Thinking Out Loud

February 1, 2018

Christian Bookstores in Canada Under Threat from Their Own Suppliers

Christian bookstores in Canada have learned to accept competition from Amazon, as have book retailers in other parts of the world. It’s a different story when the source of your competition is the very company from which your store receives its wholesale shipments. The largest wholesale distributor in the country has set up shop online to sell direct to customers, and three of the other four major distributors are on board.

We have chosen not to identify the website in this story.

In Canada, distribution of Christian books is concentrated among four companies. While independent distributors have also existed in the U.S. — Spring Arbor, Anchor, STL, Riverside, etc. — they tend to be used by smaller stores or for inventory topping off. In Canada, they are the sole source of supply for store owners and managers.

The largest of these represents publishers such as:

  • Baker
  • Bethany House
  • InterVarsity (IVP)
  • David C. Cook
  • Waterbrook
  • Broadman & Holman
  • LifeWay
  • Destiny Image
  • Howard
  • Moody
  • Westminster Press
  • Dayspring
  • Kregel
  • Eerdman’s 
  • Fortress Press

etc. But in this venture they were joined by HarperCollins Christian Products who also participated in an earlier project. They represent

  • Zondervan
  • Thomas Nelson
  • HarperOne

and this time around a third company has joined in, which represents:

  • Tyndale
  • Navigators
  • Barbour

etc., although so far product from that company is not being discounted.

The current situation, with these companies being both part of the wholesale distribution chain and now selling direct to retail customers is creating some awkward moments as well as some ethical issues. One retailer wrote on a Canadian book trade forum:

How am I supposed to support a company who has stepped into the field as our direct competitor? I can’t idly sit by and help to subsidize their efforts to break into the online selling game while directly targeting customers and more openly Churches right in the areas where I am situated.

As distributors, their cost on books is far better than anything being given to Amazon Canada or Chapters/Indigo (the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble.) No retailer could ever mount anything like this that would remain financially viable.

Some stores have felt a level of protection from The Amazon Effect because, even though Amazon Canada exists, many customers did not want to deal with what they perceived as an American company. Other customers are not as comfortable shopping in the mainstream product mix at Chapters/Indigo. This new website meets those two objections customers might have.

Is it possible that their own distributors will finish off Christian retailers in Canada in ways that other market forces did not? Right now there are many Christian retail owners and managers looking at an uncertain future.

 

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June 2, 2017

Massive Losses for Christian Publishers after Family Christian Closing

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:42 am

In a presumably recent article dated “June 10th, 2017” World Magazine recounts the end of the Family Christian Bookstores closing in this article:

The news earlier this year that Family Christian Stores would close its more than 240 retail shops startled many of its customers. But it didn’t surprise anyone familiar with the company’s recent history. Despite receiving forgiveness for more than $80 million in debt two years ago, the company still couldn’t pay all of its bills.

The article later goes on to say:

Family Christian lost about $16.6 million over about 17 months during the bankruptcy, according to court documents.

That’s a million per month. The story continues:

In February Family Christian representatives called both Baker and Tyndale publishing groups. Lewis said they asked Baker Publishing for more time to pay invoices and for a 15 percent price discount, and Baker said yes.

But others, including Tyndale, had gone as far as they could to help the struggling retailer. “They asked us for humongous increases in the discount at which we were selling to them, and we just said, no, we’ve already given you our best deal,” Tyndale CEO Mark Taylor said…

…“This is the second time in three years that we’ve taken a big hit in bad debts because of Family,” Taylor said. (He declined to name the dollar amount of Tyndale’s loss.) Lewis said Baker Publishing expected to lose between $350,000 and $400,000.

Basically, Christian publishers bailed out Family not once, but twice.

Furthermore, the article doesn’t mention that most of those same publishers — in 2016, the year in-between the two crises at Family — took similar losses on the closing of Send the Light Distribution. Nor does it mention the many write-offs which a part of everyday commerce in dealing with individual bookstores that have closed in the Amazon era.

In this writer’s opinion, those losses might be represented by authors who were never signed, books that were never fully marketed, and development of new projects that were possibly curtailed. It’s entirely possible that publishing company staff were let go in belt-tightening at these various companies.

