Category Archives: Christian books

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.