“The short-sightedness of helping an industry cause its own collapse is staggering.”

I spotted this on the Times online, an ad in the header of last Saturday’s article about Christian bookshops, The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street:

The short-sightedness of helping an important industry to cause its own collapse is staggering.

"The short-sightedness of helping an industry cause its own collapse is staggering" — Frank Pope

It’s an excerpt from an article about overfishing of bluefin tuna, which begins:

Two weeks ago a single bluefin tuna sold in Japan for a surreal £111,000. The price of this fish, which ends up in the best sushi restaurants, will carry on rocketing so long as the tuna population keeps plummeting.

It struck me as remarkably apposite for the book trade too: not just the Christian trade, but the wider trade. This week we’ve been having a lively debate about the pros and cons of publishers promoting Amazon in their advertising: A Polite Request to Christian (and other) Publishers: Please don’t do this; and I’m delighted to say that the Evangelical Press, whose posters gave rise to the discussion, have acknowledged their gaffe and apologised.

But I still find myself looking at Amazon askance as publishers seem to cave in to their ever more extortionate demands, supplying them at terms that allow them to sell at below trade or wholesale prices. Did someone forget to put up the warning sign: “Do not feed the troll”? Or are most publishers really that short-sighted that all they can see is the immediate sale and not the long term future?

Of course, it’s not just Amazon and the publishers: it’s the buying public. I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who wander into my shop, tell me how much they enjoy being able to look at a book before buying it — then promptly go off to purchase it online. Hello? Wakey wakey, people: how long do you think your local bookshop will survive if you treat it as nothing more than a showroom for Amazon?

There are notable exceptions, customers who call in, tell me that they know they can get a book cheaper online but they appreciate the service I provide; my thanks to them: you know who you are, and I salute you.

Then we have the rise of the ebook. They still occupy a relatively small sector of the marketplace: I’ve yet to see more people on the train with their ebook readers out than with paperbacks; but with Apple’s rumoured iTablet on the horizon, the tide may be about to turn and all those books we’ve buried in the sand may be sucked out to sea, where, with the bluefin tuna, they’ll be fished to extinction.

Or if not to extinction, to the point where they’re so rare that the only bookshops left will be like those top sushi restaurants, selling paperback books for £111,000…

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8 thoughts on ““The short-sightedness of helping an industry cause its own collapse is staggering.”

  1. Very well put, Phil..
    I, by the way am simply an enthusiastic reader of books written by fellow christians,and generally am a book-lover… but have a friend who owns a bookshop (king of kings oldham) and he has an ‘amazon page’…so you’re buying from him, but the book is delivered to your door..could this be a wise compromise for those folk who really do appreciate being able to shop online?…or are there disadvantages?…
    Incidentally I tend to go to the bookshop, either his, or more recently WO Manchester, as for me and I suspect other customers, it is not just about buying books..WO manchester is an oasis of peace in the middle of the big city, and a place where I can positively ‘feel’ church happening..and this may be what christian bookshops need to do to survive, be church too….cafe, soft seating, prayer room, meeting space info hub..for the wide church to come and meet, cross fertilise etc…i have a sense that this is what God is blessing…..

  2. I have a real struggle over how I feel about everything. By that I mean I just don’t know how I feel. I think back to the changes in the music industry over the last 25 years and can see some parallels.

    25 years ago there was a strong network of independent record shops across the country – places with incredible product knowledge, passion for their product and that often served their niche (two that stay with me was a great ‘indie’ record store in Wigan and the Classical Longplayer in Canterbury – that I think still survives). First, the chains came in with discounted prices – the rise of Virgin Megastore and HMV – that cashed in on the rush to replace records and tapes with CDs with lower backlist prices than the indies could afford.

    Then, in the last decade a mixture of downloading and on-line retailing (with Amazon being part of this as well) started to affect the business efficiency of those stores. Virgin was sold and rebranded as Zavvi before closing down last year.

    However – the music industry has survived, and even thrived, in the online world. Small artists can set themselves up, produce music to sell and give away. The local music scenes are thriving and more people are earning a small living playing music than ever before. Niche music festivals (jazz, folk, blues, opera etc) are all growing – I know some musicians who exist by earning as much as they can playing festivals all summer, and then gigging two or three times a week October – April.

    The changed in the music business have been painful, difficult, have taken a long time and have still not settled down. A lot of people have lost their livelihoods along the way – especially in the supply sector. Once invlunerable powerhouse record companies are now looking shaky (EMI almost went bust in 2008), and are less willing to take a risk investing in an unknown, as more people are bypassing as both creators and consumers. I miss the local specialist retailers where you could spend an afternoon looking through the stock and listening to them. But in some ways things have changed for the better – there is more access to potential customers for those who are doing the creating and people have realised they don’t need to be signed to a major label and playing on GMTV to ‘make it’.

