ALBATROSS, DODO OR JEWEL
‘Is there still a place for Christian bookshops to sparkle on the High Street’?
Last year I was asked to give a lecture on Christian Retailing to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship and Steve Briars of CRE invited me to deliver similar material at this year’s Christian Resources Together. I am delighted to do so – although the two audiences are quite different! Since that lecture in April 2010, things have moved on a pace and we are learning to live with constant challenges and change. However, there is no lack of evidence that we are involved in changing people’s lives on a daily basis.
I aim to address four incontrovertible facts facing all Christian retailers;
- The UK is increasingly secularised and less open to Christian forms of spirituality
- Formats, methods and channels – but not the content – are changing almost on a daily basis
- Consumers, and particularly younger people, are not buying as many physical books as before
- The Christian industry – Booksellers and Publishers – is undergoing a serious and prolonged period of retrenchment and rationalisation
I have invited three practising retailers –
- Andrew Lacey, Manager of GLO Bookshop, Motherwell, Scotland
- Melanie Carroll, Owner of Unicorn Tree Books and Crafts, Lincoln
- Steve Mitchell, Retail Director of Wesley Owen
each representing different facets of our trade – to address this question;
- ‘How can our trade best communicate the Good News in an increasingly post ‘bricks and mortar’ era and to a progressively digital generation?
Which of these three images describe and/or sum up today’s Christian book trade;
- Albatross; large seabird, majestic in flight or as in Coleridge, a ‘burden or encumbrance’
- Dodo; flightless bird known only in history; extinct, long gone, utterly dead and finished
- Jewel; beautiful to look at, highly valued. precious to its owner, ‘the jewel in the crown’
A brief trade overview
- The very first UK Christian Bookshop opened in Derby in 1810 – Just over 200 years ago!
- The Derby and Derbyshire Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society opened this shop in the Cock Pit area of Derby. It then moved to The Strand around 1900 (where it was renamed The Bible and Book Shop) and on to Irongate before finishing up in its present location in Queens Street. Subsequent owners have included; Scripture Union, STL/Wesley Owen and now it is owned and operated by Koorong of Australia.
- Just to add ecumenical balance, the next Christian bookshop was opened in Bristol in 1813 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. SPCK as a society had been established much earlier in 1698 by Dr Thomas Bray, a clergyman. SPCK went on to open their second shop in London in 1836.
- Many commentators would argue that to be a truly national retail chain, you need around 300 to 600 outlets to be represented in the main towns and cities. No Christian operator has ever come close although at one point in the 1990’s there were probably over 600 Christian Bookshops of some shape or size across the UK, but most operated independently.
- Those numbers have dwindled and are dwindling still. There is some evidence of new players entering the market year-on-year but, in my view, numbers of Christian bookshops are consistently down. I would estimate there are around 220 bookshops in the Christian niche capable of carrying out a viable trade.
- Due to its unique history, Northern Ireland remains the strongest market for Christian product when compared to its population size; this region continues to sell more Christian books per head than anywhere else in the UK. Scottish shops are mostly sited in the major central belt conurbations and there are virtually no Christian bookshops in Wales outside of the Cardiff area.
The ‘Missional’ nature of Christian bookselling
- For the past 30 years I’ve had the privilege of being engaged in the vocation of Christian literature distribution in its various forms. I have been involved as a bookseller, an author, a distributor and a publisher. I retain a fundamental belief in the importance of maintaining a Christian witness on the High Streets of our country. I therefore cannot but help feel that the loss of any Christian shops on the High Street is detrimental and I, for one, mourn the demise of those that have closed.
- Controversially, I have long pondered whether the historical separation of Christian bookshops into a specific subset of the wider book trade will turn out in the longer term to have been a mistake? Would it have been better for our specialist outlets simply to have remained part of the wider general bookselling community as it is elsewhere in the world? To outsiders, our bookshop names must inevitably seem a little twee and out-of-touch. Does such a separation help or hinder our aspirations for engaging in Christian witness?
A quick look at the wider social environment
- The UK is a largely secularised, post-Christian society with a significant multi-cultural population. There is clear anti-Christian bias throughout the media and in politics and militant atheism is on the increase. Christian TV & Radio has very low penetration, making product mass marketing difficult.
- Regular church attendance is in decline in most of the traditional denominations. However, there are bright spots; the Black majority and Hillsong churches are growing. Cathedral attendance is increasing and the Emerging Church movement gaining ground.
- There is a general decline in book readership in society; not just amongst Christians. Competing media and digital attractions vie for our time and the lack of time affects all of us however much we enjoy buying and reading books
Some thoughts about channels and digitalisation
- The way books are being bought is changing rapidly. An experienced international bookseller said to me only last week that, in over 30 years, he had not known a time of such momentous change as there has been in the past two years. Someone else has described the current upheaval as ‘a perfect storm’.
- There are enormous structural and societal changes taking place. These have been described as being as immense as the transition from parchment to the printing press. Most are outside of our control and are being imposed on us from outside of the trade. It therefore should go without saying that it is foolish to fall out amongst ourselves over changes which are so outside of our control and which are affecting the whole of retail.
