The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling

The shape of our trade is changing, perhaps beyond recognition for those who still think of bookshops as some sort of quaint cottage industry where dusty tomes gather even more dust on dusty shelves. The reality we’re up against is this: online bookselling with its armchair shopping and lower prices is here to stay. Hiding behind the bricks and mortar of our high street  — or back street — stores isn’t working; and the arrival of the eBook simply adds to the challenge.

The former SPCK bookshops are history, although a few have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes; and even now, as I write, work is underway in Chichester to resurrect the bookshop there: reopening is planned for this Saturday, December 12. Five of the St Andrew’s Bookshops have been split off from the rest of the chain to form the new Quench Christian Bookshops group: will their new emphasis on becoming “a hub for the local Christian community” give them the edge they need?

Wesley Owen is in crisis and we have yet to see which branches will survive: all or just a few? The bigger stores or the smaller ones? All of us are feeling the shockwaves from Biblica’s decision to pull the plug on its UK operations and until the powers-that-be decide in their decidedly questionable wisdom to let us know who the group’s new owners will be, it seems that we can but watch and wait — but is that not what the season of Advent is about? Biblica’s timing in pulling the plug — especially as Keith Danby has stated that they were not forced to do so by their bankers — appears as outrageously atrocious as their timing in implementing SAP here in the UK last year. But what of God’s timing?

And what of the collapse of Borders? Even bigger shockwaves are ripping through the mainstream book trade amidst hotly denied rumours of Amazon planning to open its own high street stores.

What then can we do? Does watching and waiting need to be passive? Last month Matt Wardman posted an outsider’s perspective, a conversation starter, New Ways of Being Bookshop. Just as churches are having to emerge from the ghettoes of Christian subculture, are having to find ‘fresh expressions’ and new ways of being church, so too must we find new ways of being bookshop. Dozens of conversations are emerging across the blogosphere: conversations that we, surely, need not only to be listening to but actively taking part in.

Last year I wrote:

For Christian bookshops profit isn’t — or shouldn’t be — our driving force: we are called be a prophetic presence on the high street, not simply another profiteering one. And for that we need churches behind us, supporting us as part of their mission strategy, helping us to reach out to our communities, to be places where people asking questions about spirituality and faith can make their first tentative steps.

Never, it seems to me, has the time been more ripe for us to be just that: a prophetic presence on the high street. Not an invasive or intrusive presence but a solid presence that says, here is a rock or here is an anchor in the midst of the storm. How we ride out the storm of our crisis with STL — a storm which one publisher I spoke to has likened to a tsunami — will be our testimony to those around us, to the wider book trade as well as to the individuals who visit our stores.

Last year, it seemed as though churches didn’t want to know. One clergyman has even said to me, quite bluntly, that if a Christian bookshop can’t make it as a business then it has no business being in business. I hear what he says — but my heart says he’s wrong. Yes, we need good business sense, we need better sense than we’ve seen behind the scenes with SAP at STL UK, but we also need spiritual sense. As someone far wiser than me has observed, prophecy is not so much about hindsight or foresight: it is about insight. To develop as a prophetic presence in our nation, that’s what we need; and that’s what we now see emerging in dozens of online conversations: church leaders are asking questions about the shape, viability of and rationale behind Christian bookshops — not in order to dismiss but to explore the very real possibilities for missional thinking that our presence presents.

I’ve recompiled my previous index of some of those conversations here, adding a few recent articles from the mainstream media, and I’ll be updating it periodically as further stories unfold. I urge you — somehow, in the midst of all the manic busyness that this time of year represents — to take some time out to read through these conversations, to join in with them, to start your own; and see where the Spirit leads:

Earlier Discussions…

20 thoughts on “The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling

  1. The demise of Borders certainly shows that life on the high street selling books isn’t that easy. I can’t see why Amazon would want to try it given thast we flock to its online presence like lemmings to a cliff.

    But it’s good to keep alive the conversation about how bookshops might be part of a mix of activities that would enable us to have a missional presence on the high street.