It’s a big loss for everyone. Could it have been avoided?

February 26, 2017

Requiem for Christian Bookstores Not Needed

fc-logoOn Friday we reported the impending closure of 240 Family Christian bookstores. If you missed that, you can read it here. I started my Saturday morning at Internet Monk, and was a little surprised by both the negative comments concerning this type of establishment, but also the great number of people bashing the stores compared to those saying they were sorry they were closing and that the store would be missed. Such as:

  • So Family JesusJunk Stores are closing. I feel for the employees, but I can’t say I’m disappointed otherwise. Those places were an abomination.

I’m not sure what you are expecting. Here: Take $100,000 and spend it on products that will be of interest to: Mainliners, Evangelicals and Charismatics; kids, teens, twenty-somethings, middle-agers and seniors; seekers, new believers and veterans; scholars, students, and blue-collar workers; people needing help with their marriage, parenting, addictions, finances, interpersonal relationships, prayer life, devotional life and bad habits; those wanting to learn more about missions, church history, denominational distinctions, and church leadership. To all this add some products which enhance Christian life for those who want to: fill their home with Christian music including hymns, chants, country, adult contemporary, modern worship, rock, rap, etc.; have a few inspirational quotes on their walls and tables including plaques, paintings and picture frames; offer their family a wholesome substitute for the movies they would otherwise watch; have some little gift or novelty that they can give to a child to remind them that God loves them.

Oh yes… and Bibles!

And this is an abomination? That’s rather strong language.

  • I already have more than enough Bibles, and I can’t think of a single other book they’d carry that I would want to read.

Seriously? There’s nothing there for you at all? Not one author who represents your brand of Christianity? Nothing you need for personal enrichment? You’ve got it all.

  • I am sorry for the employees losing their jobs in depressed places – but the closing of Family Values Propaganda Market is a good thing, IMO. Good riddance.

To the above we now add propaganda? By definition, this is material that a group writes about itself. There isn’t one book on the shelves is about Jesus? Maybe you simply (think you) know too much. You’ve been totally jaded and can’t see the good that is still be accomplished through those books.

Or…maybe you’ve never been in a country where nationals would give their eye teeth to get their hands on a commentary or Christian living title or even a praise CD.

  • Yeah, I am not sorry to see the Family Christian book stores close. So much “Jesus junk” made in China; candles with Bible verses, straws in the shape of the Jesus fish, sox that have some religious symbolism, and a few cheesy books but very little that is truly theological.

You focused on the non-book products, and when you did look at the books you wrote them all off with the term cheesy. Perhaps you don’t realize that the high-brow academic tomes you seek are sold in places like that by special order.

Oh, and by the way, if something is anti-theological, bookstore chains and independents vet their product very carefully, something you can’t say for the “Christian” section of Barnes and Noble.

  • The last couple of Bibles I bought for gifts, I got online just to avoid the bookstore.

The bookstore was more than a store. It was a meeting place for Christians and performed a large number of non-retail functions, including referrals to local churches and Christian counselors; as well as staff trained to help new believers connect with that first Bible and parents get the appropriate Bible for their kids, rather than buying one online and then finding it’s too young or too old for them. In 240 places, that will not happen anymore. Your disdain led to the demise of something which you judged as not necessary.

Sorry. That attitude does not emanate from someone who possesses the Spirit of God. A Christian wants to be with and encourage fellow Christians. A Christian wants to come alongside the people, places and ministries which God is using.

And God used those bookstores. You just don’t hear those stories as loudly as you hear from those who seem to be almost rejoicing at Family Christian’s demise; a behavior I would more expect — forgive me for this — from demons.

  • I haven’t set foot in a Christian bookstore in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

Again, a personal choice perhaps, but being flaunted like a badge of honor. I haven’t given to the Salvation Army in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t been to a Christian conference in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t listened to Christian radio stations in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

It’s just too easy to fill in that blank, but to what end? It’s not particularly righteous sounding is it? But it has enough of an air of spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness that someone might be impressed by it. For at least 60 seconds. And then it kind of hangs there and the speaker’s heart is laid bare.

