In a guest editorial for Christian Retailing, Mark Kuyper, President & CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, shares how according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 76% of Americans identify as Christian (50.9% claim to be Protestant). Another study shows 75% of the population reads books. Two-thirds say they read the Bible and "other religious works." Yet, according to Pubtrack Consumer, Christian books are only 4.7% of the market. Kuyper says, "the potential for … growth is staggering…."
"Going through difficult times encourages us to innovate. Publishers and retailers all over our industry are rethinking how to do their work. Now is the time to actively and creatively develop new ideas and strategies to reach beyond our current customer base…"
Amen. A standing ovation for the thought. So what might these "new ideas and strategies" be?
This week, I'd like to honor Mark's wonderful suggestion and ask for your ideas and strategies. The ECPA, the Christian Booksellers Association, even Christian Retailing, which according to their slogan, "serves the $4.6 billion Christian products industry" is eager to hear what we think we should do to grow the market for Christian books. So far, these new ideas are pretty scarce (one new suggestion comes from the CBA chairman: downsizing stores). And to be clear, Kuyper's article isn't necessarily agreeing with the original assumption that the Christian book is only intended for Christians. Yet though he does believe that The Purpose-Driven Life sold to more than just Christians, there's no denying that this simplistic Bible study broke out of CBA–the association of Christian book stores–to reach those who didn't need a safe shopping experience or assurance that their values were shared by the store-owner. Those who bought it at warehouse stores or online could have been nonChristians, but according to the data, if one in four American Christians bought the book, all copies would be accounted for. And given the number of churches who ran 40-Days-of-Purpose campaigns, I think that may be pretty close to accurate (Barna says over half the US population attends church at least once a month).
I'm happy Mark's joined me in what I've been saying for a while now: we need a new strategy. The Christian book industry has taken up the challenge too, so where should we start? I'd like to suggest we start at the beginning–at our guiding principles. I believe our problem comes down to this: not enough of us really believe what we say we do. And that's nothing new. How many of us really practice the Great Commission every day? How many of us break the first and second commandment often? But what about the Golden Rule? Most of us at least do to others what we'd like done to us, right?
Not when it comes to Christian book buyers (I mean buyers of Christian books). Would you like others to treat you as an outsider and say what kind of books you should be allowed to read and where you can get them? No! That's why CBA was initially formed in the 50s, when Christian books were being denied shelf space at secular bookstores. But what about today–with the largest segment of the Christian book industry owned by secular houses and Amazon carrying everything as cheap as it can get? Now the tables are turned and some Christian book buyers find their "seeker" books banned in Christian stores, and by association, themselves untolerated. The challenge to think up new ideas and strategies for expanding the customer base is all well and good when we're talking about reaching Christian buyers of Christian books. But everyone else? They're just not who we serve.
Of course, I'm not necessarily saying there's a problem with this. I suppose it might fly: "Sorry, Lord. I tried to do what you asked, as long as it didn't offend my existing customer base. Christian books just don't reach anyone but Christians."
Guilt-trips aside, since tough times are ripe times, I'd like to offer up the first admittedly-simple-minded suggestion for one of these new strategies: stop thinking of books or stores or customers as Christian vs. non. After all, we're all just reaching out of the same gutter. And in place of those categories, think of how your next act will share love and reach someone God misses. Sure it might not be as nice and neatly compartmentalized, and make it harder to thin-slice the market into subcategories. But if we really have a higher organizing principle, let's apply it to deconstructing this idea of insiders and outsiders and replace it with the idea of all of us looking to get out of the same old dirty box.
And maybe, when we're all unworthy-yet-adored, and O-thank-you-God reachable, we'll just happen to find that transcendent books can in fact sell, for the very reason that they also transcend bariers.