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May you write through interesting times…

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Warning: this is a long piece.

You may have heard about the problems at IBS-STL. I’ve not written anything on it so far – even though I was teaching on a course run by Authentic Media when the storm broke, so knew something was happening, but I’ve been thinking that someone ought to pipe up for the writers.

For those of you who don’t know what’s happening, Phil Groom’s excellent blog has all the info. The short version is that IBS-STL, which comprises Wesley Owen Bookshops, Authentic Media and STL distribution, is up for sale. The official line is that the problems began with a new computer system which led to orders not being fulfilled, invoices not being processed and a general melt-down at the most crucial time for the booksellers – the run up to Christmas. And the fact that this took place in the credit crunch made recovery incredibly difficult.

However, the book trade – the Christian book trade in particular – has been struggling for some time. The collapse of the SPCK bookshops from 2006–2008 cannot be blamed on the credit crunch. They went pear-shaped long before that came along. And the problems being faced by Wesley Owen Bookshops are being faced by the whole industry. The latest news is that Borders is up for sale and the their website has stopped supplying books altogether.

So what does this mean? Well, for the staff of IBS-STL – many of whom are friends of mine – it means a lot of uncertainty and fear. The people I know in the business – particularly those in Authentic – are good, creative people, people who care about books and good writing and who do a lot to support and develop UK talent. As I understand it, Authentic is in pretty good shape, but even so, finding a buyer in this market could prove challenging. My prayers are with Keith and all the people in the business.

But they are not the only people involved. The IBS-STL situation has a knock-on effect for all of us in the industry. I note that the Bible Society has called for a conference in January to discuss the issue. But we need to be aware that there are more people involved here than just in the main book trade. There are the small publishers, of course, but also charities, designers, and, of course, writers.

The impact on Christian writing in this country could be disastrous. It’s hard enough making a living as a writer without losing a load of shops and one of my favourite publishers. And these days very few UK writers make much of an impact in the states. It’s pretty much one-way traffic as far as that is concerned: we buy their authors, they don’t buy ours. In an attempt to stop the American market ignoring me, more and more of my books are published straight into what is euphemistically called ‘International Spelling.’ As far as I can see, all that has happened is that America still ignores my work. Only now its spelt wrong as well.

Anyway, leaving my bitterness aside, at least in the UK I have five or six people who buy my stuff. But if the business goes under what’s going to happen? There are many challenges on the horizon for all of us in the book trade, whether publishers, booksellers or writers. Internet bookselling is ubiquitous. The e-Book lurks on the horizon. So maybe the end is here for the traditional bookshop.

Well, I don’t think so. Not yet. But I do think that the business has to do some long, hard thinking. So here, for what it’s worth, is my perspective – that of a writer and book buyer – on what’s needed…

1. People who love books.
There is a future for bookshops. But they will have to be really good bookshops. ‘Average’ is no longer an option. And they will have to be run by people who both love books and, crucially, love selling them.

I hear a lot about ‘bookshop ministries.’ There’s no doubt that, because of the type of books they sell, Christian bookshops can certainly be a ‘missional space’ as Simon Jones puts it so well. But I’d suggest that in order to be a successful missional space, I’d suggest it first has to be a successful bookshop. Sometimes, I can’t help feeling that the more we’ve called them ministries, the less they’ve acted like bookshops.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying selling. One of my favourite Christian bookshops used to be run by a friend of mine who had once been a market trader. It showed. His shop was piled high with great bargains, but also stocked some wonderfully obscure, appealing titles as well. He wanted to sell books. That was what he was there for.

You have to love the product. I don’t think anyone should run a bookshop, or work in a bookshop who doesn’t love books. But so many Christian bookshops I go into show little or no love of books, as such. There are no personal recommendations. No sign of independent selection. This was certainly true of my experience with SPCK before they imploded.

I went into a local Christian bookstore the other day and it was a really depressing experience. I was looking for a mainstream title, by Tom Wright, but it wasn’t there. Nor were many of his other books. I’ll tell you what there were, though. There were lots of pencils and pens and erasers with Christian slogans on. There were cases for your Bible and racks upon racks of greeting cards. It wasn’t a book shop. It was a Christian novelty shop with some books in the back.

2. States of independence
It’s significant that, when I think of the Christian bookshops that have impressed me – and they are out there – most of them are run by independents. They’re not part of a chain. And here’s the thing: independents are in it for the love of books and bookselling. Independents have to work harder, think more creatively, know more. Independents can stock the books that they want to stock. Promote the authors you care about, not just the ones that sell in big quantities.

I’m not sure if Wesley Owen chains were centrally stocked, but I think that central command is the death of interesting shops. Take away the ability of the manager to choose their stock and respond to their market and you take away all the things that make a bookshop different: individuality, eccentricity, charm. I want something different; I do not want one-size-fits-all.

3. Great places to go
You have to make the place memorable. Make it an exciting, fascinating place. Give me some coffee, sure. Hold events. Encourage reading. Show me what you like, tell me what you think. Make your shop unforgettable. Give it a personality. Again, when I think about the bookshops I like, they all have a certain personality. I like going there. There is pleasure in actually visiting the place. I was in a bookshop in Penrith the other day and it was wonderful. It had a coffee shop upstairs (selling organic bread); it hosted art exhibitions, it had hand-made signs and comfortable chairs. No doubt the owner has to work incredibly hard to make it work, but it seemed to me to be a great place to spend time.

4. Great products to sell
Hmmm. Well, here we have to bring the publishers into it. As anyone who sees my royalty statements would know, I am not the best judge of what sells. And I am nothing if not prolific (poverty being a great spur to productivity). But I do have to question the sheer amount of crap that the Christian world produces. It’s not just the gimmicks and the novelties; it’s the endless stream of cheap, imported, second-grade writing from some perma-tanned Mega-church pastor with a TV ministry, nuclear-white teeth, a bottle-blonde wife and a healing ministry. Or the Bibles with nothing different about them except that they have been bound in fluorescent yellow Yak-hide. Or the endlessly repackaged Worship greatest hits. Or, what I call ‘me too’ publishing, where one publisher produces exactly what another publisher has produced for no other reason than they want a slice of the pie. I think there are some very exciting talented people working in this industry, but too often they are working under enormously difficult constraints – usually to do with budget. Maybe if producers worked together a bit more, maybe if there were less duplication, it would help the creative talent – and, indeed, the bookseller.

5. A combined effort
I think there has to be more contact between all the different parts of the publishing world. If the Bible Society does call this conference we don’t just need publishers there: we need publishers and editors and books shop owners and authors and artists and, yes, book buyers, there. We are all in this thing together. I always love talking to the people who buy my books and also to the people who sell them. You learn stuff that way. We need to find ways for all the parts of the jigsaw to come together.

I said at the beginning of this enormous rant well thought-out essay that the impact on Christian writing in this country could be disastrous. So it could be. But it could be positive as well. It could be that we are forced into a rethink of what Christian books are for and what Christian bookselling is really all about. It could be that we will be forced to be more inventive, more collaborative, more passionate and more professional in our approach.

Christianity has always been a religion of the Book: but also a religion of books. There’s a case for arguing that Christians actually invented the book as we know it. Certainly they adopted the form way beyond any other significant group in the Roman empire. When the others were still using scrolls, the Christians were reading their paperbacks. Or papyrus-backs to be precise.

Looks like we’re going to need to be inventive again. Interesting times, indeed.