What’s up with Christian Retail?

Twice in the last 30 days I have been interviewed about the “state of the industry.” The journalist’s questions were insightful and thought I would share some of them with you. My answers have been expanded beyond the original ones since I have more space to work with here.

1. What do you believe to be the most important trend in Christian publishing and why?

This can be a complex question depending on which part of publishing being discussed. The obvious answer is the digital revolution. While e-book sales are still only a tiny percentage of the whole, the foundations being laid today will have long term implications.

In fiction I have been encouraged by the continued diversity in publisher’s acquisitions. While “romance” is king, a great story can still get a chance.

In non-fiction there has been a concerted push by publishers to acquire only those authors with a built-in audience of some sort. This is especially hard for the debut writers who have enormous talent and insight but have yet to construct a personal following. I even had one editor at a publishing house write me the following after I groused about a rejection letter that didn’t square with what I knew about that publisher:

“…it seems we no longer trust the old methods of reading the market, trying to get ahead of the curve on reader tastes and needs, and so forth. Now we have to prove a book’s success in advance, on paper, using mathematics.”

That is a stunning statement but in a sense is not news. If writers have not come to grips with the fact that publishing is a business, then now is the time to do so. Never forget that without a “bottom line” (i.e. profit) the publisher goes away (or they downsize) and everyone gets hurt.

Some will read that and despair. Others will shrug and say, “What’s new?” I think it is exciting that the industry is becoming that much more professional and the demands on excellence, quality, and “big ideas” will only help create better and more successful books.

2. When were you last in a Christian store and why?

In February, while traveling on business, I visited a local Christian store to observe their layout, featured products, and whether our client’s books were in stock. This particular store is part of a Christian retail chain with multiple locations.

The results were mixed. A front-of-store cardboard display was empty of product which was a good for store sales – meaning they had sold out, but signaled to me that their buyer was much too conservative (“stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” vs. “keep it low and they won’t go”). Since I did not own that item they missed out on selling one to me.

3. What can Christian stores do to better differentiate themselves from other channels selling Christian products?

Remember that I was in the Christian bookstore business for over a decade and our store received the National Store of the Year award from CBA (The Christian Booksellers Association) in 1989. So while my personal in-store experience is now nearly two decades out of date, I still understand many of the nuances of Christian retail.

My answer to the above question is “Personal service and community building.” The competition isn’t always the online channels. Sometimes it is simply those outlets that choose the top 10 titles to display. Thus product knowledge and personal relationships are the key to customer retention.

We had a Christian store in our area where our family shopped because of a long term friendship we had with its owner. Unfortunately, after 35 years it closed its doors after the city decided to build light rail in front of her location and made it nearly impossible to visit. We really don’t have an alternate store within a reasonable driving distance, which is disappointing in a city the size of Phoenix.

The CBA store is still a powerful customer for the Christian publishing community. But as a whole is losing “market share.” This market share has been shaved by online retailing, big box retailing that siphons off bestsellers, and a general malaise for the specialty retailer. The gift side of the CBA store is where most stores will find their survival because it does not have the competition from online stores. I hear many who are highly critical of the non-book section of the Christian store. Let’s stop that, okay? Let’s consider changing the view of the Christian bookstore to one of a Christian “supply” store or, if you must, a Christian “boutique.” Wherever there are vital and growing churches there are vital and growing Christian stores.

At the risk of sounding out of date I remember that the Christian stores I managed, back in the 80s, served nearly 500 church accounts. Once we counted the number of student curriculum packets we sold in one quarter and were startled to find that we sold 10,000 pieces of student material intended for Sunday School education for children. So while we had some plaques and jewelry and cards and posters and knick-knacks in the store we also had curriculum, at least 3,000 book titles, and hundreds of Bibles.

If you can, support your local Christian store, they serve a vital role as the Supply Sergeants of the Kingdom.

4. Do you own an e-book reader and if so what kind and what are you currently reading on it?

I have owned the Kindle since it was first released (currently using the Kindle 2). I last read a client’s manuscript on it while traveling (uploaded from my computer to the Kindle). In addition I also re-read Phil Vischer’s Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story after hearing him speak on the topic at a recent conference.

