Why Christian Bookstores Are In Decline

According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), there are now more than 2,321 independent bookstores. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of general market independent bookstores grew by 35 percent.

Sadly, Christian bookstores are not on the increase. Instead, they have been steadily declining for years. It seems like almost every week I read about another Christian bookstore closing. Rarely do I see news of a Christian bookstore opening. Last year the Christian publishing industry took a huge hit when Family Christian closed—losing 220 stores in one fell swoop (there were 240, but 20 were purchased to be run independently).

I believe there are three reasons why Christian bookstores have suffered while independent bookstores have thrived.

1. Lack of depth of inventory.

Christian bookstores tend to play it safe. They only stock bestselling books and books by well-known Christian authors and personalities. In other words, they only stock books they believe will sell well.

The issue with this is that consumers can get these books at the big box stores. Why would I take extra time from my busy schedule to go to a Christian store to purchase a book by Max Lucado when I can pick it up at Walmart with my groceries? Why would I bother to browse a local Christian bookstore when there is not much new material to discover?

Shortly after the start of the new millenium, when Christian publishing and bookstores were still in their heyday, Barna warned Christian retailers at the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) that unless they broadened the books they offered for sale and included books with more meat and less fluff, that they would suffer. It appears these were prophetic words.

Recently, the Board Chairman of the CBA, The Association for Christian Retail, told Christian retailers: “Let’s return to carrying a healthy book inventory. If the life-changing impact of Christian books is leaving our stores, along with our most faithful customers, this is our chance to re-align our mission and responsibility to the church to be the place to discover new authors and Christian thought from foundational authors.

2. Failure to embrace Indies.

One of the reasons that general market independent bookstores are thriving is because they have embraced the Indie author. With almost one out of every five books purchased penned by an Indie author, booksellers cannot afford to overlook this massive group of enthusiastic authors. Local Indie authors have the power to bring the community into the bookstore.

Sadly, Christian bookstores and CBA, The Association for Christian Retail, have failed to embrace Indie authors. Other than establishing a Creative Pavilion section at their annual trade show (a tabletop area for authors), CBA has done little to encourage their member stores to work with Indie authors. They have not championed a “Christian Indie Author Day” for their stores, unlike the secular market has done with “Indie Author Day.” Nor have they developed guidelines their members stores can implement to help these stores be more confident that the Indie books they carry will be quality Christian material.


3. Using an outdated model.

Starbucks thrived because they marketed themselves as a “third place,” a space where people can share and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends and colleagues away from work and home. Many independent bookstores are also setting themselves up as “third places.” They are striving to be a place where friendly staff know and remember the names of their regulars. They are also a place for the community to gather over all things related to books and reading.

It seems that most Christian bookstores are maintaining the old model of simply setting up shop and expecting customers to come because they are interested in what the store is selling. Wouldn’t it be nice for Christian bookstores to be a “third place” for Christians and seekers to gather and encounter God without the formality of a Church building or service?

I know I don’t have all the answers. Bookselling is a difficult business. However, comparing and contrasting the general market independent bookstores with Christian bookstores does show some glaring difference that I believe account for the current state of the industry.

Related Posts:
How to Get a Book into a Christian Bookstore
Christian Retail is Struggling
The Demise of the Christian Bookstore

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The State of Christian Fiction

If you write or publish Christian fiction books, then you should know about the recent survey of Christian fiction readers and the results. Christian Fiction Readers: Worth Pursuing, Worth Keeping, a reader survey conducted through a cooperative effort of CBA, The Parable Group, The Baker Publishing Group, and American Christian Fiction Writers, used an online survey to compile information from around 1,500 Christian fiction readers—largely female readers (over 90% of respondents).

