Woolworths, Waterstone’s and Religious Publishing: A Waste of Shelf Space?

UNLIKE WOOLWORTHS UK, Woolworths South Africa (a completely separate company) are still going strong, but recently decided to drop religious magazines as part of a business review. The decision sparked outrage amongst Christian customers, with lots of angry comments and counter-comments on the Woolworths SA facebook wall, which led to a rapid reinstatement of the withdrawn titles. Read all about it:

Closer to home, however, it’s Martin Latham at Waterstone’s, Canterbury, who thinks religious publishing is history:

I’m sorry, Pope, but your visit did nothing for my bottom line. I am looking at unsold piles of papal pap, publishers’ poop. You didn’t even do a walkabout in Canterbury and sample mushy peas at the Turkish chippy near the cathedral. Perhaps if the Pontiff had appeared on “Jonathan Ross” to promote Jesus of Nazareth (his 22nd book) it would not be selling for 96p online. And although our own Rowan Williams is more charming than the “I-vill-ask-ze-questions” Bavarian, the archbishop’s famously abstruse works sell badly too.

The whole Reformation battle has come down to the Unacceptable pursuing the Impenetrable. Even Christ-specific shops flounder. SPCK has gone and the St Paul’s Catholic chain only survives by not paying business rates, and using unpaid nuns at the tills.

He continues in similar vein to the bitter end — The God delusion — but is he right? Have religious publications seen their day, or is it rather as “Christian publisher” observes in a comment, simply that Martin is “just not very good at selling them”? If that’s the case, if as most of us claim it’s more about mission than money — if we want to see Christian books available everywhere rather than only in our sector’s niche bookshops — what advice would you offer Martin to help him get over that hurdle? And what can we do to draw more non-Christians into our own shops — to get those books off of our shelves and into readers’ hands?

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11 thoughts on “Woolworths, Waterstone’s and Religious Publishing: A Waste of Shelf Space?

  1. So what you’re asking is how Christian bookshops can school Waterstones in how to sell books. I love that idea. I just love it.

    I think before we tell Waterstones that they’re “not very good at selling books” and start giving them advice, we probably need to prove that we’re actually good at selling books ourselves. One good way to start would be by, well, not going bankrupt at the drop of a hat – as the man says, even Christ-specific shops flounder.

    Christian bookshops ought to have tremendous commercial advantages over their secular brothers. For one, they’re targeting a focused, niche market and there is often only one niche supplier for that market in a particular locality; they can often call on volunteer staff to avoid paying wages and often also (if based in churches, etc.) avoid paying rent. They really ought to be making a killing – if there were a killing there to be made.

    But they’re not. Maybe they’re not very good at selling books either, in which case I would be hesitant about offering Waterstones any advice.

    Or maybe the market really just isn’t there. That would be bad.

    Or maybe it’s just that the world has changed, people’s bookbuying habits have changed, and brick-and-mortar bookshops are struggling and failing to adapt to new market realities. (Hello, Borders. Goodbye, Borders.) I think this is what’s actually happening. I believe that Christian bookshops – all bookshops, really, but we’re thinking about Christian ones – need to innovate to survive. New business models, new partnerships, new ways of reaching customers – there are lots of exciting things we can be doing!

    Rather than getting defensive over our current situation (which, let’s face it, is not actually anything much worth defending), we should see this as a challenge to up our own game and do something brilliant.

    • Hey Simon — not how, whether: you did notice all my ifs there, didn’t you? And just in case you missed it … it’s about selling religious books, which Waterstones in Canterbury apparently don’t seem to have got the hang of… but maybe someone should ask Martin whether he wants to sell religious books?

      Otherwise, however, agreed. One of the most exciting new business models I’ve seen emerge is that mobile bookshop in Carlisle: anyone heard how they’re doing?

  2. Dear Martin, I just want you to know that you are in my prayers. I have read your article, and I will reply; but at the moment I will hand it all over to GOD because HE is first and foremost my priority, even though I manage a Christian Boookshop here in Jersey, Channel Islands.

  3. Lol – all around really.

    I can in part agree with some of what Martin has said and also see where Simon is standing in his comments.

