Christian Resources Together, or Apart? Michael Fenske asks the questions no one wants to hear

Michael Fenske

Michael Fenske

MICHAEL FENSKE of Southend Christian Bookshop reflects on the current state  of play in the UK Christian book trade and asks the questions that no one wants to hear…

I’d like to share a few thoughts before the coming together of the trade at the Christian Resources Together Retailers and Suppliers Retreat in June.

I know that publishers and distributors are as much under threat as us retailers, and I do believe the writing is on the wall for all of us in the not too distant future (if you are a publisher in full bloom and doubt that I am right, just have a look at the European Commission’s plans to offer a Europe-wide ebook lending library, which will lead to the big brother having nice profiles of everyone’s reading habits, apart from destroying bookshops, libraries and all. But that is another issue…).

I find it disturbing to see how things develop in the world of our suppliers. What I see is that there seems to be more and more of the mentality of “Eat or get ate” (I know it’s bad English). If you are not quick enough, you might find yourself devoid of the publishers you distributed yesterday. Distributors who were top dogs yesterday are dogs’ dinners today. It doesn’t look much like WWJD, does it, rather like WWII? For example, what was formerly known as a very healthy Integrity-Provident looks now like Israel after Nebuchadnezzar has been to visit.

The relationship between publishers/distributors and retailers has a slightly different slant. It seems that publishers/distributors are somewhat unsure whether we retailers are useful to them or not. Like the mortally wounded husband who finds out that his wife is already looking for a new husband, just to make sure she won’t be lonely after his death, so we retailers are rather wondering how much love there is between us and them.

ThinkIVP - scroll down and you may find some Helpful Links...

ThinkIVP – scroll down the page and you may find some Helpful Links…

ThinkIVP is a case in point. My rejoicing yesterday that IVP are distributing the likes of EP, has turned sour at the thought that our customers are being wooed to the same beehive, discounts and all, with a little hint below the fold (scroll down: bottom left hand corner) that the mortally wounded husband still exists.

Then there is the full page advert of agreatread.co.uk in Christianity magazine which starts with “Has your Christian bookshop closed?” Christian readers can be confident in assuming that the husband is as good as dead. Christianity magazine itself goes down the same line with its subscription ads. The list goes on.

How are people meant to worship together at the upcoming CRT Retreat with this hanging over their heads? Are husband and wife going to smile at each other and do as if all is well, as usual? What will the husband say to his wife? Or the wife to her husband? Will there be a lot of cooing like “I really don’t mean to upset you, but I don’t want to catch your disease, darling”?

I am not sure whether I want to be there to find out. The cringe factor might be too distressing for words.

CRT2012: will you be there? And how will the conversations go?

  • Tues 12th – Weds 13th June 2012
  • Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick
  • Facebook event page (Christian Authors, Booksellers and Publishers group)
Christian Resources Together Retailers and Suppliers Retreat

Christian Resources Together Retailers and Suppliers Retreat

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10 thoughts on “Christian Resources Together, or Apart? Michael Fenske asks the questions no one wants to hear

  1. Ties in with something from this edition of the US Christian Retailing magazine, The ‘In Conversation’ article with Michael Briggs.
    I posted this over on the Facebook, Christian Authors, Booksellers & Publishers Group for discussion.

    The bit that really stood out to me was this section (& note point no. 4 which seams to resonate with Michael F is saying above perhaps):

    ”What are the top issue in the industry?
    I see five important issues:
    1) Traffic and cash flow. A direct result of slower traffic and lower sales is reduced cash flow, which impacts payment history – a longtime challenge in our industry.
    2) Digital products. Digital is here to stay, but we need to discuss ways to keep physical a mainstay of our industry.
    3)Gatekeepers. There are many stories of retailers who refuse to carry select categories or products that differ from their personal theology. Stores are unwittingly telling those people to shop elsewhere, and if they find the product, they wont be back.
    4) Fairness. More suppliers are selling direct and most cite nominal responses. Add digital products and the adverse impact on retail increases. There is need here for cooperative dialogue.
    5)Greed, (Did he just say that?) Yeah, I did. It is one of the issues I pray about most for our industry.’
    http://strang.imirus.com/Mpowered/imirus.jsp?volume=cr12&issue=4&page=4

    I must admit that I would be very interested to hear what our publishing friends think, I really think we need to sit down and talk honestly, openly and frankly, to really have cooperative dialogue with a bipartisan attitude if we can before it’s really too late, After all a house divided cannot stand, any more than one built on sand rather than a firm bedrock of mutual support, understanding and community.

