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Christian Books: Amazon Versus Christian Bookshops

I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.

I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.

What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK. 

Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)

But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me. 

What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.

A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.

Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight. 

My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.

One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.

Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on May 14, 2009, in Books, ministry, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Yep, I wish you were near my bookshop too! lol. I always need more customers, especially ones with an understanding of and obvious appreciation for Good Coffee!

    Did I mention on the the UKCBD Blog ( http://christianbookshopsblog.org.uk/2009/05/14/rising-to-the-challenge-in-chelmsford-cbc09-cre09/ ) that my shop specialises in american import titles (I do general books as well) and we order from the US’s largest book wholesaler and distributor every 2 weeks.
    On that point though I do know of a number of other independent bookshops (Christian ones as well as general ones) that also hold accounts with a US wholesaler, so it is always worth just checking with them – they generally dont tend to order as frequently as we do – and it’s probably not something they think to advertise and promote, but it is worth asking.

    Just one thing though – are you saying my idolisation of Bernard Black from Black Books is a bad thing, and I should not be practicing to be just like him when alone in the shop? Does that include the red wine thing as that might be a deal breaker! (Grin)

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    • Dave Faulkner

      Melanie,

      A bookshop that specialised in US imports would be wonderful! Maybe I will have to ask more, but also it would be great if the bookshops that did were proactive to make that known.

      As for Bernard Black, well as long as you’ve got Manny as your assistant, I’ll be in – I do have the complete collection on DVD 🙂

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      • Dave,
        I agree and wish more of my collegues would promote to the best of their ability. A simple sign up (all over the place! on the walls, behind the counter and at every third bay!! ) saying ‘ We can order any Book,CD or DVD you need – even ones from the states or that are ‘hard to find’ – Just Ask Us!’ works really well and is simple to do.
        But I think that most people just dont think of it – there is an assumption in most shops I think ‘that customers know we can get things and will ask’, unfortunately I think this is an erroneous assumption. I know I have been known to not ask about things in a shop if I have been a bit unsure for some reason, or if I didn’t think it would be a possibility anyway.

        Bernard Black won my heart in the very first episode when he would’t sell the leather books to the guy who just wanted them as decor accessories, the whole real leather thing really is funny, but waht it shows was the books themselves mattered to him, not the money. a real booklover.
        Honestly though I do know a few Bernard Blacks in the trade and some even funnier as well! Black Books really is excellent – but yes Manny is the key to success – hence why I only practice being Bernard when alone in the shop! ;o)

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        • Dave Faulkner

          You’re right, the punters need to know what services are available. We can’t always guess, and not all of us are pushy or imaginative enough to ask the right questions.

          Of course, we’ve not mentioned Tamsin Greig’s star turn in Black Books yet …

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  2. Dave, I wonder if ‘tactlessness’ is one of the characteristics of your so called ‘personality trait’? You know my experiences and I’m certainly not going to go into them on here and there have been times when the writings of Joyce Meyer have really helped unlike the many Christians I know and love. Maybe she’s not very intellectual but she has a great gift of bringing the Word into situations that real people find themselves in. I would be as loath to call her writings and her Ministry ‘tat’ as I would be to call ‘The Shack’ a Christian book. Love Jane. x

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    • Dave Faulkner

      OK Jane, I apologise. It’s not the intellectual issue, BTW. It might even be a man not appreciating how a woman with a particular style puts things. Sorry if I’ve upset you.

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  3. Thanks for this Dave — I echo many of your concerns. If we don’t put our customers first we’re on a trip into nowhere; and if we’re not prepared to go the extra mile for that supposedly ‘hard to find’ book (most cases, it’s a question of knowing where to search) then what’s the point?

    My policy at LST is a customer in the shop is worth two on the phone: one of my pet peeves is checkout operators who pick up or keeping talking on the phone whilst serving a customer on the spot. When a customer approaches the enquiry desk/till everything else stops.

    Ha – Christian tat and drivel. Far too much garbage published in the name of Christianity: is it any wonder people struggle to find faith when we go out of our way to put so many obstacles and surreal expectations in their path? I refused to stock the Prayer of Jabez when everyone else was making a fast buck from it, but I did order it on request.

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    • Dave Faulkner

      Phil,

      Thanks. I didn’t tell too many horror stories, only the SPCK/St Denys Manchester one, which was widely known among theological students and staff there. I could have told others, but couldn’t think of ways to recast the stories in order to obfuscate the guilty. I also wouldn’t want to suggest all Christian bookshop staff are like that!

      It seems to me that what you outline as a policy is basic common sense and politeness. Perhaps that’s why I thought of Bernard Black! (Notwithstanding Melanie’s fondness for him – at least he was a book lover!)