    Let’s deal with Martin first and his publishers poop – come on the Pope stuff didn’t sell by the bucket load?? – well it’s the same really as buying in a load of Cliff Richards books just because he’s touring the country!! or a load of books on someone because they died! there will be a few that buy them but the vast bulk of people have a tad more discretion than to buy in what he calls publishers poop!
    However I can say that I have sold a number of Heart speaks unto Heart from DLT, but of course this is post visit :0) Oh and during the visit and just prior to it we did ok selling some books on a range of issues of contention such as Homosexuality and the Church, as well as books on Catholic thought & spirituality etc from authors like Nouwen, Hahn, Therese of Liseux etc
    You see the object is not to be like everyone else but to think around the area and make displays accordingly really – perhaps then he would have done better? but do general Waterstones have that discretion at shop level or is it plannagram selling and displays?

    As to the reasoning from Martin that only the rates free christian bookshops are surviving, well many independents are not charities (unless of course Martin thinks only chains exist)- and if you check with someone like the FSB it’s said small businesses cost more to run than larger ones and take higher hits on things like taxes etc – it’s an economy of scale and this isn’t me moaning or being defensive it’s just pointing out the way real economics works and how it effects business. So given that there are still indies out there, and indeed even a few Christian chains I think that does rather seem like a desperate justification there from Martin.

    Simon, I agree with you about us having to refocus and repurpose and not to do the log in the eye bit.

    ‘One good way to start would be by, well, not going bankrupt at the drop of a hat – as the man says, even Christ-specific shops flounder.’

    I think I can speak quite well about these things as I haven’t gone Bankrupt at the drop of a hat and indeed have ridden out a quite painful recession and am still riding it out – with a small increase to be seen in my sales of religious books at that!
    Of course we won’t talk about the small decrease in new release general fiction sales ;0)
    So I think I’m well suited to talk about some of these things because I am a General bookshop as well as Lincoln’s Christian Bookshop.

    However I can’t agree with you when you say:

    ‘Christian bookshops ought to have tremendous commercial advantages over their secular brothers. For one, they’re targeting a focused, niche market and there is often only one niche supplier for that market in a particular locality; they can often call on volunteer staff to avoid paying wages and often also (if based in churches, etc.) avoid paying rent. They really ought to be making a killing – if there were a killing there to be made.’

    Ok you offset much of what you said by saying ‘ought to’ and ‘they can’ but actaully we can’t or shouldn’t for a number of reasons, like supporting our community which means paying staff, not hiding in a church so that the high street (or just off high street or marketplace) still has a place anyone can wander into without the barrier of it being what many of the general public see as a closed shop (sorry couldn’t resist the pun!) membership place in the way that a church really can be.
    and the list goes on – of course there is also the point that it’s ignoring the fact that actaully Waterstones could use volunteer staff if they could recruit any, there is nothing to stop them it’s just people probably wouldn’t want to due to a perception thing, though they will volunteer for the UK’s other largest Book selling Chain – Oxfam, oh and they don’t pay rates.

    Also is the issue of Niche Marketing – now don’t get me wrong I’m all for it, indeed I advertise my shop as Lincoln’s Niche Market Book & Craft Specialists, for a number of reasons and that’s because we stock for a number of Niches! There’s a reason for that diversity, that’s because often being in a niche market narrows and decreases the potential customer base, not increases it as there’s potentially fewer folks interested in what you stock. So it’s not always an advantage to be in a niche even if you are the only one in an area – which by the way is not the case anymore given the wonder of the internet and e-shopping! and obviously given Martin from Waterstones was moaning about his religious books not selling it does rather mean that we aren’t the only suppliers in that area anyway, we just happen to have a much broader range than the chain stores, however the chain stores are often likely to be the first try shop for most of the population just as a matter of market placement.

    Now to the bit where I do totally agree with you, we do need to refocus and repurpose and I think there are a lot of people and shops doing that as we speak, that’s why we can offer to give advice to Waterstones on our specialist subject or at least comment on what someone else says – because we are having those discussions, doing those things – and you know sharing experience and insight is not being defensive it’s actually thinking things through, accessing things and mind-mapping at work ;0)

    You are totally right that the marketplace has changed and is still changing and we need to keep up with it – and get ahead of it – however that isn’t really what Martin was moaning about, Martin was saying because he can’t sell them obviously no one can because the market is dead in the water – that’s not true though as there are enough of us here still doing it and surviving to prove that.

