Even in the Christian bookstore market, where our core message is unchanged in 2,000 years, certain book genres have a short shelf life, such as:
- Family life books on coping with technology. I write this just as a new one is releasing. I know the author (Andy Crouch) and am looking forward to stocking it. But in this category, anything five years or older is probably out of touch with whatever is trending, though the principles may still apply. Good luck if the book references “your AOL account.” Most of these fall into the marriage or parenting sub-category.
- Prophecy titles. I don’t read a lot of these, but I notice some of them turn up on remainder lists after only twelve months. I suppose you only have to get it wrong on a single page and then they stone you. Okay, we don’t actually stone writers, but having the print copies turn up at 99-cents on CBD is probably just as painful.
- Personality-based books. Have you noticed all the Duck Dynasty product that’s reduced right now? Also many times that “rising” Hollywood celebrity or sports star fails to achieve the fame that publishers promised when pitching the books. Or the book has sales potential in the U.S. that never successfully makes the border crossing, except maybe in Emerson, Manitoba, which doesn’t have a lot of bookstores.)
- Youth Ministry texts. Remember that game where you pass the Life Saver on a toothpick? Well, if you wanted grow your youth group, it probably worked in the 1950s (at least in the more progressive churches of that day) but today it might even have liability issues. Even a year later, these books only work when student pastors take the ideas and modify them.
- Too good to be true trends. You didn’t think the adult coloring book thing would last forever, did you?
Did we miss any?
One of the distinctives of the Christian book market is the ongoing strength of our backlist. I would venture that our per-capita rate of perennial titles is higher than any other book genre.
The downside of this — and I have been recently made aware how guilty I am of this — is that our vast libraries of books are often spine out rather than facings. (It was interesting to note last week that in the new Amazon retail stores, all books are face out, without exception.) The picture above, for something we did on Facebook called “Tozerama,” shows how many of our stores’ shelves appear, and how our customers have to turn their heads sideways to read titles.
So while we often “judge a book by its cover” and consider the sales potential of a title when the sales rep shows us the planned cover art, in many of our stores it’s the spine of the book that makes it stand out, especially months later when it has left the “New Releases” section.
So when Tim Underwood posted the link to this story on Twitter today, I knew it was worth sharing with readers here. Do you think that publishers in the Christian market consider how we shelve our books?
Click to read The Overlooked Art of Designing a Book Spine at medium.com.
I try to get to Chapters at least once every 60 days. I think it’s important to track the titles that our suppliers are recommending to them. Things have improved there greatly. While we’ve written about the problem some customers could experience because there are not the same filters as one finds in a Christian store, and about the discernment customers need to have in that environment; though things are definitely improving.
Three things dominated at Chapters’ store in Markham.
One was the new packaging of the KJV Bibles. I suppose that if there’s one market where I would not want to encourage KJV purchases, it would be selling the most difficult-to-read translation to a broad cross-section of consumers. Wouldn’t it be better to steer customers in the general marketplace toward the NLT, Message or NIV? However, I got thinking about this more and decided that Chapters stores probably have a strong market demand for KJV that most of us neither understand nor experience in our stores.
Second, was the shelf of Joyce Meyer titles, which I suspect do well there:
Third, and not surprising was the C. S. Lewis collection. I liked the uniform look of the HarperOne covers and saw a few things I need to add to my own store.
It always amazes me when dealers here simply laugh or change the subject when the subject of Anchor/Word Alive is mentioned. Everyone is beyond frustration, but most are unwilling to go on the record because we’re Christian stores and we’re Canadian and so we have two reasons to be extra polite. But let’s face it: Their system is set up so completely contrary to Standard Account Principles (SAP) and (today’s topic) standard methods of order processing that really, they are undermining the success of Christian bookstores.
One of the many, many problems — and we won’t even get into the joke that is their new website — is that you can’t build an order cart you don’t plan to clear through within 24-48 hours. Let me say that again in case I’m not clear: You can’t add to cart in the way you do with your other vendors. In their system, add to cart works as though it physically removes the product. No one else can touch it at that point, unless you default on your order. On the plus side, if you do complete the order, no one can shop product ‘out’ of your cart. (The best example of that, with which many of you are familiar, would be Book Depot.)