Fiction Reading

The survey found that Christian fiction readers are purchasing more titles today than five years ago, but their buying and reading behaviors have changed. Here are some key findings from the survey:

  • Christian fiction readers read more than the national average and are more frequent book buyers. Nearly 50% of Christian-fiction readers read more than 10 books annually; by comparison, only 36% of American adults read more than 10 books per year, according to a 2014 Pew Research study.
  • The top Christian fiction genres reported by surveyed readers were historical fiction (66%), romance (52%), contemporary (51%), romantic suspense (50%), suspense/thriller/legal thriller (47%), and mystery/espionage (45%), which also reveals that many Christian fiction readers read more than one genre.
  • Trade paperbacks are still the most popular format for readers at 41% despite what some may presume is the age of digital dominance, with 28% of Christian fiction readers responding that they read on ebooks or digital formats.
  • Nearly 50% report purchasing more Christian fiction titles today than five years ago.
  • Almost 50% of Christian fiction ebooks are downloaded for free rather than purchased.
  • The top sales drivers for Christian fiction are the story itself (94%), the desire to keep reading a story in a series (69%), recommendations about a book (68%), and author familiarity (89%).
  • Most Christian fiction readers don’t want their stories to include sex, bad language, or violence.

While the number of respondents to this survey represents a fairly small subset of Christian fiction readers, the findings represent good news for Christian fiction books and those who produce them.

One finding I found interesting was that over two-thirds of respondents reported that one of the top reasons they buy a Christian fiction book is the desire to keep reading a story in a series. If you want to sell more books, take this to heart. To keep readers coming back for more, write and publish series of stories.

Which finding in this survey caught your attention?

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BookCon: A Success!

In a struggling economy and changing book publishing and buying landscape, BEA (Book Expo America) the industry’s largest book trade show tried something new this year to breathe fresh life into the event. BEA added a consumer day to the final day of the show. They named this event BookCon and opened it to the reading public.


For $30 individuals could purchase tickets to attend BookCon (similar idea to the existing Comic-Con show). This final day of BEA show featured authors appearance, book giveaways, and other events for book lovers. The event was so successful that BEA had to cap the attendance at 10,000 individuals. As a result, they are looking to add an additional day to BookCon next year at the end of BEA for a three-day trade show and then a two-day BookCon event.

Interestingly, a number of years ago (I think 2009) ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) attempted a similar event. This event, Christian Book Expo, was held in Dallas. It turned out to be a complete flop.

I wonder if CBA, the Association for Christian Retail, will attempt a similar idea for the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in the next few years. After all, CBA generally follows BEA’s lead. For example, a couple years ago, BEA added a conference for self-published authors, uPublishU. CBA then added a conference to ICRS for self-published authors, Author BootCamp.

In a struggling industry with fewer Christian retail stores and larger consolidation of publishers (leaving fewer publishers to exhibit), CBA will have to do something to try to reinvigorate a trade show that has shrunk considerably since its heyday in the 1990s. It would not surprise me at all to see CBA attempt an event similar to BookCon with ICRS.

However, should CBA add a consumer day, I think getting the numbers would be more of a challenge as the Christian subset is a smaller portion of the reading public. I am sure holding the event in New York City helped boost BookCon’s attendance. ECPA felt Dallas was the right city to hold their Christian Book Expo in due to the high numbers of Christians in the city, yet the people did not show up.

Do you think CBA should add a consumer day to the International Christian Retail Show (a BookCon for Christian consumers)? If so, what city do you think would draw the biggest Christian reading crowd?

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Reflections on ICRS 2013

Our world is changing. Advancing technology is driving much of the change. The book publishing and selling industry is not immune to these changes.

Christian Small Publishers Association (CSPA) has been attending the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) since 2004. I, personally, have been attending since 2005. The show has greatly changed over the years. One of the biggest changes is the shift in focus for the retailers attending the show. What once was books and music has become gifts and films. Most of the exhibitor sponsored events at this year’s ICRS were advanced showings of Christian films.