So…want to know the real reasons Family Christian stores closed? It wasn’t the stores’ fault.

  1. The U.S. publishing establishment is caught in a “hardcover first edition” mentality which diminishes sales potential through high prices. When a “trade paperback conversion” happens a year later, the sales momentum is completely lost. As more and more Christian authors migrated from the traditional Christian publishers (Baker, Cook, Tyndale, etc.) to the big publishing houses (Hachette, Harper, S&S, etc.) where this mentality is more entrenched, average retail prices for new releases by the bestselling authors actually skyrocketed.
  2. The industry is founded on a “stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” mentality instead of a common sense, “just in time” distribution and delivery system. They send out “floor dumps” and “planograms” with an “if you build it they will come” confidence while failing to see to the organic nurture and cultivating of an author over time.
  3. The parent company never embraced the “order online; pick up instore” concept, even as record numbers of parcels were being stolen off front porches. Or the idea of “shop online, refine your purchase instore.”
  4. Christian publishers were too content to produce products for Christians, when in fact Christians were looking for things to give their non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers.
  5. Individual FCS stores were caught in national marketing programs that necessitated purchasing of products nobody wanted or needed at the expense of things for which there was demonstrated local interest.
  6. There was no equivalent to the woman at the big box store handing out samples. First chapter excerpts of the latest Christian titles were simply too hard to come by online. Give people a taste of the author, let them understand his or her heart and intention, and perhaps they might have made the purchase.
  7. Chain stores and publishers have no consumer product panels and no working customer feedback mechanisms. There’s no suggestion box, no place for people to offer their opinions except for the angry rants when a chain shuts down. (As an insider, I can tell you that some of the major players in Christian publishing have nobody to whom store owners and managers can send an email suggestion. They know it all. They have all the answers. They create the products, the stores just sell them; a condescending relationship.)
  8. The industry lost credibility when authors and artists admitted moral failure and yet they continued to market and distribute their products.
  9. Ten years ago, publishers offered print on demand as kind of second life for slow-moving backlist titles and series, but then got seduced by the quicker, lower-cost solution they found in eBooks.
  10. Some pastors got too big for their britches. Once they started to see national success on a grand scale they stepped down from their churches and lost a big part of their platform overnight. I challenge you to show me a “former Pastor of …” who is better known now then they were then. (Okay, maybe the guy who teamed up briefly with Oprah.)

This is a crisis for American Christianity generally. Don’t blame the people at Family Christian. Yes, management mistakes were made; but many were doing the best they could with the materials they were given.

If the industry doesn’t shake itself awake, LifeWay and Parable are next. Hopefully, the requiem for the entire retail genre is still not needed.

May 5, 2016

Moving on to Bigger and Better Things

life's journey

As many of you know, I follow an unofficial and invisible ‘algorithm’ of sorts whereby I consistently return to same month posts from previous years to look for new material and new approaches to old topics.

Sometimes there are surprises: The particular item we quoted or linked to has been scrubbed from the site, or the entire blog or website no longer exists. I’ve never purged an article from any of my sites. If it was worth saying that day, I think it’s worth being able to go back and examine it again.

But often, it’s just a case of the writer stopped writing and rode off into the sunset.

The reasons vary, I suppose; but this one got to me:

This week I signed a publishing agreement with [name of publisher] to write my first book.

And with that, he was gone.

I recognize that you can only be active on so many fronts and perhaps if I had a book deal with that publisher — which came close once; they read my manuscript — I might reconsider the daily posts here. But then I keep thinking: It was probably their blog that got them the attention which led to the book deal, and now they’ve stopped doing the thing that got them where they are.

Some things we do in life are stepping stones. One thing leads to another. Once you’ve mastered the bicycle, you tend to leave the tricycle in the garage. I get that. But when it comes to sharing your thoughts in a forum like this one, I don’t see how you can simply not have anything more to say. What about topics that aren’t the central theme of the book you’re doing? Do you no longer have opinions on subjects that are currently on the minds of your (former) readers?

