After the Tsunami: Regaining perspective on the UK Christian book trade

SOMETIMES, IN RUNNING UKCBD/THIS BLOG, I want to make like Elijah: to simply run away, hide in a cave and wait for the inevitable. Unlike Elijah, however, I’m not being pursued by an angry Queen who wants to chop me into pieces: on the whole the Christian book/retail trade remains a very positive area to work in; and whilst the unrelenting tide of bookshop closures may feel like a tsunami overwhelming us, I don’t think God has finished with this trade yet. Refining and redefining, certainly; but finished? Far from it — and what I see happening here is far from whistling in the dark.

Allow me to offer some facts and figures:

The UKCBD database currently holds 801 records. Of those, 209 are flagged ‘Omit’, for various reasons: some are incomplete and have never made it to the live site, others are archived as businesses have relocated; only 79 (just under 10%) are specifically flagged ‘Ceased Trading’ — and only 26 have been flagged ‘Ceased Trading’ within the last 12 months. That’s not the full picture: I’m aware of a number of shops that have ceased trading (Chelmsford Christian Bookshop and Quench, St Albans are two examples) but I haven’t updated their entries yet, simply due to the constraints of time and other commitments.

On the opposite side of the coin, however, during that same period 23 new records have been added. Looking back over the last quarter alone, these include:

Some of these are brand new, launched within the last few months; some are relocated or ‘resurrected’ businesses, taking over existing premises from collapsed ventures; others are well established but had somehow slipped under the radar and never made their way into my listings; and some, quite clearly, are not ‘Christian bookshops’ as we’ve come to know them: they are all, however, part of the current Christian retailing reality, the reality that is now being refined and redefined.

Again, this isn’t the full picture: it’s rare for more than a couple of weeks to go by without someone contacting me to provide details of a shop or business that isn’t in the directory. As I prepare this post, I have records pending for several shops that I’ve only recently found out about:

On average, then, for every shop that has disappeared over the last year, another has popped up: some towns, such as Nottingham, are now without a Christian bookshop; others, such as Rotherham, have gained one; and elsewhere, more flexible ventures such as Richard Greatrex’s Windflower Books and Jenny Hickman’s Midlands Christian Books have emerged. The UKCBD database is growing, not shrinking.

Some of the chains — SPCK, Wesley Owen, Living Oasis — are broken beyond repair; others — CLC and FM Bookshops — are still in business, some branches struggling, some thriving, the strong supporting the weak. The collapse of Living Oasis and the failure of Koorong to make a go of Wesley Owen here in the UK perhaps tells us more about the shortcomings of their particular business models than it does about the trade in general.

Steve Mitchell is right in what he affirms when he says:

… it is a brave man to bet against the online business which is so rapidly growing… the charity or independent model is now the best option to maintain physical Christian stores.

But he is wrong in what he denies: because there are plenty of brave men — and women! — out there: not “betting against the online business” but integrating the online with their business models.

The future of Christian bookselling in the UK depends not upon pitting the online against the physical but upon bringing the two together. It’s a secret that lives at the very heart of our faith: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” — and to that I add, there is no longer physical or virtual — “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We who are Christ’s disciples should know these things better than anyone else. Throwing people overboard in the storm is not the way of Christ. Lopping off limbs when the head says to the foot, “I don’t need you anymore,” is not the way of Christ. The only time we see Christ breaking things up is when the temple of mammon attempts to supplant the temple of God — and, coming full circle now, the remnant of Israel that God promises Elijah he will save consists of “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

The way of Christ is the Cross: is to face impossible odds, to take the pain, to bleed and die, and then — only then — rise to new life. There are no short cuts to resurrection.

To those now feeling like limbs lopped off; to those pursuing the vision of that “well-run and nimble independent sector” that Eddie Olliffe speaks of; to those following the way of Christ regardless of personal cost: I salute you.

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18 thoughts on “After the Tsunami: Regaining perspective on the UK Christian book trade

  1. Hi Phil
    I am interested in the line: “KA Christian Jewellery (Online/Mail Order Only) (5/11/2011)” in your post; it shows that physical “bricks and mortar” bookshops are not the only ones featured in UKCBD. So, may I once again refer you to the Pen4God Global Ministries bookshops, which are “Online/Mail Order Only” shops. Three of them are for eBooks (two Kindle eBookshops for UK and USA, and one my Publisher’s eBook facility) but there are two “traditional-type” Bookshops selling paperback books (the Main Bookshop and a simplified version for busy people) so I am trying to stem the flow of the tsunami of bookshop closures you mention, albiet in a very small way. Will you now include at least the Main Bookshop of Pen4God Global Ministries (even if you ignore the other four) in your records to update the UKCBD data base? The URL, for reference, is http://www.pen4god.co.uk/Bookshop
    I look forward to a positive reply to this comment.
    Every blessing
    Denis

    • Hi Denis and welcome back. The Online Only and Other Christian Retailers sections of the site are no secret, but I developed UKCBD primarily to help visitors find their nearest Christian bookshop and to help Christian bookshops develop their online presence.

