift through the pile)

All this means that the visibility of the traditional Christian book is reduced in the eyes of the buyer, so whilst acknowledging the challenges  facing each individual business, the greater challenges to Christian books come from these changes and not a trade partnership between two key players who wisely decided to share a location, minimise their overheads to allow them to be more financially viable and to focus on their key task of selling Christian products.

It will mean that suppliers should be able to improve the availability of products, which will speed up delivery. A new CLC warehouse isn’t a trade panacea, they are a wholesaler not a distributor, so by definition they will still make their stock decisions based on demand, but a new warehouse will give them a capacity they haven’t had before.  It will give Eden a chance (I presume) to offer same day dispatch and access as well to this larger range, which gives them more power to fight off the Amazon onslaught.

The bookshop priorities of building their local community presence, curating their range and maximising the retail experience can only be improved by having a better set up wholesaler who is closely connected to a key retailer. So I hope the trade sees the benefits, and realises that the bigger challenges don’t lie in competition from Eden & CLC but in from wider afield.

 

Ending well & starting again

January 2014 was a really strange month for me.

There are three bookshops that I have been deeply involved in that closed their doors for the final time on January 11th. These were the remaining 2 Wesley Owen shops and CLC in Kingston which I opened as Chapter & Verse in 1995.

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So for the first time ever in my working life I won’t be directly responsible for a physical retail store, and the first time for nearly 20 years I will not have a Christian bookshop under my wings.

I have deeply mixed feelings, I feel so sad for the staff whose jobs and ministry are ending, I feel for the regular customers, especially those for whom the shop is an important connection point with people and faith. I feel for the town as yet another shop is emptied and I feel for the wider trade as it grapples with a changing world. Yet somehow I don’t feel sad for the business itself.

In this rapidly changing culture and retail environment this type of commercial Christian operation has had its day. We watched an inexorable and irreversible shift in sales,  to such an extent that sales in my old shop in Kingston in its last year of trading were lower than in its first year over 15 years ago, and had dropped to a third of its best ever sales.   The viable models for physical Christian bookshops have altered, and are based once again around independents,  passionate individuals, churches and charities. These models will need to keep adapting and continually change at a good pace.

We live in a world where the major forces for the future in the book trade are companies like  Amazon, Google & Apple for whom bookselling is not a primary function, but a side show. Books for them are just one of the ways to connect with consumers to further a wider agenda. However these companies are superb retailers; and they have grown dominant and have utterly and permanently changed the book world.  This is retail context that we now live. The UK Christian book trade had its own black swan event in 2009 that altered the structure of the trade and left us even more vulnerable to external forces.

It seems to me there are some questions that need considering, that not only address the challenges of publishing and bookselling,  but also begin to re-frame the way we look at how we write, read and learn.

  • What role do books now play in the life of the church?
  • What role does the church play in the life of books?
  • With changing writing formats and new platforms emerging, where do books fit in culture anyway these days?
  • Christian leaders still read, but more and more of their congregations don’t, very few church leaders recommend books.  Why that disconnect ? And how can that be changed? 
  • Is physical bookselling a viable standalone option?
  • Can the existing trade structure cope with continued decline in overall bookshop sales?
  • How does partnership in the trade now work?
  • Should bookshops form a co-operative to work together more effectively?
  • Should a shop aim to stock a good general range or should they specialise to their local market?
  • How can bookshops build viable financial models?
  • Where should Christian bookshops be located?
  • How can independents capture and use data?
  • What differentiates a shop enough that customers are prepared to make the journey to visit?
  • Is digital going to push print to a point when it is an add-on luxury?
  • How important is being local in social media connected world? 
  • The nature of social connection has changed, what implications does that have for books?

…and these questions just scratch the surface.

For those involved in books, from authors, publishers, booksellers and readers it is important to consider these questions, not just for the benefit of church and trade but because people’s lives are deeply affected by these changes.

When we packed up our final store I took our managers for a bite to eat and to talk about the final week that we’d just been through. Literally our last supper. We talked about the 50 year history of the shop, we told stories of good times and funny episodes, of the people who worked there and shopped there.  When we finished our meal and stood outside, none of us really wanted to be the first to turn away. When we finally said goodbye,  I watched a friend and colleague who had spent over 50 years selling Christian books walk slowly off into his retirement.