If you are a regular reader here, you know where this is going: Pastors who reach a degree of national prominence, get a major book contract, and step down from local church ministry. We saw this in the last decade with people like Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

I don’t think it’s right to sit back in my recliner and armchair quarterback other peoples’ lives. I would probably never claim to know the will of God for someone’s journey. I believe it highly presumptuous to critique the career changes of individuals I don’t know intimately.

However, in the realm of faith, I believe that the heart of ministry is local church ministry. Show me a published author who detaches himself (or herself) from the day-to-day stuff of the local congregation, and I’ll show you someone who will slowly lose the thing that got them their book contract. On a micro scale, show someone who is a pastor, but is never available at the door to shake hands after the service, or never does coffee shop appointments with parishioners, and I’ll show you a pastor whose sermons will become distanced from the very people he (or she) serves.

For those who are blessed with a deal from a major publisher: Don’t stop blogging. Don’t quit doing the everyday, run-of-the-mill thing that got you where you are. Your book won’t suffer; the non-contractual writing may in fact enhance it.

Not all bigger things are better things; they may just pay more bills.

September 14, 2015

When is a Book Actually Sold?

photo essay - newark

I had a book review scheduled for today, but then noticed the publisher’s instructions to post it within a specific time frame. Much of this has to do with ‘street dates,’ a system in place that allows publishers and distributors to ship books to retailers ahead of time, which are then held in stockrooms up to a specific ‘lay down’ date which ensures that no single store has a competitive advantages. Stores which are caught not complying are then not allowed to have their future street-date products shipped until the day before or day of release.

The system seems fair until you consider that online vendors can sell the product days, weeks or even months ahead of release. The key here is what is meant by sell. A prepayment means that there has been an actual transaction of funds, but some online sellers don’t run the credit card until the book is actually shipping.

Still, pre-ordering is a huge advantage to internet vendors. Having said that, I realize there is nothing stopping a local store or retail chain from taking advance orders as well. Some are successful at locking customer orders in, and with “A” list titles, sometimes the publisher will go to the trouble of printing up pre-order forms and displays for the stores to use.

But I would argue that if the online vendors are selling the product ahead of time, the delivery to the customer is a moot point.

However, the counter argument is that with a major, much-anticipated release, having the book in the hands of some customers but not others would mean the leaking of major spoilers involving key plot and character details. So the street date system has the advantage of building suspense and creating a theoretical equal footing for all retailers.

Generally, I like my reviews to run the week of the release in physical, brick-and-mortar bookstores. To me, earlier reviews only give the internet sellers an unfair example. People read my reviews, like what I said about it, and then often respond without having to leave their computer. (I generally only review books I am predisposed to like. Despite the blog’s popularity and the number of titles I am offered, I only have so much room on a limited number of bookshelves; ten of the Ikea-style shelves to be precise.)

I do think that physical stores could go a long way toward adopting the pre-sell model, but it can be an administrative burden if you don’t have the staff, or if, in our uniquely Canadian situation, currency fluctuations mean the book might have a different retail price by the time the copies hit the sales floor.

If I weren’t connected to retail, would the blog be an A**zon referrer? I’ve often thought about that. I do love books and connecting people and products I think will be useful in their lives. When that day comes, and it will, I would be more likely to be a referrer to Christian Book Distributors.

October 4, 2010

The Misunderstood God Revisited

I sometimes repeat posts here, and I sometimes do book reviews, but the two never mix.   I’ve never repeated a book review.   But every once in awhile there’s a book that gets lost in the shuffle, and while reviewers love to write about books that aren’t even released yet, there’s nothing wrong with mining the shelves for things others may have missed…

So partly because The Shack publishers are weighed down in a legal quagmire and not doing anything new, and partly because I think it raises other issues, let’s take a look at this title reviewed one year ago…

God Is Not Self-Seeking

God did not send his only son to die because God was so offended by sin that he needed to whack somebody in order to feel better. A “sin offering” is not made to God. A sin offering is an offering made to sin. Sin is a beast that wants to devour us. Imagine you are camping in the wilderness alone and you come upon a grizzly. The moment that bear sees you and begins running toward you, I promise you this: you had better come bearing gifts! If you have nothing to offer that beast he will devour you. The sacrifice on the cross was essentially Christ throwing himself in front of the beast on your behalf and allowing it to consume Him while you escaped. Jesus did not die on the cross to satisfy God’s moral rage at your sin. He died to save you from the beast of sin. The death he died to sin once for all.