However — and this is a big however — it also means that when your backorders come up, they can also be shopped out. Do they remain on backorder when this happens? Who is prepared to answer that question? Not anyone who you try to get to address this, that’s for sure. And their left hand (Manitoba) clearly doesn’t know what their right hand (Pennsylvania) is doing. And vice versa.
Small, small case in point. We ordered the movie I’m Not Ashamed by PureFlix Entertainment. (We’ll leave aside here the whole other discussion about what PureFlix has cooked up with 100 Huntley Street to further undermine our DVD sales.) We actually placed two small order, one on January 11th and one on February 6th. We can’t buy these from their regular stock because of pricing issues, so we’re purchasing from the stock marked Canadian Sales Only. (We’ve asked if they can simply move a few copies from the regular shelf to the Canadian-designated shelf to get us off their backs. No response. Correspondence ignored.)
On Thursday at 5:40 PM — we had already closed — we were notified they were ready to ship. We couldn’t do the order on Friday so today, before noon we placed our order. Guess what? The product has vanished! Once again. Let me be totally honest here, I have reached the point of giving up trying to be polite. My customers are waiting. I am trying to be their advocate to watch this movie. (I don’t even want to watch it myself anymore, nor do I wish to cooperate with any future PureFlix releases.)
What this also means is this: Some store(s) which purchased this product spontaneously on Friday were able to get copies which were supposedly on hold for me without having to having to wait. Sorry, but if that’s your store, you jumped the line. You’re the person at the grocery store who simply walks to the front of the line and cuts in ahead of everyone else. But it’s not your fault. It’s Word Alive’s fault. It’s Anchor’s fault. And for the customers we may have notified on the weekend that their product was on the way, who we now have to tell that it’s not on the way, it just sucks.
This is a deplorable way to run a company. There ought to be laws. Perhaps there are, actually if you can make the case that this constitutes unfair trade practices. You might have to prove it was done to give preferential treatment to other dealers. But you might not. It might be sufficient to argue in court that Anchor simply acted unfairly in their dealings with their accounts.
Furthermore, as Christians should not be aiming for excellence? Should we not wish to attain the highest standards?
I am filing a formal complaint with PureFlix on behalf of dealers here. We’re just in the process of framing who will formally receive that letter.
Publishers and media companies: We have two other independent distributors in Canada who are worthy of distributing your fine products: Parasource and Foundation. On their very worst days they will do a better job for you than Anchor/Word Alive.
I’ve sold this Max Lucado devotional several times. The author has instant name recognition. Each of the 365 devotional readings has a scripture verse, a story and some practical application at the bottom. A little light for some perhaps, but exactly what others are looking for. I’ve especially sold it to men. The cover has more of a masculine feel, I guess; especially in a market where so much is geared for Becky, the stereotype female customer. I’ve had good feedback from people who bought it for their husband or someone in their teens, 20s or 30s.
However, each time I’ve sold one of these for an adult, I’ve had to hand-sell it. The reason: Thomas Nelson makes no allowance in its book categories for students or young adults, which is the target market. That category designation isn’t available I suppose. But for every copy I’ve sold, we’ve had other customers who passed. Or the two who were buying it for a student, but got me to put some type of sticker over the offending word, Juvenile.
This is true of other Thomas Nelson products, but I don’t remember this particular problem with other publishers. It’s counterproductive. Better no category. Or Devotional.
Have you had a similar experience with this or other products?
Over the holidays we received a couple of updates from Derek Ouellette at Inspired Christian Storehouse in Windsor. First of all the bookseller resource Derek was offering no longer has a subscription fee and the pages have all been unlocked:
We cancelled the Christian Bookstore Media Kit membership site and opened it up to everyone. You don’t need to log in to access the content we created for it. All remaining memberships were cancelled.
Visit the site at cbmediakit.com.
…At the same time, Derek shared with us an interesting program he is trying at his store. Do you think this would work at yours? For a $20 membership fee, customers get a 20% discount on everything in the store for an entire year. It’s certainly a great reward program for regular supporters. Here’s a video commercial he produced for the service.
