The fate of books

By , 20 November 2009 7:02 pm

It would be very tempting to pursue the theme announced in the comments to last week’s blog that I am not simply banned in Tibet but actually threatened by Tibetans. The idea of mysterious Tibetan assassins lying in wait for me (what with? yak prods? yurt stakes?) is so wonderful that I refuse to countenance the possibility that the death threat merely comes from one of my mildly deranged students who probably thinks that Tibet is some sort of London fashion emporium.

Actually, the week actually brought fairly serious news for those of us engaged in Christian writing: namely the fact that the curious tripartite organisation that is Wesley Owen (bookshops), Authentic (books) and the United Bible Society are effectively bankrupt and are in the hands of something close to a receiver. This is sad and difficult news not simply because they owe me several hundred pounds in royalties. Nearly 500 jobs are at stake and I have a suspicion that with the state of retail and publishing in this country many of those who lose their job will not easily find other ones. Incidentally, this is part of something of a general malaise in this sector of publishing: I gather that Borders is also in a perilous state at the moment.

I have some specific comments on these matters but they are not really suitable for blogging. Let me instead say that I’m praying for some sort of solution to this problem but I feel that whoever takes over has at least three deep obstacles to deal with

Obstacle 1) Book readership has declined catastrophically in society in general and only slightly less amongst Christians. I commented to someone earlier this week that if I walked past five hundred of our students in the corridors and common rooms I would barely see one reading a book (and, in all probability, that would be a vampire book). They text, they wriggle and tap at computer games, they play cards, they access the Internet, but they very rarely read. (The fact that some of our students are of the highest calibre makes it all rather more worrying.) As so often with social trends I suspect the church is merely a few years behind. Our own church, which includes a very high number of doctorates, is not marked by high levels of reading. It would be a fascinating exercise to ask from the pulpit, how many people had bought or read a Christian book in the previous month. I’m not sure I have the courage to raise the question. Exactly why there has been this decline ought to be discussed some other day. Is the key factor the rise of experiential-based worship? Or the growth of the Internet? Or is it just the busyness of modern society? Anyone attempting to market Christian books these days has to grapple with this waning literacy. And trust me, when you get out of the habit of reading books then soon the very idea of reading a book becomes a hurdle that has to be overcome rather than a delight to wallow in. Incidentally, I should say that not all young people in churches do not read: both our sons are very literate members of theologically conservative churches that regularly proclaim the importance of reading.

Obstacle 2) Purchasing on the Internet has now become the norm rather than the exception (thanks Phil for the correction here!). To be honest it is so easy buying books on the Internet that I find myself doing it more and more frequently. Let’s say I realise that I need a book. What are the alternatives? I could get out the car, drive down to town, try and park, find a bookshop, locate the book section and then probably find that the book wasn’t there but they could get it for me in a week or so at full price. I then have to return back home. Goodbye the best part of two hours. Or I could call up Amazon, browse around, check the reviews, order online and have it delivered within little more than 48 hours at a discount price. All without leaving my seat and probably within ten minutes. It’s not a hard decision is it? I wish it was otherwise: I love bookshops but the equations don’t stack up

Obstacle 3) Digital downloads are finally beginning to make inroads against paper books. Around ten years ago someone got in touch with me trying to get digital publication rights for the two books I wrote as John Howarth, Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge. I was assured that digital book readers were going to take off. They weren’t then but it looks like they will soon will with Kindle and its kin. In fact my most recent purchases of theological literature have been in digital format. I have recently moved to the new Logos Bible Software 4 (very nice) which seems to be the winner in the battle for Bible study and research software, and bought some books for that. No, I don’t like reading on screen but I do like to be able to painlessly reference and search books like this. But I can’t help but feel that, as digital downloads have largely squeezed record shops out of existence, so downloads may do just the same for bookshops.

So with these three big obstacles you would probably assume that I am pessimistic. Curiously enough, I am not entirely so. I feel convinced there must be a way forward for Christian publishing. However I have a strong feeling that it will be based, not around the model of the Christian bookshop as a major profit-making enterprise, but as the Christian bookshop as an expression of church service to the community. But I’m open to bright ideas. And I’m pretty sure our publishing companies are too.

Have a good week,

Chris

9 Responses to “The fate of books”

  1. Phil Groom says:

    Interesting points, Chris: thank you. Would love it if you’d like to join in the conversations over on the UKCBD blog.

    Two observations: it’s actually IBS, International Bible Society, now rebranding themselves as ‘Biblica’ that have run into crisis here. It’s a tad confusing with so many organisations calling themselves ‘Bible Society’ – this interview in Christian Marketplace explains a bit.

    Next, your second obstacle: wondering if you mean “Purchasing on the Internet has now become the norm rather than the exception.”??

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phil Groom, Eddie Olliffe. Eddie Olliffe said: RT @notbovvered: Just added Chris Walley's 'The fate of books' http://bit.ly/6wpEBl to my STL UK Crisis Reports roundup, bit.ly/4v6GGx […]

  3. John Telford says:

    Chris, an interesting post. I was involved in Wesley Owen from 1997 to 2007. The model was never (supposed) to be one of ‘a major profit making exercise.’ We were always pleased to break even. I’m sure at this stage in their history nobody at IBS-STL would mind me saying that when a surplus was made it was either ploughed back into the charity in orher to extend the ministry or was given away to other ministries. It may have appeared that Wesley Owen was making a profut, but that was only because we were determined to look professional and appear credible on the High Street.

    You’ll no doubt be aware that Wesley Owen was set up as the trading arm of OM in order to directly support their frontline ministry. Over the years it became abundantly clear that the shops themselves provided a ministry in their own right. Just visit the shops in South Woodford or Harrow, to mentio two< to see how that works on the ground today.

    I absolutely hope beyond hope that IBS-STL survives in the UK. I pray that the Lord will provide a way through the current storm they facve. Without them the UK Christian book and Bible trade is likely to collapse. Smaller publishers rely on them to provide an economy of scale big enough to allow them to sell books at an affordable price. These publishers are the home of many of our UK authors. Without IBS-STL we will lose most authors who are not known in the USA – we'd be left with only those with the profile of Plass, Lucas, Chalke and co.

    Similarly independent Christian bookshops will go to the wall. Except for IVP there will not be a major wholesaler providing an easy one-stop-shop for them. And without extensive knowledge and lots of time how will those shops order new products and keep track of the latest (non God TV) trends?

    Should these two developments happen after the poissible demise of IBS-STL the ministry of the church in the UK will be compromised through a serious lack of good resources.

    For the sake of the local church I hope and pray that IBS-STL survive. Therefore can I urge you and all your rfeaders to pray for Keith Danby and all others involved in the charity, and take every opportunity to support Christian bookshops, particularly Wesley Owen at this crucial time.

    John

    apologies to John for not posting this comment sooner. For some reason the spam filter I use with WordPress decided to put it into spam comments.

  4. Daniel says:

    Maybe you’ve seen this already, but if not, it’s well worth checking out: Tim Challies’ description of the ultimate Christian novel (http://www.challies.com/archives/general-news/ramblings/the-ultimate-christian-novel.php).

  5. David says:

    Yurts are Mongolian…

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