Sunday, 24 November 2013

Do they KNOW WHY it's Christmas?

Were you one of the people who were glued to the ‘Dr Who’ celebrations last night ? I have to confess that I’ve never been a great fan, although we did watch it in the early days when our children joined thousands of others hiding from the Daleks behind the sofa!

But that early exposure didn’t prepare me for the 50th anniversary episode that I watched because I wanted to be an intelligent grandmother – among other things! Well when I say ‘watched’, I flicked in and out, and possibly because of that, didn’t have a clue what was happening.  That was a pity because I’d like to have known, and for those ‘on the inside’ it was obviously a great experience.

Someone at church today remarked that this episode of Dr Who was reflecting the war between good and evil and the need for a saviour. That may or may not be the case – as I said I only watched bits of it - but it did strike me that Christianity and what Christmas is really all about, is probably as much of a mystery to the people who throng the streets for their Christmas shopping, as Dr who is to me. If you asked the lady queuing up in Boots for her ‘three for two’ special offer, what Christmas means to her, I would be surprised to hear her say ‘Well there is a battle between good and evil and we need a Saviour!’

Did people understand it better in earlier years? When I went to visit the CLC bookshop in the City of London’s  Ave Maria  Lane,  I was fascinated to find Christian references were everywhere . Amen Corner, Paternoster Square, the Shepherd with his sheep, the towering grandeur of St. Pauls  – over and over again there were signs to remind passers by of the way Christianity once shaped our land. 

CLC is one of the larger bookstores and sited where it is among banks and officers, it’s a destination shop, visited by people out of the centre of London who phone ahead to check that certain books are in stock. My other destination that day was the Church House bookshop, tucked away off Dean’s Yard, with the magnificence of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament close by. That too is a place for clergy and others ‘in the know’ to find books related to their ministry.

And yet for the thousands of tourists thronging around near both sites, the fact that ‘Unto us a child is born’ and all that springs from that, is not part of their Christmas musings. What a privilege to have such news to share! The question is ‘Do they KNOW about the real Christmas’ and if not, do we care enough to find a way  to tell them? Or does Christmas become to us the sales figures at the end of  the day and little else?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Because He gives, we give too

Christmas is the time for giving. We all know that. And as booksellers, publishers and authors we hope that people will buy their gifts from us, or that what we’ve written or published will form a book-shaped bulge in someone’s stocking or a glitter – wrapped gift under the tree.

Christmas is a time for giving. Giving money for good causes … we’ve just had the razzle dazzle of Children in Need and the generosity of British public was even greater than last year, in spite these times of worry about bills and jobs. That is all done on a grand scale of course. But what can the individuals in the Christian book trade do, with their limitations of staff, facilities and size, to demonstrate to those who’ve never understood it, that God gave the Greatest Gift of all?

The Corner Stone Bookshop in Cirencester is well situated to meet people right where they are. It has a wonderful facade, bow windows looking out onto Dollar Street, a few minutes walk from the Market Square. It forms part of the ministry of Cirencester Parish Church, which has one of the largest buildings for a parish church in England.

Housed in a building that is 350 years old, they serve delicious coffee and home made cakes, and they had an interesting experience one year when they gave something away. 

Every fortnight there is a Farmer’s Market right outside the church, and one Christmas, the team gave away mince pies to stall holders and shoppers alike. A small enough thing you might think. But people were amazed that the church was giving something away rather than asking for something.One stall holder, who hadn’t been to a service of any sort since he was at Eton,  was so impressed, that he decided that he needed to discover more about a church that wanted to give to him. He began to attend the church and now is a church warden, his attitude completely changed about faith and God.

There are other ways in which The Corner Stone gives to the people who visit the shop. When stock has been around for a while, manager Lynne Doolan draws people’s attention to these books by regularly offering some titles at reduced prices rather than using the 'sale or return' option with the publishers. When the bible reading notes are out of date she makes them available free to people who want to ‘taste and see’ whether they might be the notes that would help them on their faith journey.

I enjoyed my visit to Lynne and her team. Delicious cakes, an opportunity to sign books and a real vision to meet the needs of both the locals and the thousands of tourists who visit this lovely Cotswold town every year.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Discoverability - it works both ways

One of the things I've learned from exploring the very specialist world of Christian bookshops, is that names are very important. If you're in a strange town, and perhaps the shop you're looking for has been moved , even  if it is only a few yards up the road, or the shop numbers have altered, it can be very difficult to find what you're looking for. This is especially true if you have one eye on the traffic and the Satnav, and the other on the shop details. A shop definitely needs clear signage, but it is also helpful if the name  makes it clear what is sold there. In other words, it should 'do what it says on the tin.'