- Woolworths, the 45 Borders UK stores and the Irish Bookseller, Hughes & Hughes have all left the UK High Street in the past couple of years. Since Christmas this year, WH Smith bought 22 British Bookshops and Stationers stores, Borders USA entered Chapter 11 – and is effectively bankrupt – and the REDgroup in Australia went bust leaving big UK publisher debts. HMV put their Waterstones chain up for sale selling it for a knock-down £53m in the last few weeks to a Russian tycoon.
- Supermarkets now sell one in every five books purchased and UK Libraries are under massive pressure due to imminent Government spending cuts.
- The issue here is primarily about the explosion of differing routes to market. Print no longer dominates in terms of the delivery of ideas. Content will continue to remain key.
- There are parallels with the development of digital television. More channels = fewer viewers. In our field, more ‘books’ (however those are defined; print or digital) equals a dispersed customer base which is no longer dependent on the traditional bookseller.
- Due to digital delivery channels, it is easier to self-publish now than at any other time. Blogs and social networks proliferate but some would argue that this only leads to the problem of quantity at the expense of quality.
- Territorial Rights are clearly a problem in the context of a global marketplace. Old-style publishing rights are not always recognised in the internet environment as single copy orders are taken and shipped – often across national boundaries – on a daily basis.
- Paradoxically, more printed books are being published year-on-year in the UK. Book production figures in the USA rose 5% last year despite a huge increase in eBook sales.
Impact of the Internet esp. Amazon, downloads and ePublishing
- Online sales make up 17% of all UK retail spending – and growing.
- Digital downloading is beginning to affect the sale of print items, especially newspapers.
- Book purchasing via the internet is no longer an exception, it is the norm. Amazon recorded their first £10bn sales quarter in early 2011.
- Several eBook Readers are competing for attention and rapidly gaining traction in the market; Sony’s eReader (Waterstones), the iPad (Apple Stores) and Kindle (Amazon).
- There has been an inexorable rise in the sale of eBooks with PA figures showing that eBooks grew to 6% (£180m) of £3.1bn UK book market. This may grow to 10% in 2011.
- Amazon are selling more eBooks than paperbacks; 105 on Kindle to every 100 in print. Four authors have already sold over 1 million eBooks each. Amazon lists 945,000 Kindle generated eBooks. Analysts expect 2011 sales to be $5.4bn in Kindle generated eBooks.
- However, despite these figures, over 90% of sales continue to take place via print. Black and white text books are struggling but print Bibles and Children’s books remain strong sales lines.
Where might all this change be heading? What is the future for our trade?
- Retailing is hard graft for many categories. Shopping habits are changing fast and there is much less time available for those trips to the High Street. When time is found, then competition for time and money is increasingly fierce. Supermarkets dominate.
- BBPA figures earlier this year show that the quintessential English Public House is closing down at the rate of 30 per week.
- One in seven retail outlets in the UK were surveyed as being empty in September 2010. UK shop leases are the Achilles heel for all retailers. Most are expensive, with ‘upward only’ increases and, if not carefully drawn up, extremely inflexible. Many businesses struggle with high establishment costs and Business Rates for non-charity shops are high.
- Christian bookshops are obviously not immune – and many are having a torrid time. There have been some major shake-ups in the past couple of years, with a lot of shops going and, thankfully, a few coming. The SPCK meltdown in 2008 and the IBS-STL debacle at the end of 2009 has badly destabilised Christian retail in this country.
- Demographics also conspire against these specialist shops. Church attendance in the traditional denominations is largely declining and newer Churches with their younger audiences, such as Hillsong, are self-contained in terms of their resource requirements.
- The challenge we face today is to ask, what should the Christian bookshop of the 21st century look like? Will it, as an entity, soon cease to exist, lost as an irrelevance in our increasingly secular world or can it be reinvented in an increasingly ‘post-bricks and mortar’ era and for a progressively digital society?
- Although I sincerely wish CLC, Faith Mission and Koorong well in their endeavours, I am no longer convinced of the chain model when it comes to running Christian bookshops. For a variety of reasons, so many major book chains have simply failed over the years. It would appear that, in many cases, their high central costs have acted as the drag on the business and this, in a crisis, hinders rather than helps. Once I would have argued strongly for the efficiencies of scale and the need for central buying that the chain model provides. Now I am no longer so sure.
- In my view, there is still a lot to be said for a very good independent shop operating solely at the local level. Perhaps we’ve just gone full circle?
- In my view, internet retailers can win every time on the basis of price, range and convenience. If ‘Bricks and Mortar’ booksellers are to succeed in the future, they have to provide that illusive and intangible ‘sense of experience’ to their customers.
- Nick Page has written elsewhere that ‘average’ is no longer good enough. For a future, these bookshops have to be ‘really good’ and run by people who love books and love selling books. They have to be ‘exciting, memorable, fascinating’, places where events are held and reading encouraged. In short, such a bookshop must have ‘personality’!
A final meditation from 2 Corinthians (NIV);
2:17‘Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God’.
4:1 ‘Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God’.
Eddie Olliffe is Charity Manager at CWR in Farnham, Surrey, UK