I was pleased we ended it together as friends, but so aware of the need for still greater change.

It is time to write the next chapter in the life of Christian books and I suspect the plot will take a very different direction.

Waterstone’s and the Christian trade

So what does the improvements in the Waterstone’s stores say to us in the Christian book trade? We can see the improvements they’ve made, if they continue their development they may win the core book buying customer back, and this is one of the main  problem that  Christian retailers have; not enough of the key customers coming and buying regularly enough (footfall & conversion in retail jargon).

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Waterstone’s operates in a different area of the market with larger, better located and fitted out stores with a commercial approach. The majority of our stores operate in small units, in tertiary locations and with poorer fit outs. So as the enjoyment experience grows in Waterstone’s, it gives our stores more of a problem; that shopping in our stores isn’t fun, stimulating or rewarding. Discovering new titles or authors or finding titles that have been around for a while haven’t been found yet is a critical element in the survival plan for physical bookshops. Which is where the whole of the Christian book trade has to have a pretty open and honest  conversation. We know that when times are tough, retailers tighten their belts and reduce their stock buys to free up cash, then they become more risk-averse choosing to re-order known sellers rather than new or different titles. Which in normal retailing tactics seems sensible, but our context is changing, and the role of the bookshop is changing; if a customer knows what they want, they are increasingly likely to shop around for the best price, which is often perceived to be online more than in their local store, so a self-fulfilling scenario arises as the bookshop then struggles financially unable to match range or prices.

So how about a different approach from bookshops and publishers, and recognise that where the new bookshops excel is in discoverability and person to person contact. So bookshops, instead of playing safe, need to offer product, (in quantity and well displayed) that is new, different and that surprises the customers. So publishers will have to find new financial models that allows retailers to take those risks.

Yes, it will still mean that retailers will say no those books that aren’t what their customers are looking for, and it will still mean that publishers are frustrated by the decreasing volume and proportion of sales through Christian bookshops and look for places where volume and risk-taking are found.

But maybe, we by having that conversation, and trying some new things we may carve out a better future?

Waterstones

It is interesting to watch the developments within the Waterstone stores, and the improvements to the in-store experience. As a book lover the new feel is very welcome, it pulls me in and through the store. I find myself beginning to stay longer and visit more sections of the store. There seems to be a good mix face out and spine-on, more interest points, a greater quantity of recommendations, product highlighting and feature points. So I start to pull books from the shelves,and to browse more seriously. I begin to discover titles and my enthusiasm for these books and this shop rises.

Waterstones shop front

I start thinking about capturing the information about these books so I can remember that I may consider buying them. So out comes the iPhone & happily photo the covers into my Evernote books file already wondering about the ebook price and how much I will save.

But then I stop myself, I know the maths, if I choose to buy these books online, that I discovered in-store, then the store won’t survive. I check the prices on the back…ouch £12.99-£16.99, a quick online price comparison shows that the ebook prices are up to half the physical price, and with my preference  for e-reading (travel, accessibility)  

So here is the next challenge for Mr Daunt and his team. I like your new stores, I love the bookshop experience and I know I need to buy from you to retain this experience, but here’s the problem. My relationship with you doesn’t exist. Yeah, I’ve got one of your cards, (somewhere I forget where), I get your generic emails (yep, they are automatically filed away…unread) but I wish it was better, that you cared more about my browsing and spending. If we are going to get closer then we both need to change our habits, you need to work harder at connecting with me in my local store, make it feel as if I own that store with you, give me more space to sit, read and stay longer, give me free wifi that leads me to your site, give me an offer code that may tempt me to buy the physical book. Work harder at your social media that pulls me into the store…keep giving the new discovery and yes I would buy from you, and I would buy a lot of books, an awful lot.

Today’s right Royal Hoo-Ha

So today is the day when we all go wild with excitement over the Royal Wedding. With wall to wall TV coverage, Facebook & Twitter are swamped with posts about how giddy with joy we are. The bunting is out, street parties are planned and even the sun is shining.

And good for the couple, may they have long and happy life together.

But I just don’t get this national outpouring of emotion around the monarchy. I understand that the role they play in UK society is historical, and history is important, I can rationalise their symbolic constitutional role as useful, especially for tourism. Even though it leads to anachronisms such as the Commonwealth, which unbelievably has 53 countries in it, and the House of Lords, which consists of ex-politicians and hereditary peers, neither of which should have any role in deciding law.