I had never visited Stroud before last week, despite the fact that my husband's family obviously originate from the area. I had the impression that it was quite a 'New Agey' sort of place as far as shops are concerned, and being on the small side, height wise, it took me a moment or two to locate the christian bookshop, even when the SatNav told me I'd arrived. Although The Centre has a hanging sign at right angles to the wall, if you're looking straight ahead, it isn't that easy to spot for a stranger.

However the locals obviously know where to find it, since the  shop has been in existence for over 30 years and has strong support from the local churches - some 60 of them from the wider area use it regularly. One of the titles I noticed were a row of 'Friendship' books - compilations of material that I have often seen on the bookshelves of my mother's friends. When I queried whether that sort of thing still sold, Alex Luffram, the recently appointed manager was very positive about them. He told me that 40 had been bought in for last Christmas and when he checked his stock lists there were only two left.

Most authors would be delighted to have two copies of a given title of theirs on the shelves, which all goes to point up another facet of 'discoverability'. Know who your core customers are and make sure that you cater for them [or in the case of authors, know who you're writing for.].

 I gather that some bookshop managers lean towards stocking titles that  they like themselves, but while it is easier to put your heart into selling books and other items that you feel really positive about, you won't sell many of the Puritan  writers if your local Christians favour  writers 

who appear mainly on the God Channel or vice versa. 'All things to all men to all men, that we may win some." Wasn't that how Paul saw it?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Discoverability - the KEY to Marketing for Bookshops and Authors

A church minister, whose church was in the town centre, was lamenting to a friend about the reluctance of so many men to come through the doors of his church. His friend waved a £10.00 note  under his nose . 'See that betting shop over there?"  he said "I want you to take this money and put a bet on the next race."

Thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea, the minister refused and his friend asked him why? 'Well I'm opposed to gambling on principle" he replied  "and I've never been into a betting shop. I haven't the first idea about how these places work, so I wouldn't know what to do. Besides, one of my congregation might see me go in and wonder what on earth I was up to!"

That is certainly the underlying reason why many men don't want to be seen going into church, but to a certain extent it can be true of christian bookshops too.Our bookshops are full of 'treasure' but sadly most people who walk past are totally unaware  of the riches within. They feel that they wouldn't know what to look for in a 'religious' shop, and would be embarrassed to ask. So how do we increase the 'discoverability' both of our shops and of the books and other items within them? 

One of the important things is the appearance of the outside of the shop. Clean windows, eye catching window displays, and attractive signage will draw people in. When I was looking for the Light bookshop in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, the bright modern name caught my eye as I drove past. Invited to 'come into the Light,' I felt welcome and intrigued. and the sight of gifts and cards made  it seem like a 'normal' shop and 'safe' to go  in.

Ruth Creighton has dreamed of running a christian bookshop for many years, and when her family had grown up she and her husband had a long search for suitable premises for before discovering their shop, built on what had been the foundation of a Congregational church on a High Street Shopping Parade.  Initially they lived in Gloucester but have now found a home in Stonehouse

Both Ruth and her husband Keith are no strangers to stepping out in faith. They are also involved with an unusual  ministry to truck drivers, which offers support, 'goody bags' friendship and a listening ear at the many truckstops up and down the country  

Ruth [pictured left] wishes they had room for a coffee shop, but the kettle is always full and ready for use, and her warm personality and listening ear means that many come into 'The Light' for a card or a gift, and leave having shared problems, joys and perhaps discovered a book which can help them to see life in a different light.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Marketing for the Technically Challenged and Totally Terrified - Bookshops,Bunyan and The Word

Bedford is a town you tend to pass as you drive up the A1 or M1. Which is a pity because apart from having a multi-racial and multi lingual population - 100 languages spoken at the last count - it is the place where one of the most famous books in the English language was written. 

Pilgrim's Progress, a book that is second only to the bible in sales terms, was penned in Bedford gaol, when John Bunyan was imprisoned there for preaching outside of the established church.

It's always a great encouragement to me as a writer, that although few if any of Bunyan's sermons are remembered, it is what he wrote in prison, for the entertainment of his children, at what was probably the lowest point of his life, that has lasted and changed lives. 

So 'Books' are certainly 'Us' in Bedford and there has been a Christian bookshop here since the late 1970's. Initially it was housed in a room above a local GP's garage,tucked down a country lane. How people found it is something of a mystery, but find  it they did and The Pilgrim Christian Bookshop flourished within the limitations of its situation.