      By Christian bookshop I mean a shop selling a range of product across a range of Christian authors and publishers: operations such as yours, whose primary focus is self-promotion or the promotion of a single author, are therefore not normally included.

      I welcome guest post proposals from authors and publishers whose books are available to the wider trade, but as far as I can ascertain from your site, you offer direct to consumer sales only. If I’ve misunderstood that point, please let me know your trade terms and I’ll consider featuring a guest post from you to introduce your books to prospective retailers.

      If you still believe that your operations meet the criteria for inclusion (Q&A > What are the criteria for including a shop or business in the directory?) then by all means complete the Bookshop Registration/Update Form and I’ll give it due consideration.

      • Hi again, Phil; thanks for your helpful reply.
        Yes, all my books are available at trade price (33% dicount) to the whole bookshop spectrum from my publishers, and if the total order is £100 or more, then all carriage is free. Such orders could be placed through my Pen4God Global Ministries Bookshop, but would be sent direct from my publisher. By my calculation, by ordering three copies of each of the seven main titles, this would more than meet the £100 (free carriage) criteria. From this information, do you think it would be appropriate for me to complete a Bookshop Registration/Update Form?
        I await your reply with interest.
        Every blessing
        Denis
        PS: I should imagine, in the present climate, any means or ways of legitimately and legally promoting Christian books should be seized upon with alacrity.

  2. Great encouragement there Phil, it is good to know that whilst many bookshops are closing, new ones are springing up. We do tend to presume that our trade is all doom and gloom, yet we forget that we have our faith and our Creator in the midst of our shops. I suggest that we have forgotten that our God an awesome God who can do anything if we only have that faith?
    karen

  3. Really good post Phil. I had always wondered how many shops actually existed. Helps to keep it in perspective! I always thought it would be useful to have a map and pin point where all the shops were (and also identify areas that don’t have a shop serving them). We kind of tried it in the prayer room at High Leigh a few years back with people posting prayers on a map but it nowhere near covered it. Maybe one day I’ll go through the directory and do it.

  4. Hi Phil

    I so agree with everything you had said in your article especially “the future of Christian bookselling in the UK depends not upon pitting the online against the physical but upon bringing the two together”. We need the both to operate seamlessly, adapting the new technology that our major retailers are using. We also need to embrace the culture around us and to realise that a lot of our online shoppers will be our 30 to 40+ hi tech savvies. So we need to embrace multichanneling, blogging, emails, mobile phones and tablets (palm / hand held devices). For those of us in the online trade we also have to look at why our customers do not always complete their online transactions? We need to be following this through by optimising the revenues of our abandon shopping carts.

    Even though I am an online retailer, it has always been my dream to have a high street presence as I see it as a must, but I do realise that my business model cannot be completely Christian. I have to mix it with a bit of secularism and it is something that I will be reflection on the website in the near future.

    Christian retailers need to embrace the changes that are sweeping across our businesses by reviewing and updating our business models every 3 – 4 months.

    Finally we will have to change trading times by lengthening our opening times to capture some the changes in peoples working habits. Some of us might have to trade on a Sunday? Some of you might find this hard to swollow, but I personally don’t feel no way about this as a lot of our churches especially our mega churches are trading on a Sunday morning after the service has taken place. So what is wrong with us opening up on a Sunday? You don’t have to employ Christians to run your businesses. We are now in an equal opportunity society and so therefore cannot afford to discriminate even though this is what we see in our asian communities. If I were to follow their example I’d be up before the courts on race discrimination. Remember peoples working habits are changing and so we need to change to reflect these change in our business models. Christian retailing is no longer a 9 – 6 business, but a 24 hour a day business operating 7 days a week.

  5. Phil I’m reminded of these words about Elijah:

    I Kings 19:14 Elijah replied, I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. 15 The LORD said to him, Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus…. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel— all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him’

    A good reminder that God does His work in His way. Often using unseen forces and through ways we cannot understand using our human wisdom. Like you, I remain optimistic for the work of God through Christian bookshops. Let’s continue to encourage each other and not assume, like Elijah, that ‘I only am left’ because its just not true. If God is for us, who can be against us. Christian materials continue to change lives on a daily basis around the world. Blessings, Eddie

  6. Speaking to Christian booksellers regularly, there are some clinging to traditional models and while that is a sound and solid operational basis, to succeed now, whether you like it or not, you have to have as many strings to your bow as possible, and possibly redesign the tried and tested into new models to meet new needs. Go for it!