So why do we go Royalty mad when a wedding like this appears? I suppose you can argue that it is just a good news story, a feel-good event in difficult time, an extra day off in spring. But we are going over the top, this national sentiment that is whipped up feels out of proportion to the importance of the people and the event. Seems strange, and slightly concerning to me. it’s as if we have so little idea about a real national identity, that we have to cling like mad to these sort of events.

So all the best to the couple, I’m sure it will be a great day for them, and a lot of people will get a real buzz about out of it. If you don’t mind I’ll watch it on the 5 minute slot on the late night news tonight, and spend the day enjoying a good book.

Cathedrals….what’s the future?

I’m a real fan of cathedrals. I’ve been going to Carlisle Cathedral for several years, mainly as a chorister parent, but it has become far more than that to me, it’s a refuge and an oasis of peace. Evensong is a beautiful way to end the day, and the Eucharist service is full of depth and meaning. There is a committed community of people who work there, run the services, maintain the music tradition, and keep the civic activities and the building alive.

I was there a week or so ago, and looked around during the service, and looking at the sparse number of people there. I was reflecting that there are two types of people connected with the Cathedral. Those that keep these activities going, and those that attend the services, most evenings for Evensong with a full choir, there are only a handful in the congregation, and those attending are at the older end of the spectrum, and are definitely diminishing in number.

I can see a time in the not so distant future where the Cathedral still has it’s choir, it’s ministers, it’s liturgy, it’s civic role but no-one goes anymore, well maybe they’ll be a few of us there, but you know what I mean.  A cathedral does have a different role to a local church, it has connections and opportunities in cities that other churches don’t, but I think that just its history and civic role can keep it going.

And that will be so sad for so many reasons.

Mind you it’s been there for 900 years so I suppose I’d better not write it off yet.

Maybe you should pop in and visit before it …well who knows.

Writing for pleasure

In the last 12 months I’ve spent more time writing than in the whole of the last 20 years combined, having started an MBA and also taken up journalling.

Buying a iPad really helped as it is not as intrusive as carry a laptop around, has made writing simply more accessible in everyday life, with programmes such as Evernote & Dropbox making it very simple to capture thoughts and ideas.

I thought this would lead to a lot more blog posts, but as I’ve written I realised that for me, writing is intrinsically private, it helps me think more clearly, process emotions and learn. Hence this very quiet blog.

There are also so many interesting writers and bloggers out there, that it has made me question why I would want to write publicly. The blogs I enjoy are those that challenge, introduce new ideas or are topical, these bloggers tend to write about subjects rather than themselves, although my favourite writers are those that combine the two. Even this post feels too introspective to me.

With my studies on retail, and my work in Christian bookselling, and I have quite a few opinions on a “trade in trouble”, but being fortunate to be working for one of the most professional and progressive companies in the sector, I don’t want give away the family jewels or come across as patronising, so I’m reluctant to blog in this area. The Christian retail trade need to engage with the harsh realities of retailing, and to win back the hearts and minds of the Church, and on it’s current course it is not going to do that.

So writing has become my new unexpected pleasure in life. I’m so pleased to have discovered it.

Reaping what you sow

I confess, I am a football fan.

Yes I know, please don’t laugh. It gets worse as well…I support my home town club Carlisle United, who are superb at being frustratingly rubbish. So when a World Cup comes around, the hype starts, and the footballistas amongst us get our hopes up, that this time, it will be different.

….and it should be different, we have the Premier League, the most highly rated, highest viewing ratings, money-spinning league in the whole world, it’s full of some of the greatest players in the world. Drogba, Torres, Cech, Tevez.

But it is never different, our national side comes out, chest puffed out, ready to do their duty, but no, we’re plain, boring, uncreative and pedestrian. I think the individual players do their very best, but are ultimately doomed to be not good enough.

Is it possible that this is the problem, in creating the monster that is the Premier League we have sacrificed our national side for the most glamour of the world’s most popular league. We have become the Las Vegas of football…glittering on the surface, but a desert underneath.

We have some good players, but the Premier League relies on creative skiful players from overseas to provide the spark, and that leaves the national side bereft of magic, passion and flair. Now I’m not turning into a Daily Mail writer, and thinking we should only have English players, these overseas players are magical and make our leagues into a wonderful spectacle, and our players aren’t bad.