      As to the drivel, I remember Michael Spencer railing against it on his blog a year or two ago, only to receive comments from bookstore staff who needed to sell the nonsense in order to survive financially. Were you under pressure at LST over Prayer of Jabez, or is that a question I shouldn’t ask in public? 🙂 Most of all, I am embarrassed as an evangelical as to how much of it comes from ‘my’ section of the Church.

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    • Phil,
      CAn’t quite agree with one in the shop is worth two on the phone as working in a more rural area a lot of my business is conducted solely by phone and email – indeed my largest orders have all come in by phone.
      Even some of my most theological customers order by phone – and phone to make enquiries and have ‘course homework chats’ as they live well out in deepest darkest lincolnshire and so popping into the shop is a special trip – one where they need the book to definitely be in to make the journey, and given how many course lecturers keep putting out of print books on lists, or exceptionally expensive books on student lists! it is often a case of first tracking the copy down for them as opposed to them being common shelf fodder.
      I do agree that wherever possible the phone call should be put on hold whilst the shop customer is served – but in some instances this is not always possible as the customer on the phone is just as much a customer as the one in the shop and surely just as deserving of our time and courtesy? – and the shop customer can always see you are on the phone – the most important and key thing is to make eye contact and acknowledge someone, smile and say/mouth sorry and thank you.
      I totally agree that ignoring the shop customer – any shop customer – is completely inexusable and that is what causes the bad feeling in all circumstances. I also agree that picking up the phone when serving a customer or seeing one approaching the till point is not excusable really as thats what the ansaphone is for.
      On the Black Books theme and given Dave mentioned we hadn’t yet mentioned Fran – I think to some degree this is what she represents in the show (well that the importance ofa good red wine and having a ready supply thereof), but she knows that friendly and personable do work -even when you dont have a clue what the thing you are selling is! She also knows that knowing how to work around a problem and merch something is a good thing – hence her recommending Bernard takes on Manny, and later on that he goes find him and get him back etc.
      This knowledge is invaluable – it’s the advertising thing, thinking to let people know what you can do for them, it’s also the phone thing, including everyone and excluding none, being friendly and approachable.
      On the Jabez and Meyer etc front – guilty party here, yes I stock them, yes I sell them and they do sell! Do I agree with them? on a theological bias no, as a Christian book? iffy, depends on your definitions as pointed out by Jane who mentions she does not call the Shack a Christian books (actaully me niether – I call it fiction as I think does the author) but it did win ‘best christian book’ so it fits for some people. Is my opinion the right one – I don’t know hence why though I dont personally like or agree with some books, ideas or authors I stock them! Because otherwise I’m guilty of censorship and that’s not my place. yes I make buying decisions based on what I know my customer base to be – but I dont make those decisions based on if they will be offended by a book, as for each customer that disapproves i will have one that approves and the only decision to stock I make is ‘will it sell’ because at the end of the day that’s my job, supplying the customers needs and wants.
      In more general discussion terms though Meyer, Osteen, Dollar, Jakes are definitely not christian spirituality or theology books in my definition of them, and i am not even convinced I can honestly say they are general christian life! for me they live in the Self-Help or at a push the pastoral section. Because for the most part they are only really christianised self help and life coaching or debt/financial managment books. Certainly they help some people – but I, like Phil, also do have concerns that sometimes they can also injure some people with what they teach and how they teach it. But that is a personal opinion and not one I should bring with me when doing the shop buying, to be fair though to be a rounded bookshop you have to stock these with the books that coutneract and oppose them – otherwise we fail on providing Dave and all our customers with the ‘range’ they want that enables us to compete with the etailers.
      oh and Dave don’t worry, the catholic market (again the US based publishers mostly) is pretty good with this sort of common denominator crossover stuff too! and yes that can sell just as well in some circles!

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      • Have to confess I hadn’t thought of my decision not to stock Prayer of Jabez as censorship — just using my discretion as a specialist in academic theology and not wanting to promote what is, quite frankly, just that.

        LST is open/progressive evangelical; I’m raving loony post-everything: it’s a challenge for them and for me, but I see it as part of my responsibility to provide my customers with books that will make them feel uncomfortable and force them to think outside their theological niches. Above all, however, I want to feed their minds, not feed their inadequacies, and that, in my (not so humble) opinion is what books like PoJ do…

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        • Dave Faulkner

          Phil, Melanie,

          This has opened up a whole big debate about generosity and boundaries. What would constitute a ‘generous orthodoxy’ (to pinch Hans Frei’s phrase, as others have) in accepting a book as Christian? And where do we stand on provocative but important stuff along the lines Tony Campolo once put it: ‘We have met the enemy, and they are partly right’?