~Darin Hufford, The Misunderstood God (Windblown Media, November 2009) pp 97-98

In a world where we often speak of “brands” in Christian publishing, it’s unusual to see a publishing imprint where many different voices seem to speaking to one central mission or sharing one common voice. Windblown Media has managed to do just that, pushing a giant “pause” button on some of our nearest and dearest views on both the Godhead; and our views on the church — us — the way we interact together as the body, as well as within our families or mariages.

As with He Loves Me, The Shack, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, Bo’s Café, and now The Misunderstood God by Darin Hufford, readers are treated to a fresh perspective, one that is sure to bring about some agitation by those who would have us follow a God that is not a kindler, gentler deity.

The Misunderstood GodWhen I first flipped through the pages of The Misunderstood God, I was expecting something similar to the first half of Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips. I came to that book about a dozen years ago for the first time, and was astounded by how much my own God perspective was informed more by comparisons to other authority figures than informed by scripture itself.

While some people might see books like this as a giant piece of chalk (or marker) about to write on the giant blackboard (or whiteboard) everything one needs to know in terms of their doctrine of God, I prefer to see this kind of book as a giant eraser, cleaning off all those false doctrines and wrong views we’ve collected over the years. Sometimes, such an eraser has to scrub a little bit harder to get some of those off the board so we can start fresh.

In fact, the first half of Your God Is Too Small by Phillips does just that type of deconstruction — in only about 60 pages of this rather small book — before reconstructing in the second half; but it’s the first half of the book that really packs the greatest punch.

darin huffordBut a few chapters into The Misunderstood God I finally figured out that the deconstruction and reconstruction takes place here on a chapter-by-chapter basis, using as its motif, I Corinthians 13. I’ve heard people speak before on how the “Love is patient, love is kind…” passage can, if it’s true that ‘God is love,’ be read as, “God is patient, God is kind…” I had just never seen it before as the key to healing misunderstandings we have about the nature of God.

The problem compounds for those who — in either J. B. Phillips’ generation or Darin Hufford’s generation — can’t embrace the idea of a kinder, gentler God because it would mean unsubscribing from all the lifelong beliefs they have held. Many people are predisposed to being angry because their God is angry. Actually, I heard that years ago at a music festival where a speaker suggested — in jest — the following worship lyrics:

He is Lord!
He is Lord!
He has risen from the dead
And blown his stack!

I remember everyone laughing at the absurdity of those lyrics, but really, that’s the God-picture that’s more dominant in our minds. Which is why the Windblown books, particular He Loves Me by Wayne Jacobsen and The Misunderstood God are so badly needed.

I do think there are some rough edges in the writing. A few sentences left me wide-eyed wondering, “Did he really mean to say that?” I thought of marking pages as I was reading, but then I figured the critics will find these soon enough.

What matters most here is that books like this are refreshing to the soul. Maybe the chalk (or the marker) is needed, but the eraser first has to get rid of everything previously written. Books like this are rare, which makes them a breath of fresh air.

God loves you. God is love. He is a loving God. Yes, he is a God of justice and yes, he has shown his judgment of sin in the past and will do so again. But the latter has been inscribed on our minds much more than the former, which needs to be said again and again, if only to be given equal time.

God loves you. God is love. He is a loving God. Just say that out loud a few times.

God loves me. God is love. He is my loving God.

For He Loves Me, here’s my review from December 16, 2008, a remix review from May 3rd.

For So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore, here’s my review from April 19, 2008.

For Bo’s Café, here’s my recent review from September 14, 2009.

he loves methe shackSo You Don't Want To GoBo's CaféThe Misunderstood God

Pictured: book cover, Darin Hufford, Windblown Media family of titles.

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