I have resisted the lure of the iPad so far. I plan to wait for the second version to see if some of the bugs get worked out. Unfortunately the “swiping” motion on the screen gives me a bit of vertigo. I find that standing in the Apple Store playing with it gives me a slight headache. So I may never be able to use one comfortably.

1. What do you believe to be the most important trend in Christian publishing and why?
This can be a complex question depending on which part of publishing being discussed. The obvious answer is the digital revolution. While e-book sales are still only a tiny percentage of the whole, the foundations being laid today can have long term implications.
In fiction I have been encouraged by the continued diversity in publisher’s acquisitions. While “romance” is king, a great story can still get a chance.
In non-fiction there has been a concerted push by publishers to acquire only those authors with a built-in audience of some sort. This is especially hard for the debut writers who have enormous talent and insight but have yet to construct a personal following.
2. When were you last in a Christian store and why?
In February, while traveling on business, I visited a local Christian store to observe their layout, featured products, and whether our client’s books were in stock. The results were mixed. A front-of-store cardboard display was empty of product which was a good for store sales, but signaled a buyer that was much too conservative (“stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” vs. “keep it low and they won’t go”). Since I did not own that item they missed out on selling one to me.
3. What can Christian stores do to better differentiate themselves from other channels selling Christian products?
Personal service and community building. The competition isn’t always the online channels. Sometimes it is simply those outlets that choose the top 10 titles to display. Thus product knowledge and personal relationships are the key to customer retention. We had a Christian store in our area that we shopped mostly because of the long term relationship we had with its owner. Unfortunately, after 35 years it closed its doors after the city decided to build light rail in front of her location and made it nearly impossible to visit.
4. Do you own an e-book reader and if so what kind and what are you currently reading on it?
I have owned the Kindle since it was first released. I last read a client’s manuscript on it while traveling (uploaded from my computer to the Kindle). In addition I also re-read Phil Vischer’s Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story after hearing him speak on the topic at a recent conference.
5. How have you been able to use social media effectively in your work?
The key word here is “effectively.” Our agency doesn’t necessarily need to market our services like a traditional retail business would. However I connected my industry related blog to Facebook to help populate the information more effectively.
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New Releases April 2010

Below are new books published last month which our agency represented. (In alphabetical order by author. Descriptions are from publisher’s web sites). April 2010 Who Speaks to Your Heart?: Tuning in to Hear God’s Whispers – Stacy Hawkins Adams Zondervan‘I wrestled with whether a God that I couldn’t see or …

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HarperStudio is History

Back on March 17 I blogged about the changes at HarperStudio and asked if this could mean that division would close down. Today it was announced that it has come to pass, the division is no more.

HarperStudio had made big news by setting up a low advance model in exchange for high royalties. It was termed a “profit sharing” model. (of course define “profit” first… 🙂 ) Plus they sold their books on a non-returnable basis to the stores, both online and brick & mortar.

It was a highly creative idea and caused quite a stir, especially when there was talk of a 50/50 profit split.

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New Releases March 2010

Below are new books from March 2010 which our agency represented. (In alphabetical order by author. Descriptions are from publisher’s web sites). March 2010 Lady Carliss and the Waters of Moorue – Chuck Black MultnomahDetermined, smart and a master of both the sword and the bow, Lady Carliss has proven …

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New Releases January & February 2010

Below are new books by our clients which released in January & February 2010 (in alphabetical order by author and descriptions from publisher’s web sites). January 2010 Dreams That Won’t Let Go – Stacy Hawkins Adams Revell Indigo Burns is excited. Her wedding preparations to the man of her dreams …

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A Volatile Industry

Yesterday’s blog linked you to some fascinating articles about the publishing industry. One friend wrote an insightful comment on the blog and cited the article where Boris Kachka proclaimed “The End” on September 14, 2008 in New York Magazine.