Retailers need to be careful not to be influenced by end-of-year lists of the “best Christian books.” It’s so easy to look at a list and say, “Maybe I should be carrying this one, or that one.” Here are some things to note:
- Some reviewers pride themselves on creating eclectic lists or focusing too heavily on esoteric items. Titles are listed which stores can’t even buy at a normal trade discount. The reviews sound appealing, but in the end the greatest market for some of these books are book reviewers, and they get their books for free.
- You have to check the source of the website making the list, many are aimed only at academic readers or pastors. While it’s true that if I had my reading life to live over again I would have chosen more IVP titles and fewer Max Lucado — nothing personal, Max — the average customer isn’t ready for some of the material contained in the more cerebral works on scholarly book lists.
- Advertorials abound. The list you’re reading may be from a particular publisher.
- Agenda-oriented lists are everywhere. A great example is this one. At first I was going to put this list of Children’s Bible story books on my store’s Facebook page, since we carry a number of these titles in our store. I passed on it simply because there was no denying the author’s blatant Calvinist bias. Many of the titles were from Crossway, which I have now come to view as a denominational publisher, and carry their titles only by special order.
In the general market, more attention is paid to lists and award-winners, but even there, I’m sure that stores have filters for knowing when to jump in and when to hold back. Here’s a better formula:
- The CBA lists are generally helpful, but Canadian stores need to avoid things which have a particular U.S.-interest. Also, the number one title on some of the monthly lists is often the Standard Lesson Commentary, but in 21.5 years, I’ve never sold one. So it needs to be read discerningly.
- A couple of British titles. I try to check Eden and Koorong frequently to see what’s selling over there and if the titles have distribution here, I’ll jump in. We’re Canadians, and just as our worship music is not entirely dominated by what happens in Nashville, so our reading shouldn’t be dictated by U.S. sales.
- Unique titles. This are items you feel will work in your store and you have dedicated yourself to doing the necessary promotion. We’ve done this a few times to the point where a supplier will ask us what’s driving the sales.
- Local-interest authors. In the summer of 2015 our #1 title and #3 title had a connection to our community, though the writers do not live here.
- Revivals. If the publisher thought the book was worth re-issuing in a new cover and we agree that it has greater potential, then I’ll play the game.
What’s not working:
- Christian Television. Remember the days when the simple breath of a title on Benny Hinn brought customers looking for the book? That’s long gone except for 100 Huntley Street, which (especially since the show’s last reworking) is still the bookstore owner’s best friend. Besides, many of the shows offer the books themselves and people are more accustomed to ordering online or by phone.
- Christian Radio. Even Focus on the Family has lost its influence.
- Reviews in magazines. These benefit booksellers more than anyone else. Beyond that we don’t see a stampede to the store when the new issue of Christianity Today arrives in the mail because so few receive it.
- Reviews on blogs. Publishers continue to ship great quantities of books (especially fiction) to bloggers, many of whom actually have very conservative followings. It’s the Calvinists who seem to have the greatest love affair with books, and many of them read on Kindle.
What is working:
- A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon.
- A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon.
- A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon. I can’t state this enough. If the local church pastor recommends the book, people will respond. In droves. So…how do we make this happen more often? How do we make pastors aware of what’s available? When they do come in the store, they are often so busy and so single-focus-driven that there’s no time to chat, let alone point out key resources.
- Word of mouth.
- Word of mouth. This is especially evident among, but not limited to women.
- A book mentioned in another book or at a conference or in a video curriculum.
So again fellow bookseller, don’t be intimated by the end of year lists. Remember, those are reviewer favorites not charts of sales performance. Let other metrics govern your inventory choices.
This is my 2,000th article here at Christian Book Shop Talk. That’s a lot of comings and goings of publishers, distributors, stores and sales reps. A lot of new policies and ways of doing business to consider. A lot of ups and downs for the Canadian dollar. Perhaps mostly, a lot of rants and raves! I thought today, in honor of the occasion I’d share with you a thing I just posted to our store Facebook page. I don’t do this sort of thing often, but some customers have a sense of ownership and are often asking, “How’s the store doing?” I can give them sales numbers if they really need them, but I also like to share my heart for our street-front ministry.