    Whats are the parallels for Christian pulishing – I don’t know. But I do know that all things are in God’s hands, and that changes are painful. I also know, and I hate to admit it as someone who is a publsher at heart, that even in every bookshop and every publisher stop doing business tomorrow that authors will find a way to get to readers.

    • Hi Ian,

      I get what you’re saying and yes I agree with much of what you say – this is indeed a sea-change of great import that has left many of us feeling adrift and unsure of where we are and where we are going.

      I’m not done yet (and I know you aren’t too!) and I like that you chose specialist music shops as the parallel, because although it is true most have gone as you point out not all have.
      Music has changed but it hasn’t been killed or even killed off all the indie shops and specialists – but what many of them did need to do and have done is to redraw themselves!

      I know this because in the Market with me is ‘Lincoln’s oldest independent record shop’ – sure it’s only been in the market for a little over a year, before that there was a high street shop, but with changes in rent and also in the trade it had little seeming choice but to close it’s doors.
      But Ben instead re-addressed traditional thoughts and decided to move into the market instead!
      is it working? – well so he tells me, and given my own experience I can believe it.

      I know another indie music business that is based in Louth (a regular customer of mine, it’s great to share thoughts and idea’s with other indie business in trade’s different but with much overlap in experience, it can really help support and encourage at times) and they too have gone through the mixer, when BigW Entertainment went down the music industry was hit in the same way as the christian booktrade was with IBS-STL, (indeed even harder as they did go into full administration without a step-in, think Bertrams troubles for bookseller timelines). All supplies for most indies ceased to move and there was a giant whole. So they had to redraw themselves in line with this, find new avenues and suffer through the initial damage this caused along with all the other knocks the music trade had already suffered given the internet, downloading etc. This wasn’t a short term impact, just like with our trade it had long term impacts to viability etc.
      But you know what? they moved into some new markets more, focused on some add on’s and moved down the street to a different shop for obvious but surprising reasons.
      John tells me the changes they have made, the redrawing they have done, is working well for them.

      Here’s an interesting fact that maybe can be good news for us too even though it’s not related to our trade, Vinyl is on an increase in popularity! and not just old vinyl – new releases are now being done in vinyl too!
      Also they both tell me that people do still want CD’s despite downloading etc.
      There is a tangible difference between owning and digital file and owning a physical product we can look at, touch, show to others.
      It’s a possession thing – tangible items prove our worth, our cache.
      May not be in keeping with the christian creed but it is nontheless a totally human thing back to the dawn of time – possession is 9/10’s etc.

      Also – sure it’s disheartening (okay killingly painful may be a more apt discription) when people come into the shop, look at the book, bring it to the counter and ask me is the price on it correct (the rrp) and then say they can get it cheaper online or through a publishers mail out (even when I’ve offered them a 10% discount where feasible) and go away.

      Here is where maybe the arguement has to go to the publishers as they are the ones causing this to an extent with the terms issue. This is something that needs addressing.

      But you know at shop level, well perhaps we need to look at how we can be part of this online thing to help contribute to our running funds, perhaps collaboration and affiliate discussions are needed more?

      The point is people do want to go places and look at product so there will always be a ‘want’ for shops, the problem is we need to educate that the ‘want’ has to be a ‘need’ and this can only be fulfilled by use and support. Go Local to Go Global & use your local shop initiatives need to be pushed.
      I have a few new signs in my shop pointing out about Local, about our websites, but also one reminding people that ‘the 1p secondhand book on Amazon is actaully £2.76 – do the math!’ Sometimes people just need a reminder.

      So what does all this say to me, especially the music trade comparisons?
      That we don’t give in and lose heart, that yes there are and will still be losses, but that we can redraw ourselves, but mostly that we probably need to realise that these things mean changing our opinions and attitudes first if we want to be there.

      The choice is ours in sailing this sea-change, do we look at the clouds, watch the waves and work hard on the rigging by adjusting the sails to stay just ahead and get back on track, do we drop anchor and take a chance at our ship making it through as it is and where it is, or do we run to the nearest cove where we hide ourselves away protected by the shelter the cove can provide, hidden from the rest of the wide open ocean.
      All of these are possibilities, and each one is a viable option, the choice is ours.

  3. For once, Phil, I couldn’t agree more.

    It still blows my mind that amazon are able to retail in some cases at prices below the wholesale prices we are able to get. I wish i could simply chalk it up to “loss leaders” that would sooner or later normalize, however Given that our market is firmly in the realms of “niche” I fear it is simply not the case.

    For that reason, I have taken to using the following anecdote when speaking to churches about buying online… feel free to use it yourselves.

    “One of the most common responses I get, from Christians like yourselves, when asked why you buy online is this. We have been called to be stewards of what God has given us, and amazon is cheaper. And that is true. Amazon are (often) cheaper, and we have indeed been called to steward the resources God has given us. However, perhaps stewardship isn’t merely spending less, but investing wisely.

