Category Archives: On the Christian Booksellers Association

Free the Christian Book!

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…."

His conclusion?

"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.

Formula

Form

Structure is what we think of. How something is constructed. The formula is applied and the form is made.

This is understood. This is quantifiable. This is a known, safe method to creation.

But then there’s that other world.

Mt. Hermon conference was great, as usual. If you allow it, things happen there that can change you. A brief vision of a deeper space glimmers open before you, among the pillars of trees, the canopy of branches. You walk along in a different light and time and space converge into something resembling deep meaning. You were meant to come here. You were meant to be a part of this.

Of course, it’s not about you. You may know some things, some thoughts to apply. You may come expecting something nonspecific and ill-defined. But you will leave with far bigger fantasies of your purpose in responding to it all. If you could only find the words…

The first evening, I sat and listened to Dick Foth. His insights matched my experience at the conference so insanely, I’m not able to talk about it yet, but that first night he shared the difference between Coke and water. Seems pretty obvious, and it is. But the real difference is in how you interpret the value of Coke, the value of water. Some people, maybe many, prefer Coke. It’s got this fascinating formula, and highly (famously) protected. But as Dick points out, it’s sweetness is toxic and will, over time, eventually kill you. Water it down and it won’t kill you quite as fast, but it still won’t refresh as well as just water. So why do so many seem to prefer the syrupy, sparkly toxin?

Of course, I love Coke too, so don’t miss the metaphor here. But up in the woods I experienced a shift, one of several really, in how I think about the coming revolution I once opined upon at great length in the early days of this blog (check the sidebar). I didn’t know it was coming, not really. I hoped, but it wasn’t like now. Now I know. Not long now, and we’ll be experiencing a major resurgence of "water over Coke." I’m not going to define that any more specifically because I can’t, but those who have ears to hear, listen up. It used to seem so uncertain, like you didn’t want to actually name it unless it might skitter off. I spent a lot of time defining it, looking for evidence, hoping and dreaming. I spent time defending it against criticisms. It’s easy for critics to see this shift in the books we enjoy as a "watering down" of the core Christian message. And yet what do we do to wean people off of Coke? How will they develop a taste for just water?

Think about that. "Come to me all you who are thirsty and I will give you drink…. "Living water that you might thirst no more."

Former CBA chairman Steve Adams said recently to the ECPA that changing lives through Christian materials was “more likely to occur in a Christian retail store than an outlet in any other channel, because this is the one that best integrates like-minded people in a common mission.” Get that? The way I hear that is unless writers, editors, and publishers offer just water along with Coke, we may not have this influence much longer. Certainly, we need excellence at every level. But that’s just part of it. We also need to be providing a whole spectrum of books that reach people with all different tastes.

Overall, what we’re hoping for is a united effort among writers and publishers to accept the myriad different opportunities available to us in reaching beyond our former restrictions. We need people who are awake and already making the connections between what is and what could be. We need people who aren’t afraid of the inherent risks involved for people of faith, willing to stretch beyond the safe boundaries to try something new.  And above all, we need to be seeking the source of that inspiration in the living water, crafting works that have no place in the current market…but will.

This is how you escape the addiction to formula. This is formless freedom. For the change in my outlook and how I approach this challenge I have countless people to thank, but on my mind just now it’s Madison Richards, as well as Jim Rubart and Jen McCarthy. All of you are amazing.

So anyway…who else could go for a nice cold Coke right about now?

Are CBA stores “book-oriented”?

Warning! Snarky post ahead! If you’re sensitive to ironic humor, turn back now.

 

CBA Advance gets underway, and some data is released:


Leaders Reveal "State of the Industry" data:


There was some warming news in chilly Indianapolis yesterday in the State of the Industry report presented at the Future of the Industry conference.


* Retailers are becoming more book-oriented: Book sales in Christian retail stores last year comprised 29.8% of total revenues, compared to 26.9% in 1999. 


* A quarter of sales in the typical Christian retail store were in inspirational giftware, a segment that was “trending up,” and bringing “excitement and sizzle” to stores.

Anderson said that overall retail sales had increased 6.2% in 2006, although the National Retail Federation forecast only a 4.7% jump. Sales during the 2006 Christmas season rose 4.4% compared with 2005.

Anderson also noted that online Christian retail business was “coming of age,” with sales amounting to $102 billion in 2006, a 24% increase from 2005.

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Did you catch that? Overall book revenue is up 3% in 7 years! This can only mean Christian stores are becoming more book-oriented! I know that number fluctuates every year, which is why you have to go back 7 years to see an increase in overall book sales. And other reports indicate the book sales number for the average Christian retail store is around 36% But this is really good news for people who make money off books.

 

Second, if anyone can think of a viable and respectable angle to earn me my cut of that $102 billion in mammon from online sales, I’m now taking submissions (That $102 billion-a-year number is another interesting fact since other places claim the Christian retail market is only a $4.2 billion-a-year industry.)