This approach, and the content of what follows is not without controversy. I know some of you would not do this with your customers. I accept that. But it’s something that’s been brewing for a long time that I needed to share with my store community. Your store newsletter or Facebook page may just contain hours and sale items. Decide what approach works best for you.
-•–•- State of the Bookstore Address -•–•-
Each year, the President of the United States gives a State of the Union address to a joint session of the Senate and Congress. Today I want to do something similar for our bookstore family.
Christian bookstores tend to reflect the character of the person who owns them as well as key staff and managers. Because I’ve always worked for Christian organizations (100 Huntley Street, Inter-Varsity Canada, Canadian Bible Society, Muskoka Woods, Cobourg Alliance Church, Northumberland Christian School, etc.) for me, Christian service has never been a Sunday thing or a one-week-per-night thing. I am somewhat immersed in mission. I’ve always been passionate and perhaps even a bit intense about things like Christian service, the Bible, spiritual authenticity, spiritual maturity and simply knowing Jesus.
For me, it matters to know the full arc of the Bible’s story. It matters to know how to present this to outsiders and overcome their objections. It matters to know the rules for proper Biblical interpretation. It matters to know the stories of those spiritual pioneers who went before us and the biographies of those contemporary saints who serve us today. It matters to know what Christian experts say about the standards for marriage and parenting and extended family life. It matters to better understand the nuances of my brothers and sisters in other tribes of the broader church. It matters to be able to access the tools which help us dig deeper into God’s Word. It matters to be able to discern practical application of the scriptures in our neighbourhoods and workplaces. It matters to know the words and melodies of the songs used to sing praises to God both today and in times past. It matters to have a window into what God is doing in the Church around the world. It matters to have the materials to communicate the Christ story to our children, teens and young adults.
That’s a lot of ‘matters.’ But honestly, some days I feel like I’m the only one. There are times like I feel like that nobody else gives a care in the world for these things.
Increasingly, we have days that are greatly dominated by non-book transactions. Don’t get me wrong, the mugs and the movies and the T-shirts and the jewelry and the cards help pay the bills. But I wonder sometimes if it’s true that I’m ‘the only one’ as noted above or if I should just take a cue from our friends at Chapters/Indigo and just remove vast sections of the books in order to spread out the giftware?
For me, the books matter. We have over 1,000 items in our store which would be considered Bibles in one form or another. If that’s true of Bibles, I can’t imagine how many books we have. However, having this great choice is useless if people don’t take the time to browse. Having an awesome selection is ineffective if people only want to read material by some fringe teacher they saw on a late night Christian TV channel. Having a selection of books at all is ill-advised if all your customers are buying is non-book commodities.
Sales were up slightly in November. It’s important that you know that. I’m not writing from a standpoint of financial discouragement. It’s about our mission. It’s about enhancing the Christian lives of the constituency we serve. That’s why we’re there.
If you’re a regular reader — and perhaps you had to be to read this today — obviously this isn’t directed at you.
If you’re a shopper for non-book things, we do still need you. However, I hope you’ll consider diving into a good book. I hope you’ll consider developing what BIll Hybels calls a “chair time.” If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll model reading for your children.
My wish for you this Christmas is that you’ll have a favorite Christian author and a favorite Christian book category.
Whether it’s a specialty market bookstore like yours or a general market bookstore, you may not realize that you are defined as being part of the trade bookstore market. If you’ve ever tried to get your son or daughter a science textbook for college, you may have realized that the trade market is only part of a wider arena of what goes on in book publishing
- Trade books market – that’s us
- Textbook market – elementary and high school boards, homeschoolers, colleges and universities
- Gift market books – similar to trade books but offered only at gift shows or to stores like Hallmark
- Premium market – books offered as a gift with donations
- Remainder market – the book equivalent of CD deletes, authors do not receive royalties
- Overstock market – books released into the market at lower prices with reduced author royalties; or liquidating due to superseded cover information
- Magazine paradigm market – things like Harlequin books are sold this way; timed display period, strip cover returns
- Antiquarian market – older highly collectable books, usually used but sometimes never-sold first editions
- Used book market – this bypasses any supplier network and includes thrift shops but also some trade retailers who keep a used selection in the back or in the basement
That list is missing a few things but it will suffice. As I mentioned, most of us don’t get access to textbooks in a way that would help our children at university, and when we buy things like Steeple Hill (the Christian division of Harlequin) we usually buy them for keeps and don’t play the 90-day sales window game. Some of us still sell Christian magazines — Relevant alone has kept that department energized — and others of us will dabble in the Harvest House gift market titles which can be ordered through FDI.
