What Ails the Publishing Industry?

It’s just like dominos. One after another the news comes declaring cutbacks.

First, Munce announced at the beginning of the year that they were canceling their West Coast CPE show. Then CBA announced that they were shortening their International Christian Retail Show (ICRS), held each year in July, by one day. Next Book Expo Canada announced that they would cancel all further book shows in Canada commencing immediately. This came on the heels of CBA Canada canceling their regional Christian book shows a couple of years ago. Next Book Expo American announced that they would also be shortening their show by one day starting next year. Most recently, Thomas Nelson decided to cut their annual open house this year and make it a bi-annual tradition rather than a yearly occasion (after they decided to no longer exhibit at ICRS beginning last year to reportedly focus on their open house).

Has the economy rapidly caused these drastic measures, or are we seeing the culmination of a slide that began years ago? I would assert the later; especially in regards to the Christian publishing industry.

I believe it all boils down to dwindling attendance at tradeshows. I believe the reasons for the dwindling attendance are fourfold:

  1. Consolidation. In its heyday of the 1980s to mid-1990s, Christian publishing and retail sales were dominated by small Mom and Pop shops. Soon, savvy business people began to notice that there was money to be made in Christian products. Thus Christian chain bookstores began to appear and buy up the small independents. In the same fashion, large publishing houses began to purchase the smaller Christian publishers and make them imprints. Now in the 21st Century there are fewer exhibitors and fewer retailers to attend shows. Chain bookstores don’t send every store manager to a tradeshow, only their key buyers. Likewise, where three or four publishers may have had exhibits at a tradeshow, there is now just one publisher due to consolidation.
  2. Mainstreaming of Christian Products. When business people began to see that there was money to be made in Christian products, they started pushing these products into general market stores, especially the big-box stores such as Walmart, Kmart, and Target. With this shift, Christians could pick up their Christian books while shopping for other items. They no longer needed to make an extra stop or go out of their way to frequent a Christian bookstore. Christian publishers now had more than one channel to sell their books to, so the Christian tradeshows were not their only marketing avenue. Retailers began to struggle to stay afloat in the competition. Tradeshows became less important in the scope of business.
  3. The Graying of the Industry. The first time I attended a CBA tradeshow, I was still in my 30s. I was quite surprised to see that the vast majority of the retailers at the tradeshow had gray hair. I know that it is possible for people to have gray hair in their twenties and thirties, but it is fairly uncommon and not any more common in Christian circles than in secular circles. At one tradeshow I attended, a young mother with a baby was accompanying an older, gray-haired retailer. The young mother in her 20s took a look at some children’s books at my booth and exclaimed that the retailer needed to purchase them for her store, that they were perfect for babies. The retailer merely shook her head and responded that they wouldn’t sell. Looking back on all this, I must conclude that part of the industry’s problem is that the retailers have not stayed in touch with the needs of the younger generations and this has led to both a struggle with sales and a lack of vital energy at the tradeshows. Energy leads to synergy which is important in sustaining and growing an industry event.
  4. Times are a-Changing. Technology is changing the world. The fact that Amazon had its best holiday sales ever while most of the rest of the retail industry is shriveling up shouts to us that the Internet is becoming a way of life. People can now connect on the Internet without having to spend money to travel. Retailers can take online seminars to improve their business without having to take a few days off work to attend an event. Consumers can purchase products online often cheaper than in a Christian bookstore. The Internet is changing the way that the world does business and the bottom line is that business has to change with the technology to stay viable.

What is left to be seen is how the world of publishing and retailing will continue to meet and intersect to conduct business. Whatever the new business model looks like, you can be confident it will involve more and more virtual interactions.

What changes do you foresee in the Christian publishing industry?

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