  2. Interesting, but can’t say it’s the question we don’t dare to ask as it’s basically what we’ve been discussing practically non-stop since CRT last year when the issues were with GBC and CWR.
    Things change, in some ways you can compare us with the local family butchers during the rise of the supermarkets. Some died, some survived – customer service, customer loyalty, the personal touch won out.
    Yes we need to fight our corner, yes publishers/distributors might be persuaded to play fairer – but the truth is we sometimes need to take a good long look at ourselves, our focus, our relationships with our customers and go from there.
    As far as CRT is concerned we are all family (one in Christ) this is not a case of husband/wife but brothers and sisters – as such we can fight, laugh, talk, cry, pray, praise, eat and drink together, we might not like each other but we are called to love one another.

    • Indeed, David, no one has a problem asking the questions: but is anyone willing to hear them? That’s the challenge in the title. Consider the recent fiasco with SPCK: lots of questions from booksellers, but a complete unwillingness to hear those questions by SPCK until I effectively forced the issue by challenging them publicly on twitter … and even then, the answer was less than satisfactory and there was no willingness to engage in dialogue: they popped in, said their bit like a preacher six feet above contradiction, and popped out again.

      … though even as I say that I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount…

      Why do you see the SPCK in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the SPCK out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the SPCK out of your neighbour’s eye.

    • Well David, its not like the butcher and the supermarket, is it. The supermarkets weren’t the suppliers of the butchers in the first place. They are independent enterprises, whilst the bookshop and the publisher have so far been interdependent. Yes, I know times have changed etc, and I am not against the publishers having their own websites, even accessible to our customers. But they do not have to give them offers that will hurt us. Lion Hudson for example, as far as I know (correct me if I am wrong), is doing fine without competing with the retailers online. As for your brother/sister metaphor – the fight that I described has left the “brotherly love” realm some time ago. It is about panic stricken fight for existence between our suppliers. And that is what I don’t like to see.

      • ok – maybe not the best analogy.in the world, but I know what I meant 🙂

        As far as publishers/distributors are concerned I will say that, as you highlighted IVP, they do give us the discounts to match what they are offering on the website – it’s just a case of how you decide to publicise that.

        If as you say it’s a panic stricken fight for existence between our suppliers then surely we should try and be the voice of reason – not be the ones sticking the boot in. We need to find a way as retailers to prove to them that we are crucial to there continued existence. And before you ask I haven’t a clue how apart from finding ways to increase our selling hence our buying requirements.

  3. As a direct follow on to Michael’s observations, it’s also interesting to note the shift by EP: once they actively promoted Christian bookshops and maintained a list of stockists to which they directed all would-be book buyers: their answer to “Where can I buy an EP book?” was “From one of these stockists” with a pointer to their FAQ page, http://www.epbooks.org/faqnew.php – but that page has vanished and now all books, new titles too, are on direct sale at an immediate 15% discount, repeating the error of Kingsway. Are these really RRPs or simply made up prices so that EP can sell at an apparent discount? Hmmm…

  4. When shops (brick and mortar) were the only outlets to the public publishers needed us,this gave us a certain amount of power.The truth of the matter is that this is no longer the case-publishers have many outlets of which we are becoming almost the least important and the most demanding.
    EP can give direct sales 15% discount because they don’t have to give us 35% or pay for a rep visit etc etc
    The clock ticks the World changes and some folk get left behind. New technology may yet make us as relevant as steam train enthusiasts. All we can do is adapt where possible and hang on as long as possible. Weeping into our beer or spiking the Kingsway reps drink at CRT 2012 won’t change a thing.

  5. It’s interesting when we think back 12 months to CRT last year when we raised similar issues – two companies come to mind CWR (who listened, heard and reacted to our concerns – we saw an increase in our discounts and better returns) where as GBC listened but changed nothing in the way they deal with us or in their continued pursuit of direct sales.
    This gives me some hope that discussing the future is worth while but is also a warning about where things could be going.
    CRT will be interesting, but it really depends who from the suppliers attends, our reps hear it all the time so no point bashing their ears even more – we need to see some of the heads not the hands being there.
    As we see the growth of the online retailers offering prices we can’t match we need to look at where we can beat them – the physical product, our customer service, our locality, our personal relationships, gift and card.product.

  6. As long as people DO talk at CRT and booksellers ask questions of publishers. Too often in the Christian book trade it’s felt it’s not nice to challenge as we’re Christians. It could be too late if dialogue doesn’t start right now.

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