After two or three years it was moved into Bedford, fairly near the centre. Staffed mainly by volunteers it had a coffee shop upstairs which served to draw people in. My father was one of those who helped out and during his stint on a Monday morning my sales increased by about 100% since he turned them all face out on arrival! 

Scripture Union took the bookshop over when the Karach's retired and moved to Norfolk, followed by Wesley Owen and then the Living Oasis chain. Sadly it closed then for a while, before Joy Denny felt God giving her the vision for restoring the witness that a bookshop can give to any town, and the Word Bookshop was opened in a popular shopping area near Bedford's beautiful Embankment.

It is a small shop but crammed with stock and supported by at least 30 of the churches in the town. Joy has had bookselling experience, since she managed The Pilgrim bookshop for some years in the early part of it's life, and perhaps this is why she has seen steady growth in support and sales. But she is also aware of where the needs are. 

While I was in the shop a lady was asking for a bible to give to someone who was doing an Alpha course at the King's Arms,one of the town's bigger churches. Rather that give her any version Joy rang the church office to ask what was being used in the course. Sadly the receptionist didn't know but, when pressed, promised to ring back.

 I wonder if that is a 'Tip for the top' for other shops. Perhaps a register of the bible versions used by the churches running Alpha in YOUR locality would help you to serve enquirers well. And the Gideon booklet of 'where to help when' is available from your local branch of the Gideons, to tuck inside and make this Book of Books more accessible to a new reader.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Marketing for the Technically Challenged and Totally Terrified - York a city of surprises

York is a fascinating city with sudden surprises around every corner. And one of these is the Barbican Bookshop.

A family business, it was started by Dick Rollinson in 1961. Originally it was housed in The Walmgate Bar, one of the four medieval entrances to the city, but moved to the City centre in 1967.The premises are an Aladdin's Cave of books housed in 10 rooms. 

A real browsers paradise, the Barbican bookshop specialises in books on York and Yorkshire, Aviation and Railways, Christian books and  second hand volumes on a huge variety of topics.

In 1972, Pickering and Co joined the firm, selling books in the Shambles for nearly 30 years until the lease ran out. The  two stores then merged on the Fossegate site in 2000.

Les Bingham was very happy to see a Lion author in the flesh, having stocked my books for many years. Although now semi-retired, I persuaded him to let me take his photo with my latest offerings, which he did with cheerful grace.

 In four years time the shop could be celebrating its Jubilee, although Les was cautious about counting on that, in these harsh economic times. How sad it would be if they didn't make it to that special anniversary. The Barbican bookshop is obviously needed in York. The Cathedral shop has hardly any Christian books and is certainly not a competitor. So what is needed is for the Christians in York and the surrounding area, to 'man the barricades'  by shopping there themselves and recommending this treasure store of good reading to their friends.
Lets say it all together ...

Monday, 14 October 2013

Marketing for the Technically Challenged and Totally Terrified!

The late Edward England, who published many significant Christian books during his time as Director of Religious Publishing at Hodder & Stoughton, often said to his authors:

"It isn't enough to have written a book. It isn't enough to have had it published. You have only succeeded when the writer, publisher and bookseller work together so that the book is written, published, bought, read and acted upon.'

That is obviously true, and sounds great - in theory! But where do you start? A drop of ink may make a million think, but unless the 'million' know that your book exists, the thoughts that you might hope to provoke aren't going to blossom.

 In these days of the social media, it's tempting to think that a few well aimed tweets, blogs and Facebook updates will do the job. But physical bookshops do still exist, thank God, and there's still no substitute for REAL people who are out there, passionate about sharing the good news that books can and still do change lives. 

With that it mind, my first stop on 'Marion's Meet and Greet' tour was Lincoln to visit Melanie Carroll at Unicorn Tree Books in Lincoln's covered market. 

Melanie is stocking my two new titles 'Dear God It's Me and It's urgent ' and 'It's Just You and Me Lord' in a bookshop that must be the only one to be in the form of an open square, with its walls, both facing inwards and outward, made of books!

Melanie stocks both general and christian books; new and second hand, as well as cards and other gift items. I didn't like to ask, but I assume that the 2nd hand books form the  outside walls, in case any passer by  fancies reading a book without paying for it!

And why The Unicorn Tree? This is the name of a group of tapestries, as famous as the Bayeux, featuring a Unicorn, which is, according to Melanie, a symbol of Christ.

A unique name for a unique shop, right where people are in the heart of Lincoln. Do visit it if you're in the area - you'll be glad that you did!