    I agree that profit cannot be the driver here – though obviously we can’t be reckless with resources. However, I think we need to identify what the driver is.

    I’ve suggested a drop-in/cafe/art space/book shop/thingy done in partnership with local churches. I’m not sure if it has legs but I’m keen to keep talking about it until someone says it’s doomed!

    Part of my aim for this is generate and strengthen social capital. In light of the closure of Borders, it might also have the aim of generating ‘intellectual capital’ among the population (understood as keeping reading and the discussion of ideas alive), by having reading groups tackling books of all kinds, story telling, writing and publishing workshops for the whole community and not just the church.

    within this general conversation about ideas and telling of stories, there would be a huge opportunity to share the Christian story and how it’s impacted on people’s lives.

    This can happen only if there are Christian books to throw into the mix and a book trade that gets those books from the author’s laptop to the reader’s hands.

    • Thanks Simon. Have just updated my index with links to your more recent posts. Can’t help thinking there must be a book in all of these posts somewhere — just need to make sure there’s somewhere left to sell it!!

  2. Ah, Phil, you’ve put your finger on a key issue for me. Who will publish all the books I want to write once I’ve written the one that I’m struggling to finish for Lion at the moment?!

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  4. “I can’t see why Amazon would want to try it given thast we flock to its online presence like lemmings to a cliff.”

    One possible reason might be that many of Amazon’s purchasers have already been to the likes Borders, Waterstones or even Wesley Owen to look at the product before committing to purchase a title. This includes books they may not have known about before. Finding and deciding on new stuff to read is much easier in a “real” shop. Even with Amazon’s limited “look inside this book” feature, there’s nothing like holding the book in your hand to get a feel for whether you will like a particular author or book.

  5. Our W.Owen is to close in a town [Bedford] where 11% of the population are in church on Sunday. Withut it, some of those of us who do read Christian books might transfer all our trade to Amazon instead of just some [mea culpa].But what of those non-attenders who may want a bible or a book for a Gift occasion and wouldn’t know what to ask for on Amazon if they even thought of going there. No handy access for bible reading notes or Christian magazines either which will affect their viability one would suppose. And all the while, many of those who should be supporting Christian literature shrug their shoulders and say ‘Well that’s the way it’s going I suppose.’ I agree with Simon Jones that the kind of Centre he suggests would be a wonderful asset to any community, but how to put the necessary rocket behind those who might get it going is one of Life’s BIG questions. And for writers like Simon and myself,where is the incentive to write and publish into an empty void. It’s hard enough to get one’s books marketed now but when there is only a virtual market? Perhaps we’ll become ‘virtual authors!’

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    • have posted an indie booksellers response, be interesting to see if it makes it out of moderation!
      If it does’nt I’ll be happy to post it here for consideration ;0)

  8. No _ I was precipitous and today both our posts are there and a response! and it’s good news I reckon!
    Go read the response – here is the first publisher I know of who has really listened and taken on board the points raised and is willing to offer parity with Amazon to us indies on the discount stakes!!!

    Now come on the rest of you – let’s see you match this!
    Or at least up your ante to the kind of level LionHudson do if you are willing to keep taking returns and doing promo’s etc.

    If these publishers can do it surely you all can think about it a wee bit harder and actaully make the step of commitment to fairtrade and parity – maybe even in time for fairtrade week??

      • Sorry! you are correct, but i’m like you and for fairtrade all year.

        For me this includes prompting people to think the issue through fully and see that fairtrade is needed in all aspects of our lives and communities – and not just for coffee beans, tea & chocolate (the ones that are immediately thought of), but for all farmers and for all aspects of trade regardless of firstworld/thirdworld placement.

        The issue of ethics, support and social justice is one we should all think on more, and yes ebooks come into this too, especially when we look at how authors are recompensed, how loss of jobs can be causal etc :0)

        For me O-Books just made a real fairtrade move, even though others may think this lessens what the purpose of fairtrade is – I though would ask you to consider more deeply the real ethics of trade, support and community at all levels.

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