CSPA Booth 1830

Three years ago, in 2010, ICRS was held in the America’s Convention Center in St. Louis. The venue this year returned to St. Louis. Being in the same place three years later, really struck home to me the changes that have occurred in the industry and with ICRS. The show’s energy and flow was definitely different than three years ago. As I reflected on this, I realized that there have been some major changes in the industry in the past three years. These include:

  1. Family Christian Stores, the largest Christian chain retailer, moved from a regular purchasing model with payment within 60 days to an all consignment model. They now buy directly from publishers and stock all their merchandise on consignment.
  2. Cokesbury, another large Christian retail chain and one that had been more friendly to small publishers, closed all their physical bookstores and moved to an online only store.
  3. The sales of digital books went from a miniscual percentage of books in 2010 to one-fourth of all book sales this year.
  4. Print book buying has shifted. The majority of print books are now being purchased online. In 2012, 43.8% of books bought by consumers were purchased online, while only 31.6% of books were purchased in all large retail chains, independent bookstores, other mass merchandisers, and supermarkets.

These changes raise the question: Is there still value in attending ICRS?

I believe there is. However, ICRS should no longer be viewed as a venue to get Christian retailers to stock your books in their stores. Rather, ICRS provides other rich opportunities for small publishers and authors.

1. ICRS is a great place to learn.
In addition to the learning that takes place on the show floor from viewing the competition to see what they are doing so that you can stay on top of trends, ICRS provides a large number of opportunitities for learning in the many seminars at the show. In addition to Publishers’ Institute (sponsored by CSPA), this year’s program included seminars on using social media, getting interviews with the media, an author bootcamp, reaching the Catholic market, technology tools and trends in marketing, and using events to connect with consumers.

2. ICRS is a great place to land interviews with the media.
Many radio and TV programs attend ICRS looking for fresh guests. Authors can connect with the media and be interviewed in person at the show. I, personally, was not looking to acquire media interviews at the show, however, God brought to me media personnel who were interested in hosting interviews about CSPA and what we do. God ordained connections happen at ICRS.

3. Numerous opportunities for networking are available.
ICRS offers many opportunities for small publishers and authors to network with a wide variety of industry personnel from other authors, to distributors, to sales and marketing people, to retailers, to other publishers. These networking opportunities can lead to collaborative efforts among authors, among publishers, and between various other professionals in the industry to help publishers and authors expand their audience and market reach. A number of publishers and authors reported to me that they had made contacts and began negotiations for special sales agreements and collaborations at the show.

4. ICRS offers international sales opportunities.
If you are willing to sell to overseas retailers and distributors, opportunitites exist to connect with international people to sell your books. ICRS hosts a number of International attendees seeking good Christian materials for their home countries. One exhibiting publisher shared with me that almost all of his business transactions at ICRS were with international retailers.

While ICRS may no longer be the avenue for authors and publishers to directly acquire bookstore sales, the show still contains many valuable opportunities for small publishers and authors who choose to attend the show. At CSPA, we are constantly evaluating the services we offer our members to ensure that they still have value. At this time, we feel that ICRS still has value for small publishers and authors. Therefore, we are committed to attending ICRS in Atlanta next summer in 2014 (God willing). We hope you will join us there.

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Booth #338

The International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) is the largest gathering of Christian retailers in North America each year. It is hosted by CBA, the Association for Christian Retail.

As we have done for the past eight shows, Christian Small Publishers Association (CSPA) had a booth at the trade show. We exhibited 30 titles from 15 of our member publishers, gaining these titles exposure with both domestic and international book buyers.

In addition, representatives and authors from six of CSPA’s member publishers attended the show with us and hosted five author appearances with book signings.

CBA reports that overall attendance at the tradeshow was up 5% from last year with the total of exhibitors, authors, and retail professionals attending the show at 4,918.

A tradeshow is largely about networking, making connections, and planting seeds. We planted many seeds for our members’ books that we are praying will grow into fruit.

If you have never attended a Christian book show, I urge you to consider doing so next summer when ICRS is in Orlando, Florida. It is a great place to learn more about the industry and your competition, and, above all, to network and make connections that will help you in selling your books.


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