    Have you ever actually tried to buy something on amazon if you don’t know EXACTLY what you want? I encourage you to go home and try this. Put yourselves in the shoes of a new christian, or seeker, who is interested in their first Bible. You know nothing of translations, bindings, etc, only that you want a Bible. So you go to amazon, and search, simply “Bible”. Let’s take a look at what you actually get.

    First, you get “The Holy Bible” at £3.58. No more info than that (it’s a KJV if you’re interested) and a 2* rating. Then a list of confusing links like “New Testament” “Translations” and “Commentaries”. 3 more King James Bibles, An NRSV, A couple of books which are not the bible (both quite good, though they are) and… Just what I was looking for… The SATANIC Bible. Rated 4*… exactly the same as the (first) NIV Bible which immediately follows it.

    That’s right… The Satanic Bible occupies position 9 on the search for “Bible” and an NIV doesn’t appear till 10.

    Amazon, it would seem, would rather you go home with Anton Levey’s satanic work than the most popular bible translation in use today. In fact, if judging by price alone (which many would) the satanic bible is the second most likely choice, on the first page.

    So perhaps, next time you consider going online, ask yourself this. Would God prefer me to spend a little more in a shop actively promoting the Gospel of Christ, or a few pence less on a website which will just as happily sell me satanic books as they would the true Gospel?”

    That realisation has won back it’s fair share of customers recently. We also need to work harder to “add value” to what we do, which is why we are dedicating part of “The Hub” as a missions base. No product, no sales, just a safe, quiet place you can sit down and chat about your needs with our high street mission partners, or us.

    It’s a small start, but one we are excited about.

  4. KINGSWAY –
    I’m putting this here cause I’m not sure where else to put it, has this been flagged and I missed it? For me it fits here as well as in the Stronger Together section and elsewhere.

    You see I recieved my trade pack today – given today is the day that Kingsway go back to self distribution, at least it’s a potential avenue for when they don’t keep the stock’s up at STLD as was happening before christmas and into january, but then again…

    First off, and this is one for anyone else out there that might send such letters, next time when you send me info can you be clear and exact in your communications, so let me know if the minimum order for free carriage is at trade or retail please, because yes there are some suppliers that base on retail and others that do it on invoice/trade value, So it’s kind of helpful to state which model you are using! oh and if you mention carriage can you then let me know what the carriage is in the letter as well so I have something to work with?
    I have had to phone and ask about this one this morning. (For others retailers info it is £55 trade ie invoice value, so that would be about £85 retail if you order books at a standard of 35%).
    Also can you let me know what trade terms we are working with as standard etc, because if it’s trade and I’m getting 35% or 33% or perhaps less on some product etc etc I need to know these things, and it’s helpful just to refresh and clarify the situation, given things are changing.

    Now John and others at Kingsway, sorry but in the letter you ask for us to work with you, and talk of a possible trade partnership scheme, and about much consideration having been given to distribution etc.
    However until you figure that partnership scheme out were you actaully wanting me to come direct to you for my regular weekly orders cause at £55 trade and no extra discount that’s not really going to be worth the extra effort – I might as well stick with STL Distribution were I get the same discount and can make the minimum much quicker!

    Don’t get me wrong I have no problem with you bringing it in house, there are after all time’s in the last two months I have begged for you to supply me direct from Eastbourne and been told NO and lost the sales to you for that reason, when my customer direct to you themselves because you had it in stock, oh and at a discount.

    Now I look forward to the potential trade partnership scheme, but at the minute you seem to have missed a key bit of the equation out here, that is serving me in a way that works beneficially for both of us at the current time.

    Wouldn’t it have been better to be like the tortoise and take it slowly, than be like the hare and race ahead?
    By this I mean could you not have worked out the partnership scheme first(and got your systems set up so that non-book/music product was on the system already as well) so that there was at least some benefit, as at the moment I’m not spotting it – cause the £55 makes it worthless in the instances where I have to get the book in a hurry for a customer or even for just my small weekly top-ups and re-orders, and add in the extra time and effort of dealing with that extra account paperwork at the end of the month and it just makes it practically unfeasible to actually consider using Kingsway as my primary source as it stands discount wise.
    Did you miss the conversations retailers were having on here last year about using one off suppliers and costs?
    I normally argue for using the multitude of suppliers but when it’s a one horse only deal at the same value as the full stables, well then it’s a little harder to see the benefit and argue the case.

    But hey these are just my thoughts on this issue :0) and perhaps I’m in the minority.

    • Just like to say Thank You to John Pac for getting in touch with me directly in response to the above, and for his graciousness in accepting some of the criticism’s raised.
      In the immortal words of BT it was ‘Good to talk’ ;0)

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