Maybe we should just recognise that we’ve made that sacrifice, Premier League for the National side, and so quietly withdraw England from any competitions.

That way we’d know where we stood, and wouldn’t have to go through the absolute torture of hope and expectation that get dashed time after time.

The saddest thing is, there is a little corner in me that still believes.

Bullied into buying

I think it would be safe to say that most of us dislike uninvited telephone sales calls to our homes.

I signed up to the telephone preference service (TPS) to ensure that I didn’t get these calls, and I’m pleased that they’ve dried up…mostly. I say mostly, as I got a call last week from a company called Nationwide Energy Service, the saleslady was very insistent that this wasn’t a sales call, that they had a government grant that I could use, and all it would cost me was £99.

Of all the sales calls I have ever had the misfortune to receive, this was probably the most pushy, slick and well-worked of them all. The saleslady had every objection covered, had the ability to talk without breathing, spoke at 100 words a minute, it was like being hit by a sledgehammer.

The irony of it was that the product she was selling, loft insulation, I had already decided that I needed to sort this summer for our home. However, her attitude was so aggressive that there is no way I am going to buy it from them. So I’ve decided to incur this company as much time & cost as I can, knowing they will not get a penny from me. I let their surveyor come round, measure up, quote, and I’m now waiting for the follow up sales confirmation call, which I will say not yet, please call me back in 2 weeks, when I will ask them to call later…you get the picture.  I’ve also reported them to the TPS.

This lot really bugged me, I think because the sales lady really knew how to work the call,

So memo to self….

  • I have a right not to say yes there and then, I can take my time and decide.
  • Someone else’s pressure is their pressure, let them keep it.
  • If someone makes a request, the default position is no, it is much easier to change a “no” to a “yes”, than it is to get out of something.
  • You have a right to be undecided, that’s not a untenable position.
  • I have a right to find out more information and alternatives.
  • I have a right not to be bothered by these people.

So if these guys call you, do yourself a favour and just put the phone straight down.

And if you’re Ashleigh from the Nationwide Energy Service, change your practices now, they are deceitful.

And if you’re the saleslady that called me, then please, please, please, go and find a good use for your quite obvious phone talents…go and join Compassion or World Vision, but stop doing what you’re doing.

The scariest comment for booksellers that I have ever heard….

Last weekend I was attending my first study weekend for an MBA course that I have just started. In amongst the teaching, case studies and introductions was a session with the librarian, who took us through how to use the Stirling University Library facilities. Being a distance learning course, he focussed on how we could access the libraries online books, and with a throw away comment,  he added….

“As as University we buy nearly a million pounds worth of books, journals and reference works each year, and we try and and buy as few actual physical books as possible, we aim to get as many as we can as e-books”.

Most of the other students smiled and nodded, but I sat there as if the world had stopped around me and thought, “my world of bookselling has truly changed irrevocably”.

The implications of this quite logical step for the university are profound. Not only are they not buying physical books, which undermines the logistics of a viable booktrade, they are training a generation to read in ways which will change the face of bookselling. This e-learning generation will learn to default to ipads, kindles & netbooks as their preferred reading method. I’m not saying they won’t read physical books, and that won’t buy the physical books from bricks’n’mortar stores, but I believe that the nature of books and bookselling is changing more rapidly than we ever thought it would or could. As an aside, this is as scary for internet retailers as physical stores, because their primary purpose is to move actual rather than digital product.

As an avid user of the internet, I’ve always known, deep down, how this will change bookselling, but the starkness and reality hit me hard in that simple throwaway comment.

Bookstores will have to be simply exceptional to thrive, they will have to offer their customers an experience they enjoy so much, that they will choose to forgo the ease and price of online reading. This “being exceptional” will be different for different retailers, but will probably include a surprising breadth & depth of stock, being a specialist store, have deep community and customer relationships with loyalty schemes, a local distinctive, and a staff that are totally passionate about their store and the books they sell. These will be the basics, with other things like coffee, college bookstores, and new expressions of bookselling, having seen a really busy little bookshop in a market hall today,

and a mobile bookshop in my own town,  so I believe new types of bookshops will appear.

So what is important to the book trade now is “content” and “the customer”, because the rest of the book supply chain is imploding.

and yes, I will still be buying an ipad this week.