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.

10 Responses to What’s up with Christian Retail?

  1. Avatar
    Patrick Craig May 10, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Steve,
    Very informative article – guess I need to get going on my next “Romance” novel. 🙂

    Patrick

  2. Avatar
    Kathleen May 10, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    i.e. reality is our best friend? 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Lynnda Ell May 10, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    Steve, I have a comment and an additional question for you.

    I live in New Orleans where one of the chain Christian retailers is closing at the end of the month. Many medium-to-large churches now have their own bookstores (in my opinion, partially in response to the derth of local Christian retail book stores). What impact – if any – do you think these church bookstores have on Christian retailers?

    Thanks for you insights.

    Lynnda

  4. Avatar
    Timothy Fish May 10, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    I see no problem with publishers wanting to see on paper that a book will sell before they make an offer. The problem is that authors don’t follow the same rule before they write the book or fail to successfully make that determination.

    I’ve never had a problem with the other stuff Christian bookstores sell. As a kid I liked that they also sold toys and other stuff, but as an adult I think they are missing their mark. When I can walk through the entire store and not see a single thing that I want, that is a problem. Stock stuff that I can actually use and I’ll frequent the store.

  5. Avatar
    Steve May 13, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    Lyndda,

    Excellent observation. The Church bookstore has become a viable alternative in many communities. But there are a couple drawbacks. 1) If you are not a part of that church it can feel awkward going to that store. Some feel a measure of “guilt”…I know they shouldn’t but I’ve heard that a couple times. 2) The church bookstore is going to be highly “edited” in what they carry on the shelves. There will not be an intrinsic diversity in the selection because the store will not want to offend members or promote views contrary to their own.

    Church bookstores have siphoned off a measure of traditional CBA business, that is to be expected. But a church must be of considerable size to effectively support the cost of maintaining a viable in-house store. Some are staffed by volunteers. Some are relegated to a very small “closet-sized” space on the grounds. But others are wonderfully dynamic. I visited the store at Prestonwood Baptist Church in north Dallas and was very impressed.

    Christian Retailing Magazine has a regular “Church Bookstore” issue that comes with the larger subscription and the articles are very well done.

  6. Avatar
    Patrick Craig May 13, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    Steve,
    How right you are about churches protecting their theology. I have ministered in many churches as a worship leader and teaching pastor and the books you find in their bookstores always (well, 99%)reflect the theology of that denomination. You might find a “speciality” book (I remember “The Cross and the Switchblade” crossed denominational lines – that’s how this Episcopalian kid got saved) but you won’t find much else by David Wilkerson in the St. Paul’s bookstore. But even CBA can be limited in the works that they publish. You will find plenty of Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Beth More and Tony Campollo, but not any of the expose’ DVD’s by Chris Pinto.

  7. Avatar
    Lynnda Ell May 13, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Steve and Patrick, you’re right about the selective stock in a church book store.

    With my own metro market of over 1.5 million people being under-served by Christian retail stores, I believe that we need to find a new way to serve those people who do not buy on-line or use ereaders.

    Am I imagining a pent-up demand for books in people who are isolated from the internet?

  8. Avatar
    Kelly June 23, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    Steve,
    Very informative article – guess I need to get going on my next “Romance” novel. 🙂

    Patrick

  9. Avatar
    James C Long August 12, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    I have put together with the help of the LORD A new line of Religious & Christian greeting cards and 8.5″x 11″ pictures. My cards and pictures TELL people how they can become a Christian. Tell people how to get saved. People need to SEE and READ my cards and pictures. God our Savior, who desire ALL men to be saved. My cards and pictures can help. Some people do not know that God love them. My cards and pictures can help. Will you buy or sell my cards and pictures?

    • Avatar
      Willem September 13, 2016 at 6:18 am #

      James C Long, are you in the U.S.?

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