But the area most common to Christian bookstores — besides trade titles — is remainders and overstock titles. The advantages are many
- higher margin
- popularity of low-priced items with frugal customers
- opportunity to create your own in-house sales
- store looks full with a lower inventory investment
A few years ago we counted and we had twelve different sources for remainder books that we had used in the previous 24 months including suppliers in the U.S. and Canada. Some involved buying skids of 25 cartons, two others allowed us to pick and choose titles in a retail-type environment with no minimums.
However, the downside of remainder books is that some customers think you’re selling used books. As someone who advertises his store proudly as an outlet store, trust me, this happens all the time. In the customers’ minds there are four qualities of merchandise in this category:
- Publisher overstock – we tell our customers these are often books that have been replaced by one with a new cover, or a study guide that’s now included, or there are price/barcode issues
- Remainders – the book is now out of catalogue
- Hurt books – what our customers understand better when marked AS IS – though we explain that we don’t seek these out, but that (until recently) about 10% of our remainders fall into this category
- Used books – we explain that we don’t sell used books at all; if it was previously owned and we can see that, we don’t carry it. (This also makes it easier for us to be a collection point for Christian Salvage Mission.)
The problem we’re currently facing is this: An increasing number of books from Book Depot are falling into the hurt category and we are now encountering strong evidence of books that belong in a used category. As you can see in the Bible below, verses on both sides of the page have been underlined:
In the picture below, you see how a page is torn — something we easily spotted looking at the side of the Bible when removing black marks from about a dozen products on the same order — which we highlighted with a sheet underneath. It’s also lying on top of the Bible in the picture above so they would be clear these were two different copies of the same title that were damaged.
In the same shipment we also had a NKJV Adventure Bible in which all four cover corners (top right, bottom right on both front and back covers) were worn out. The damage you see in the picture doesn’t happen if the Bible is simply dropped. That would leave a dent. No, that type of separation from in the paper-over-board cover happens through a lot of wear and tear (or water damage).
Those were the three items I chose to focus on in my last (truly last, I believe) ticket I created with Book Depot. I did not mention the various hardcover children’s Bibles that were so badly scratched it looked like a dog or cat had done a number on them. I did not mention my fear that other books may turn up with underlining or highlighting. I did not mention the various things we’ve had to endure in previous orders which only get discovered many months later.
The point is, any dealer reading this can switch their HarperCollins account over to non-returnable and get these same Bibles for a net price that’s only slightly higher than the discount being offered. Plus you can buy one-at-a-time and not two-at-a-time.
We felt as a store that this hurt merchandise was forming an increasingly higher percentage of our shipments and that not only were the books damaged, but they were doing damage to our reputation as a seller of quality goods.
As someone who would always try to be near a computer at 8:45 PM — mostly to beat the larger stores who tended to take everything when a good title rolled around — I’m learning to change my routine. We tried to make this work; even recently trying the newly promoted consolidated shipping, only to find that two shipments which might have been one full box and one small box ended up shipping as two full boxes and two small boxes. Relative to other orders, we saved nothing. (We’re also requesting, in addition to credit for these three items, a proportional shipping credit. I told them, “We’re not paying freight costs to be shipped garbage.”
Bargain books, from that supplier anyway, have ceased to be a bargain.
This article first appeared today at Thinking Out Loud.
Anyone who has worked retail knows that closing time can be a challenge. Staff are tired and want to go home, but store policies do try to put customers and their needs first.
In the bulk food environment my wife worked in, staff were not allowed at all to do anything to communicate the store was closed. Not a word. Not a hint. The door would be locked quietly, but customers in before that closing — by which I mean the exact posted closing time — could continue to complete their purchases.