To illustrate how volatile this industry is, let’s look at two of the people featured in the article. Jane Friedman is no longer the CEO of HarperCollins (which she was at the time of the original meeting) and Bob Miller resigned today as the head of HarperStudio. HarperStudio was creative with a unique financial model (see the article for the gist of it). But on a web site set up to answer questions about this development HarperStudio wrote this:

“Of our ORIGINAL goals, I’d give us a 6 [out of 10]. But there were other goals that cropped up along the way that were unintended benefits.”

Founded in April 2008, it has already changed in less than two years. Their first year was developmental as it takes time to acquire and produce new book titles. 2009 was a tough year for the economy in general and publishing was not immune. Thus the changes. They stop short of saying it didn’t work very well, but the tone of their answer page is very much a “let’s wait and see what the future holds.”

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Is This the End of Publishing?

You owe it to yourself to read the following links and then watch the embedded video. We are all quite aware that the book publishing industry is in the throes of considerable change. Sales channels are shifting and marketing channels have splintered.

Some folks are dismayed by this, and others see it as opportunity. But, as usual, a middle ground can be found. And that middle ground is displayed in the video below.

But first, the articles to read:

The New York Magazine proclaimed “The End” on September 14, 2008 in an article by Boris Kachka.

Publishers Weekly agreed on January 5, 2009 in an article by Peter Olson, former chairman and CEO of Random House .

Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, chimed in on December 10, 2009 in his insightful blog.

Richard Nash continued the assault on January 5, 2010 in an interview on GalleyCat. More was added the next day.

The below video originally prepared for a recent Penguin sales conference by the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books. Watch the entire piece without interruption.

Let me know what you think!

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What Makes You Click?

Below is a visual representation of some astounding statistics regarding Internet usage. A little more than twelve years ago I wrote a chapter for a writing book on how to use the Internet for research. I re-read that article recently…umm, Google didn’t even exist back then (founded in September 1998), much less Wikipedia (where the jury is still out if is a reliable source for verifiable facts).

210 billion emails sent per day? I think I get half of those. <!>
20 hours of YouTube videos uploaded every minute?

We swim in a sea of data. So how do you discern what to read or view? In other words, what makes you buy or click?

Take that same mindset and apply it to your next book idea or article. What would make the consumer buy or click it, especially when faced with a plethora of competing options? If your idea, your novel, your insight, can withstand competitive scrutiny then you have a chance to impact this world. Obscurity equals no audience. That is why publishers are pushing agents and authors to make their “platform” bigger.


Via: OnlineSchools.org

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Is Print Dead?

There is an unsettling myth being perpetuated about the death of print books. The news of print’s demise is simply not true. It sounds a bit like Mark Twain having to write a note to a reporter saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

To fully explain I need to start with the music industry.
The impression is that all sales are now digital. And iTunes has killed the physical CD. This is not true.

Approximately 12 songs fit on a CD. And since individual songs can be downloaded, the only way to compare physical CD sales with download sales is to divide the number of songs downloaded by 12. That way you have a one-to-one comparison.

With that assumption in place, Apple is the #1 retailer of CDs in America. No surprise. The surprise is that they only comprise 25% of sales. Walmart is #2 at 14% and Best Buy is #3 (my guess is that Amazon.com is #4 but wasn’t mentioned in the article).

Why is that surprising? Because that means 75% of all sales are still “hard copy.” Physical CDs. It is significant that Apple’s share has increased as a percentage of all sales from 21% in 2008, up from 14% in 2007. But it still means the physical product is outselling the digital by 3 to 1. (In total dollars, across all forms of music, digital downloads comprise only 35% of all music sales.)

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Incoming Proposals

To your left is an actual picture of the pile of proposals our office has received since December 1, 2009. About 30 days worth of incoming mail…during a slow time of the year. The stack of books next to the pile include books sent for review (consideration) and recent publications that I want to look at.

That does not include the myriad of email submissions we get (many simply ignoring our guidelines regarding email submissions)…inquiries from those who use the contact form on our web site (many of those ignoring the request to “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into this form.“)

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Nor does it include those that do an Internet search and call us. Recently we got a call that went something like this:
Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?

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