 

I don’t mean to pick on us, but 3% growth over a period of 7 years is not an indication that Christian stores are becoming more book-oriented. And while I appreciate what Mr. Anderson is trying to do, put a positive spin on what many people see as the glut of Jesus junk flooding the stores, this measly number isn’t helping my outlook. But don’t get me wrong: I’m all in with hoping that spin becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

I guess I just haven’t seen a lot of hopeful signs that seem to indicate this supposed "book orientation" in Christian stores. The entire Christian book industry is being swallowed by the "Christian Retailing Market"–Christian books are being renamed, repackaged, repositioned as one more commodity on the shelves at "Christian Retail Stores." And while this may seem like just one more thing for Mick Silva to get up in arms against, I can’t seem to help thinking that the lack of distinction between books and other retail items is somehow connected to the kind of low quality "product" we’re seeing take precedence with book buyers.

 

Maybe I’ll just change my business cards to read "Christian Retail Product Editor." Then I could hand them out to the Christian Retail Product writers at all the local Christian Retail Product readings…

Note: Every Christian bookstore I’ve been in features Christian books as their primary offering, PTL. But it does seem to be getting harder for them…

Robert Liparulo isn’t a Christian writer

“Christian fiction hasn’t had the highest standard. The priority was to talk about God, to talk about Jesus, not to do the best we can.”

“Look at Pikes Peak, the voice said. Does it have God’s name written on it? Does it not still sing of his majesty?”

Robert Liparulo says he isn’t religious genre writer and doesn’t want to limit himself

Reality Check #7: Silence Isn’t Golden

Let’s face it. Some publishing realities contribute to low quality books too.

Start with money. We’ve got to sell books. But that creates a conflict of interest for Christians; the goals of business are diametrically opposed to God’s. No mission statements say “show us the money.” It’s just implied. Which means we’ll publish books we may not fully agree with in order to “give them what they want.” Some think it’s just the way it is.

Following the “give them what they want” philosophy is an obvious question. What books are those, exactly? Some say low quality, controversial books with familiar ideas in them. They certainly don’t want to read classics. They don’t want books that require a lot of effort, even if they might like them more if they gave them a try. No. Fluffy books, tune-out books, reads as disposable as candy wrappers.

Which brings us to the nutrition-to-candy ratio. With disposable books, surely nutrition and excellence are low on the list. If it’s for CBA, slip some God in there and we’re good. We don’t need artsy-fartsy stuff gumming up the works.

Maybe this blog is a complete waste of bytes.

The problem with all this is that books aren’t candy. Of course, we want them to be as popular as Pop Rocks, but what’s the cost to the reader? Quality does matter. In fact, it matters at least as much as message. Maybe more. When it comes to our creations representing the Creator, what carries the message to the reader? The vehicle of our craft? What if the Bible wasn’t excellent? What if God didn’t care? What if we didn’t build our church well and it came crashing down on our heads? If God doesn’t care, maybe we’re wasting our time here.

Why would I trade my good reputation to discuss these problems in CBA? I don’t want to be known as the guy who hates CBA. Talking about this on a public blog isn’t my idea of fun. It doesn’t facilitate working in the industry. Silently contributing to the mountain of books makes a whole lot more sense. But I think our books need to better reflect our master. Whether or not “literary” books sell, we need books that don’t contribute to the idea that faith is like a candy wrapper we can use whenever and however we like. I’m so happy there are editors and authors doing good work out there. But there’s still a lot of padding on the shelves, shoddy product produced too quickly without respect of our task and its eternal significance. And yes, it’s worse in the general market, but that’s not the point.

Can I suggest why this matters? Silence about the problems pays implicit concessions to them. Professional distance shouldn’t excuse us from bowing to market pressures. Christian publishers are cashing in on successes so regularly it’s become expected. We don’t even question anymore. Sales assumptions about nutrition-to-candy ratio dictate what books get published. There are accepted business practices that propagate a low standard. And we all are complicit in our silence.

Confession: I’m guilty too. I’ve compromised. I’m not clean and tidy either. I’m not sure if anyone in my shoes can be completely. And that’s a topic for another post. But we don’t need an overhaul of CBA. All I’m asking for is some dialogue, an open discussion to try to balance some of these realities. Let’s stand together and have some accountability. Let’s discuss the problems and not hide behind false decency or prissy professionalism. Maybe I don’t get to be thought of as classy for saying this, but I can’t worry about that. Let’s deal with our book-buying and publishing decisions and not take the bait of publishers hoping we’ll buy the next installment of candy. The silence contributes more to less-than-excellent books than anything. There are some closed doors that need opening. We should probably let them stay closed, but doggone it, you just can’t stop progress.

Okay, so that little term “nutrition-to-candy ratio” needs some unpacking. Come on back.