Christian Booksellers Face Crisis Of Faith

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By Dale Hanson Bourke
Religion News Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007

ATLANTA -- Here at the International Christian Retail Show it is, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, the best of times or the worst of times, depending on whom you ask.

Two years ago organizers stopped calling this expo the Christian Booksellers Convention. Book and Bible publishers are no longer the dominant force. They now share the exhibit floor with a dizzying array of T-shirt manufacturers, greeting card companies and even Christian candymakers.

Book publishers point out that Christian retailers are no longer their primary sales channel. Online sellers such as Amazon.com, and such "big box" stores as Wal-Mart, account for an increasing percentage of their profits -- and their attention.

The result has been a consolidation of Christian publishers and a closing of Christian bookstores. And yet, in a market where such words as "hope," "faith" and "grace" appear in hundreds of titles, there is always reason to believe.

To many, this is not just any business; it's God's business. To others, it is an opportunity to capitalize on the growing awareness of faith and the powerful political and social force of evangelicals. "The Prayer of Jabez" and the "Left Behind" series are just two examples of tsunami-like book sales that confounded the historically secular publishing industry in the past decade.

But the different approaches can create tension. Bill Anderson, president of CBA, the organization of Christian retailers that hosts the convention, said, "We represent stores where 'Christian' is a commitment, not a category."

Anderson admits that such competitors as Barnes & Noble and Borders, along with online outlets, have cut into sales at Christian stores, resulting in closure or consolidation for many of them.

On the Christian publishing side, the story is even more volatile. Best-selling inspirational titles caught the attention of major secular publishers, leading to a wave of acquisitions over the past decade. Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and other big-name secular publishers acquired Christian publishing houses, hoping for major income producers. Other publishers started religious divisions of their own.

In some cases, the strategy worked. Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life," published by Zondervan (which is owned by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.) set sales records and created several years of remarkable profits for the company. But unable to produce an encore, Zondervan's sales dropped, and its president was let go in June by executives in New York who lost patience waiting for another blockbuster hit.

Michael S. Hyatt, chief executive of Thomas Nelson Inc., the largest Christian publisher, predicts tough times for publishers owned by the major New York houses.

"I think we're going to see some of those Christian publishing houses back on the block," he said.

Hyatt, whose company moved from public to private last year, sees Nelson providing "inspirational experiences" to the market, whether through books, conferences or other media. In addition to publishing books and Bibles, Nelson owns "Women of Faith," a series of national conferences that produces 17 percent of the company's income and drives so much product into the hands of consumers that it is Nelson's sixth-largest sales channel.

Christian bookstores now account for about one-third of Nelson's sales and are shrinking, while Amazon is the fastest-growing market. Hyatt, who has worn hats as an editor, publisher, agent, writer and blogger, is aware that the world of Christian publishing is changing but seems intent on viewing the future open-endedly.

Hyatt speaks enthusiastically about digital devices to deliver content and printing on demand that might one day produce a book at the retail site. In a bold move, he did away with Nelson's many imprints, consolidating them as a way to strengthen the corporate brand for the future.

"Christian publishers can be more innovative than the New York houses," he said. "People are seeking meaningful experiences, and we need to find better ways to meet those needs."

But for Anderson, the future seems less rosy. While encouraging his members to search for more convenient locations and to find new channels for sales, he says Christian retailers have limited opportunities for innovation.

And with Christian books readily available and deeply discounted at the local Sam's Club, more and more consumers are picking up their inspiration along with a case of soda.

Neither Hyatt nor Anderson imagine a future without Christian bookstores or inspirational publishers. But both think the next few years will be a time of consolidation and some deep soul-searching in a market that once seemed to enjoy profits from heaven.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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