    • Hello Carole
      I agree with what you say ~ you have to have as many strings to your bow as possible, and possibly redesign the tried and tested into new models to meet new needs ~ so, would you say my suggestion to Phil would come under the “new models to meet new needs” category? See my comments to Phil under his original post to see what I am talking about.
      Every blessing
      Denis

      • Always a difficult one this as many bookshops suffer from direct selling from publishers at a discount and this was happening before on-line. I’d like to see a proper working relationship between supplier and retailer, not competition. Each party has their own strength and expertise but nowadays everyone has to try to do everything instead of striving to be good at their main activity.

        • Thanks for your reply ~ I should explain that my publisher does not supply books generally at a discount to all and sundry! They do supply me, as the author, with books (with a 33.3% discount) but not the general public. Perhaps I ought to re-define my “trade terms” as explained to Phil. When I purchase “author discounted” books direct from the publisher for sale through my online bookshop, I make sure the total quantity exceeds £100 so that I get free carriage; I then pass on this saving by selling books with FREE POST & PACKING (I actually do not write to make money!) ~ so perhaps my re-definition should be for people to purchase books from the Pen4God Global Ministries Online Bookshop, the total to exceed £100, then I would arrange for the publisher to send the books direct to the shop rather than to me. They would agree to that arrangement. Incidentally, my books are available to the trade through traditional distributors ~ if you would like to see the details of this, go to http://www.pen4god.co.uk and click on the SHOWCASE tab at the top of the page. Perhaps I ought to open a “Trade Distribution” facility on my website ~ what do you think?
          Incidentally, it is very useful to be able to “talk out” these ideas, so my thanks to Phil for providing this valuable facility. Anything that assists and promotes the Christian book trade, even if it means re-defining previously strongly held patterns, can only be good for the whole.

        • Denis, I’d suggest simply renaming your ‘Showcase’ section ‘Trade’, since that’s what it really is; and it’s good to know that your books are available through those various trade distributors.

          This doesn’t change the fact that your online shop is simply dedicated to the sale of your own works, however, and therefore doesn’t meet the criteria for inclusion in the directory. I have neither the time nor the resources to extend UKCBD to include authors’ personal web stores: sorry.

  7. Thanks Phil,
    It is good to see the positives coming out of the gloom – and all the various comments and observations.

    Personally I now see the Christian Book Shop scene as a time for sharing ideas, encouraging each other, praying for each other, listening to each other – then finding out what works for you.

    It’s a time for those who run the bookshops to have the courage to adapt for where their customers currently are – we saw a 20% drop in physical (new)book sales last year but our turnover stayed the same through developing our card and gift range and our second hand books.

    It has become a standing joke among our trustees that we may need to change the name from Books Alive to Gifts Alive within 5 years – but I have their confidence to take the shop in the direction it needs to go to maintain not only a Chrisitian presence in our community but supply the resources our customers want.

    This is the next thought that the trustees/owners (where this is the case) need to look to their managers to drive the future forward – after all it is the managers who deal with customers on a daily basis and know what they want.

  8. ADMIN NOTE: As we now have two Davids commenting, I’ve edited the names to ‘David Y’ and ‘David R’ to help eliminate any possible confusion; would be grateful if each of you would use those designations (or your full names) for future comments, please.
    🙂

    Please also note that whilst the use of pseudonyms is welcome, generic pseudonyms such as “Guest”, “Anon” or “Anonymous” are not permitted: please see the Comments Policy for further clarification:
    About > Comments Policy.

    Thank you.

  9. Out in the “secular” world (the world is God’s creation so really there isn’t secular or religious), the “Bookseller” journal is addressing the world of the Christian bookshop with it’s poll this week. Question “The future of Christian book retail is…” and the choices are
    Online
    High Steet
    Independents
    A mix
    http://www.thebookseller.com

  10. Phil ~ I noticed there was no facility to enable me to reply to your latest post to me, so I am starting (and ending?) this new post to you to thank you for your frankness and help; I’m sorry my Online Bookshop does not meet the criteria for UKCBD, but I fully understand; so once again, thank you. Incidentally, I will remain active on this Blog, and where appropriate, possibly contribute from time to time. Thanks again, and every blessing to you ~ Denis.

  11. Pingback: Have you voted yet? Bookseller poll on the future of Christian book retail « The Christian Bookshops Blog

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