    Don’t get me wrong however, we should not be complacent because it does mean hard work and change, and you are right that we should see this as the chance to raise the bar and really shine – but then surely it always has been so, we are called to be workers at the harvest not the unmoving scarecrow getting battered and bedraggled by the changing seasons without being able to do anything to help itself and relying on others to rework it into something better so it can go on doing it’s job into the next season.

    (by the way this was typed with my Wurzel head on, but not the Wurzel bedhead I woke up with luckily!)

    • Too right, Melanie. At LST I didn’t buy in any “papal pap” — I knew my customers wouldn’t be interested; and despite all the media coverage, I didn’t receive a single enquiry about Pope books. That’s one lesson, I think: know your customers; but I’m sure Martin does, to have got where he is … just a misjudgement on this occasion (yes, I happen to believe in taking responsibility for my stock decisions, not blaming publishers for selling me duff stuff). I believe Waterstone’s managers do have the discretion to cater for the local marketplace, btw.

      On the ‘going bankrupt at the drop of a hat’ thing — I’m with you there, too. The SPCK bookshops were right royally ripped off by two con merchants from the USA; and Wesley Owen were left in the lurch by Biblica who failed to take responsibility for their IT systems failure and decided to pull the plug instead. In neither case was it anything even remotely like “the drop of a hat” — it was a major betrayal of trust in both cases, with neither Biblica nor the Brewers behaving as you’d expect those with a Christian ethos to behave … sadly, nothing new there! Even at LST, redundancy proposals were a last ditch attempt to find a way to keep the shop running, and it’s still hanging on in there without me.

      Simon’s right when he says we

      need to innovate to survive. New business models, new partnerships, new ways of reaching customers – there are lots of exciting things we can be doing!

      Rather than getting defensive over our current situation (which, let’s face it, is not actually anything much worth defending), we should see this as a challenge to up our own game and do something brilliant.

      So … Simon: what do you suggest? Want to write a guest post to extrapolate? You have my contact details…

  4. My suggestion for Waterstone’s if they want to improve their ‘religious bottom line’ would be to go downmarket from the Pope & ABC, and try out a few Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen titles. I would be very interested to see if those authors would sell through the general trade, and I would be very suprised if they didn’t.

    However I do suspect this article is ideologically motivated, as well as being about the bottom line!

    • They already have them in stock – however they are (at least in the waterstones round here) housed in the MBS sections and the self help sections which are nestled near each other and miles away from the religious section which is very small and near the text books on sociology etc.
      I think that’s also a factor Martin etc needs to think about, merchandising and grouping things has a lot of impact on most things when it comes to selling.

  5. I agree with Melanie about the choice of stock and how it’s displayed. We’ve all been there with a Rep pushing titles at us to celebrate whatever… I’ve also heard publishers recently saying they’re selling more religious titles into Waterstones. But if a shop manager isn’t enthusiastic and doesn’t hand sell, well it won’t work.

  6. Martin.

    I think it’s pretty simple.

    If you are only stocking religious books as a reaction to a particular event, then why would you expect your customers to make you their first port of call for these sorts of titles.

    You need to pro-actively make religious titles a part of your regular sales and promotions cycle, make sure you capture that sector of the market, before trying to sell books to it.

    If i was to start selling a, let’s say, books on the Dalai Lama just because he was coming to the UK (He isn’t, that i’m aware of, it’s a hypothetical) without having first built a rapport with the local buddhist community, I doubt I would do much better than you did with the pope’s book.

    Canterbury has a CLC, so, no, just piling a book high isn’t going to cut it. If Christians in Canterbury (or anywhere else for that matter) don’t come to your shop to begin with, just making a huge pile of, as you call it, “Papal Pap” isn’t going to change that.

    It’s the same as stocking a few Spiderman Graphic Novels (read comic books) when the movies come out isn’t going to win your comic book nerds (i’m one of them, so i’m allowed to say it) from Forbidden Planet.

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