          No immediate thoughts from me, as I’ll be out to lead worship in a few minutes, but I wanted to post a quick response and must think further about this myself, too!

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        • Phil,
          Don’t get me wrong i’m not aiming at digging at you as guilty of censorship, just making a point based on the fact that some shops do censor and stock only what ‘fits’ their theology, and this in particular in line with the original content of Dave’s opeing blog post, so this is something that had to be said and acknowledged.
          Actaully this discussion overlaps with a discussion on your UKCBD Blog back in April that I never got around to chipping in on – somehow I missed it at the time. http://christianbookshopsblog.org.uk/2009/04/04/should-christian-bookshops-be-protecting-customers-or-provoking-them-building-walls-or-breaking-them-down/ it’s worth a look at for those who might not have read it before in light of whats coming up here.
          Your bookshop is very different from mine – hence the first part of my post about the differing points of view on instore via phone customers. Niether of us is wrong it’s just our shops are different and therefore our points of view accordingly. By the same token therefore your shop buying decisions are also different. though Jabez would have sold very well in your shop given the theological bias and churchmanship of most of your customer base, it probably also is not particularly suited to the matrix of books that are called for and sold – being not anything like ‘academic’.
          I totally agree with stocking books that make people think, and hence why for every Meyer etc there is a Tabor, for every protestant evangelical title there is a catholic or liberal title in my shop. Balance in all things. Does this make my shop less Christian – no, or at least I hope not, I think it just makes me non-denominational.
          Hey Dave, based upon your response in consideration to the questions raised by Phil & I, have you read Brian McLaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’?
          BTW I want to say thanks again to you and Phil for raising this discussion in the first place.

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      • Dave Faulkner

        Melanie,

        If I ever go looking for my family roots (which in the 18th century were somewhere in rural Lincs) I’m going to have to find your bookshop!

        I’m not surprised by what you say about Catholic drivel. I’ve seen it in Catholic homes, and it obviously has to be sold somewhere! However, up until now my only experience of a Catholic bookshop was of a good one in the Friars at Aylesford Priory in Kent. I didn’t happen to agree with a lot of their titles, but they were serious approaches to the spiritual life, and that I respected.

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  4. A review wot I wrote, if I may, Dave: A Generous Orthodoxy. Well worth a read, I reckon, irrespective of whether or not you agree with McLaren’s point of view.

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    • Doh. ‘Well worth a read’ means McLaren’s book, not my review, just to clarify. Apologies for ambiguity.

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      • Dave Faulkner

        Melanie, Phil,

        Yes, I have read McLaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’. I don’t think it’s one of his best, and I say that as one who has enjoyed many of his books, but I know others who appreciate it. I like the way he looks for the good in every Christian tradition – as someone who describes himself as ‘open evangelical’ that’s something I welcome and try to practise. I also think he’s right to see the task of pursuing orthodoxy as unfinished. However, I fear at times the book runs into a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach, and he takes elements from certain traditions and so reduces them that practitioners of the tradition in question might no longer recognise it, or at least it gets to the point where he’s more kept the style than the substance. I think the late Stanley Grenz’ earlier book ‘Renewing the Center’ was better. I haven’t read Hans Frei’s work, even though I know that the phrase ‘generous orthodoxy’ originates with him.

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  5. Ian Macdonald

    Hi Dave,

    I read yours and Phil Groom’s articles. I sent him the following message which might be of interest:

    Hi Phil,

    An interesting article, indeed. Money can appear to be more important than faith.

    I was surprised that CLC UK’s Director (Phil Burnham) informed retirees that they will no longer be supported by CLC (they have always worked without salary in return for accomodation and help with bills). The money saved will be used to attract new workers with salaries. However, I was surprised by some of the comments in his letter:

    ‘The increasing number of retirees will soon overburden the mission…’

    ‘It is necessary to free the mission to fulfil its vision through commercial
    activity.’

    ‘Retirees are a financial obligation.’

    ‘Ageing workers have less energy, initiative, imagination and pioneer spirit.’

    ‘The economic downturn may now have made this route unviable for us.’

    ‘The legality of our proposal and its ramifications were passed on to a QC’

    ‘There is no right or wrong here.’

    And this is a Christian charity!

    Ian

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    • Dave Faulkner

      Ian,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not entirely sure how it exactly relates to my specific post, though. Could you elaborate, please? Is it that you mean to show contrary evidence to my positive example of CLC in Chatham?

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  1. Pingback: Amazon Vs. Christian Bookstores: A British Perspective « Christian Book Shop Talk

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