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Booksellers breakdown

2009 Books Issue | Technological innovations plus economic uncertainty equal transitions in Christian book market

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Economy-watchers expect overall U.S. retail sales for the first half of 2009 to be about 10 percent below sales for the first six months of 2008. The Christian book publishing industry will probably not be hit as hard, but jitters nonetheless abound. Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), says, "People are guarding their wallets," yet he notes that Christian authors have "more ways than ever before to reach people."

The economic decline and the growth of electronic book devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are causing the Christian retail industry to reexamine its business model. The largest trade show in the Christian world, the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS), run by the Christian Booksellers Association, will open on July 12 in Denver to significantly lower numbers-of both vendors and attendees. The decline is part of a long-term trend in ICRS attendance. The ECPA this year pioneered a competing show in March, the Christian Book Expo Dallas 2009, aimed more at the consumer. It was so poorly attended that it will either be significantly re-tooled or scrapped for 2010.

Attendance at ICRS, which had seen uninterrupted growth for more than a decade until about five years ago, has long been the "barometer" for the industry. So when attendance is down there, the mood of the industry dampens-but Karen Campbell, director of public relations for Christian publishing giant Zondervan, says, "We're seeing increased sales of fiction, in part because Christian fiction offers hope and inspiration during tough times." She cited Karen Kingsbury's romance fiction, which has made both Christian and secular bestseller lists, as a particularly strong performer for her company.

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Campbell says Zondervan will continue to focus on "providing books and resources to Christian stores." To that end it has rolled out "Symtio," a card that a customer can purchase in a Christian bookstore but then go online to redeem-either as a physical book, or as a download of a book for an electronic device, or as an audio book. Symtio, according to Campbell, responds to e-publishing but still provides "the bookstore experience."

Symtio-type strategies, as well as a huge base of readers who still love physical books, suggest that it is too early to write the epitaph on Christian publishing. Volney James, the publisher at Authentic Books, which is owned by the International Bible Society, says he's not pessimistic because "new discussions are taking place in Christianity now, and the best place for them to surface is still in the form of a book."

But Greg Stielstra, who has led marketing at both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, the industry leaders, says the Christian retail "supply chain" is fundamentally broken, with even publishers who do not own bookstores depending too much on "brick-and-mortar" retail outlets-in other words, Christian bookstores, despite the fact that nearly half of all Christian bookstores in America have shut down over the past 20 years.

He says that as brick-and-mortar outlets fall, they'll inevitably take some publishers with them: "The publishing industry is like a man who has tripped and is falling down, and all his attention is focused on trying to brace the fall, but he can't stop the fall. That man is going to end up with broken bones, or worse." Stielstra says the industry should instead behave like a stunt man. "A stunt man doesn't fall. He jumps. He knows where he's going to land and how he's going to land. That's how he keeps from getting hurt."

Stielstra says that publishers say things are fine only because they haven't hit the ground yet, but they will: "There's a lot of lip service to online retailing and to e-books, but there's still too much allegiance to the physical product, and too much allegiance to old ways of doing business. Surges in Christian fiction, or in sub-niches, are just disguising the fundamental problems. Brick-and-mortar operations haven't lost all their business, but they've lost the business that will allow them to stay in business, whether they know it or not." Stielstra said the "blockbuster" books such as The Purpose Driven Life and the "brand name" authors such as Karen Kingsbury are now sold in Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers. Most other titles are best sold online.

"Look at music publishing and you see the future of book publishing," he said. "It's no accident that it took a computer company-Apple-to figure out the new music model. They had nothing invested in the old model, nothing to protect."

But even Stielstra admits that, as Yogi Berra said, "predictions are difficult, especially predictions about the future." For example, 20 years ago industry watchers feared that the purchase of Christian publishers by secular giants would force the Christian publishers to compromise on their Christian mission. Secular publishing giant HarperCollins bought Zondervan in 1988, and a private equity group in 2006 bought Thomas Nelson for more than $450 million. Stielstra said he never saw corporate owners meddling with content: "After all, if they've been successful at making vanilla ice cream, you'd have to be pretty stupid to tell them to stop making vanilla and start making chocolate."

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