In the Christian bookstore environment I’ve worked in our commitment to our customers has always been superlative. I found it took me at least 15 minutes to balance the cash anyway, and I often kept the sign on “OPEN” until I was actually leaving. Then, when I see the end in sight, I might cut the sound system, and if it doesn’t impede the part of the store they’re shopping in, I might cut one of the light circuits. I’ve also been known to say, “You can stay as long as you wish, but just let me know if you’ll be paying by cash or plastic.” I’ve also kept open for a few minutes only to have another person walk in who turns out to be the biggest sale of the day.
So I’m a little surprised at the approach taken by a chain of Christian thrift shops in Canada that is clearly identifiable as a Christian organization. (No, not St. Vincent de Paul and not Salvation Army.)
We entered at 3:43 for a 4:00 closing. We were told, “We’re closing now, but you look like you can power-shop.” I checked the sign on the door. I pulled out my phone. “It’s only 3:43;” I grumbled to myself and a guy looking at CDs overheard and said, “She’s always mean.”
Mean? That’s her reputation?
At 3:48 a guy came and was told the store was closed. He walked out. Another incident at 3:54 with the same result.
“Actually, you’re still open;” I said to another staff member, pulling out my phone.
“We don’t go by your phone;” she said, “We go by the clock on the wall.”
I looked at the clock on the wall. “They’re the same;” I told her.
What matters here is that this is a mentality that exists in some thrift shop environments that has no place at all in a Christian institution.
In the Christian bookstore I mentioned, our abiding principle is that we want to be “a place of grace.”
I asked the woman if she felt that this closing policy reflected well on the organization whose name appears in the store’s name. So (sorry) I played the WWJD card. Would Jesus turn people away at 3:48?
“Everyone is free to set their own policies.”
I asked her — very pleasantly — if she was a Christian.
“That’s irrelevant;” she said. I was not expecting that answer, served up in the way she delivered it; but I was done pressing her buttons.
I called the staff associate that was working for us that day. “Don’t ever pressure anyone to leave, unless you’re facing a personal emergency;” I told her; “I will pay you for however long it takes to meet their needs.”
Most of you know that I like to run reviews closer to the release date, and then copy those reviews with extra trade info here at Christian Book Shop Talk. But I wanted to briefly mention this one in case you haven’t ordered it yet.
I spent my Labour Day reading Saving the Saved by Bryan Loritts, releasing in paperback through Zondervan in October. I rarely binge read like this, but like the cliché says, I couldn’t put it down. The subject is countering the belief in performance-based faith, but it also serves as a commentary on Matthew’s gospel.
This would be a great first Christian living book for someone to read, but also applicable to the rest of us who’ve been on this journey awhile. A good mix of personal stories and material from other sources. Loritts is the son of Crawford Loritts who is a pastor and frequent conference speaker whose name some customers will recognize.
The bright cover will cause people to pick it up, but you can’t sell what you don’t stock! Before I was halfway through, I’d already clicked a few copies into an order.
Thanks to Mark H. at HarperCollins Christian Publishing for this one! Really appreciated. 9780310344995
I’ve said it before but I’ll be more concise this time:
If each of your suppliers isn’t emailing you once a week with graphic images for use on your store website, Twitter, Facebook, and newsletter, something is wrong.
You need those. More than anything else. Here’s a couple on the house:
I think many may not be aware that this is a relaunch of a familiar product with 90 3D images. I’m not sure if the older edition will continue to be available.
I like this one because it ties a backlist title into a current bestseller. (Wallace appears in the movie.)
While Answering Jihad wasn’t as strong, Seeking Allah… did very well, as I suspect this one will.
Maranatha! Music did a great job with this graphic. We’ve done particularly well with Top 25 Songs of Grace, it’s a bit more mellow and makes a great gift for anyone. But the whole series is great value for customers.
This is an example of a graphic element which allows you to be current knowing that the payoff is several months down the road when the DVD releases.
I hope this inspires you to seek out graphics like this on your own. Following your major publishers and record labels on Twitter is a big help if you need a source for these.