We have just been out to Brede, near Hastings. We were visiting a lady, an avid reader but not comfortable with Amazon, who didn’t know how to get hold of our books. The lovely octogenarian made us welcome and bought no less than six volumes, so we gave her a discount.
We then headed across to Brede Farmers’ Market, a Friday treasure trove, a cornucopia of generous goodness, and blew our earnings and more on sausages and sprouts and carrots, cheeses and venison and home-made bread and pies. Enough to set us up for days, with a healthy dose of cheerfulness, few overheads, no packaging, and no airmiles.
We offered good value, and received good value, with money passing directly to the hands of the producer.
Brede Farmers’ Market is a fine example of the approach advocated by the Transition Town movement. Transition Town thinking is a response to the impending scarcity of cheap energy, particularly cheap oil. It recommends that localities become as self-sufficient as possible – effectively independent in food production, energy generation, transport, health care, education and employment. One of the more controversial recommendations is that Transition Towns should develop their own money, to retain value in the locality. The idea is catching on. So far nine local currencies have been launched in Britain, the first being the Totnes Pound in 2007.
To be part of the world of books is to do the very opposite: to participate in global culture. Lion Hudson works with publishers in over 200 languages, and I have found our books on sale in Mali and Benin. It’s tempting to think big, which is a consistent error in publishing, because you start to believe your own PR and lose sight of the fact that every book is different. Books are about fine tuning. They are crafted by hand, created by specialists who have laboured years to acquire mastery.
This might imply added value, but as members of ACW know too well, it’s hard to make a living as a writer. It’s almost as hard to be a publisher. The hours are long, the critics numerous, the risks high, the results uncertain and the margins tiny. A quick review of past Christian publishing houses in Britain will confirm this: Kingsway. Epworth Press. Pickering and Inglis. Marshall Morgan and Scott (which had previously acquired Bagsters, and Oliphants) became Marshall Pickering before being subsumed into Harper & Row, now HarperCollins. IVP shelters under the wing of SPCK. Mergers and closures, bankruptcies, buyouts: the churn is constant. This is a universal truth of business, of course, but few get rich from books.
When the Net Book Agreement was ruled a restrictive practice in 1997, big men and women in the book trade applauded. The development paved the way for greater efficiencies, for the rise of Amazon, and books in supermarkets. Yet there were voices raised in the Net Book Agreement’s defence: its removal, said pessimists, would mean the demise of the small local bookshop. So it proved, which is why we drove to Brede.
This week I spoke at the thanksgiving service in Oxford for Nick Jones, my former MD and one of the giants of the Christian book world, whose death this year at 55 robbed us of a great, generous, ebullient spirit. Nick was astute and creative, a fine businessman, who loved Jesus, books and good living. No one went hungry when dining with Mr Jones. He and his wife Carol would spend their Saturdays visiting small Christian bookshops, bringing bags of doughnuts, laughing and listening in equal measure. Nick never forgot that books are about people, and that narrow margins matter.
This is the heart of value. Our God delights in the bountiful, the pressed down and running over, but records the fall of the sparrow.
Tony Collins is editor-at-large for Lion Hudson plc, and author of Taking My God for a Walk.