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 Demise of the Christian Bookstore

The news broke last week that Family Christian stores are closing. The decline of the Christian bookstore continues.

Family Christian declared bankruptcy two years ago, in 2015. Not wanting to see this valuable resource for selling Christian products fail, Christian publishers and other suppliers forgave Family Christian $127 million in debt and approved the reorganization that allowed a number of Family Christian stores to remain operational.

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Now, Family Christian has made the announcement that despite the changes they made to improve product selection and make their stores more appealing to their clientele, sales have continued to decline. Now the chain is forced to close its stores.

The closing of Family Christian stores is sad news for the Christian book industry and for communities around the country. The impact of this big.

  • Christian publishers will now have 240 less stores to sell their books through.
  • 240 communities across 36 states will now lack a physical resource where people can discover Christian products, where the gospel can be proclaimed, and where people can receive encouragement.

While book sales are migrating largely to the Internet, there is still something to be said about physical stores. Across the country, physical stores are not on the decline. In Charlotte, where I live, there are numerous strip malls and shopping centers being built.
In fact, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) has been reporting an increase in their number of bookstore members of the past few years. The number of independent secular bookstores around the country is growing, while the number of Christian bookstores is declining.

You may want to attribute the decline of the Christian bookstore to the weakening of Christianity in the United States. I don’t think that this is the largest contributing factor to what is undermining Christian bookstores.

Why are Indie general market bookstores succeeding while Christian bookstores aren’t? I think the answer can be summed up in one sentence:

General market indie bookstores have embraced the indie author, Christian bookstores have not.

Here is why this is so important. Indie authors are excited about their books. They may not have the clout that national bestselling authors have in terms of drawing large crowds, but they still draw people to a bookstore. Indie authors are enthusiastic. They host events and invite the community to these events. Bookstores that embrace indie authors and their events find that these authors bring the community to the bookstore. These community members come for the indie author event, but they also buy other books. Increased foot traffic equals increased sales.

Sadly, for fear of the “unknown”, Christian bookstores have refused to embrace the indie author to their own demise. I just hope that the remaining Christian bookstores wake up and do what they need to succeed.

Related Posts:
How to Get a Book into a Christian Bookstore
Seling Books in an Overcrowded Market
Christian Bookstores Closing

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How to Get a Book into a Christian Bookstore

Hello. I published a series of books through Createspace. I just returned from a Christian retail trade show and discovered that if I want my books in Christian stores, publishing through Createspace is not the way to go. I have your book and I wanted you to know this information. I think you should include it in your next edition.

This message was recently left on my voicemail. The gentleman on the message did not leave a return phone number or an email, so I could not get back in touch with him. So, instead, I will respond to this statement in a blog post and educate everyone.

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Of course, my immediate reaction to this voicemail message was, “Did you read my book?”

In Your Guide to Marketing Books in the Christian Marketplace, I devote a whole chapter to “Secure Distribution” where I talk about how Christian bookstores order products from distributors. Rarely do bookstores order books directly from authors or small publishers. In the chapter, I list the distributors from whom Christian bookstores order products.

Maybe, I did not make the message clear enough in the book. So, I will attempt to clarify. Here are three important things to know about getting your books into Christian bookstores.

1. It is extremely difficult to get Christian bookstores to stock titles from independently published authors and small publishers.

Note that I said “extremely difficult”, not “impossible”. In fact, a number of authors and publishers who are members of Christian Small Publishers Association (CSPA) have had success in getting Christian bookstores to carry their titles, especially independent Christian bookstores.

In fact, in my book Your Guide to Marketing Books in the Christian Marketplace, in the chapter titled “Reach Christian Retailers” I talk about how difficult it is to get a book in a bookstore. I state, “For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. In essence, any given book has less than a 1% chance of being placed on a bookstore shelf”.” The competition is stiff.

2. How the book is published is irrelevant; who is listed as the publisher is important.

With limited shelf space, Christian bookstores have to be careful about which books they choose to showcase. First, they must be assured that the book is the right theological bent for their customer base. Second, they must have some confidence that the book will sell.

Christian bookstores by and large purchase books published by the large well-known Christian publishing houses and written by established Christian authors. These are entities that Christian booksellers trust. Most Christian retail stores won’t touch a book that is obviously self-published—in other words, one that lists Createspace as the publisher. Even Barnes and Noble will not stock a book produced by Createspace in their physical bookstores. The company views Amazon as its competitor.

If an independent author is serious about getting his books into Christian bookstores, then, that author should use a business entity (publishing house or ministry) as the publisher name on his books.

You can produce a book through CreateSpace and do this. Instead of having CreateSpace assign an ISBN number to your book, you must purchase your own ISBN number through Bowker. This number is assigned to your business name. When your book is published, it will show up as published by your business name, not Createspace, both on Amazon and in distribution.

3. Having your book in the right distribution channels is required for a Christian bookstore to stock it.

There are always exceptions, but, by-and-large, most Christian bookstores won’t order books directly from an independent publisher or a small publisher. These stores simply don’t want to mess with multiple accounts. Instead, they order in batches from a distributor, making their accounting and return process much easier.

Additionally, Christian bookstores, for the most part, don’t order books from Ingram or Baker & Taylor (and definitely not from Amazon, which is a retailer). These distributors cater to the general market. Instead, Christian bookstores order from Christian distributors of which there are two main ones: Spring Arbor and Anchor Distribution.

Even if your book is selling like hotcakes, Christian bookstores won’t stock it unless they can order it from a Christian distributor. Createspace’s expanded distribution will place your book in Ingram, but not in Spring Arbor (unless you work hard to get them to do so).

I believe the gentleman on my voicemail was a little put out because he had spent a large amount of money to attend the Christian retail show and had little success. This is one reason that Christian Small Publishers Association (CSPA) offers our members trade show representation. Member authors and publishers of CSPA can present books to Christian retailers at a fraction of the cost of hosting their own booth at a show, reducing both costs and risk.

Publishing through Createspace is not the issue. The issue is knowing how to present your book to Christian bookstores so that the bookstores are confident your book is unique, what their consumers want, and will sell. Then, having the book available through Christian distribution will clinch the deal.

Related Posts:
More Than a Shelf
An Industry Shakeup
Staying Relevant

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Independent Bookstore Day

Free Comic Book Day! Record Store Day! The events are used to raise awareness and drive sales for small independent stores. Not to be outdone, independent bookstores have decided to have their own day.

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Independent Bookstore Day will be held May 2, 2015. Last year, the event started as California Bookstore Day and was a success. This year, the event is going national, so that all independent bookstores across the nation can be involved and benefit from the publicity with the goal of increasing sales.

Truth be told, many independent bookstores are struggling. Last month, in the Christian bookstore industry, announcements were made about stores closing.

Tree of Life Christian Outlet announced that it will be closing the doors on all eight of its retail locations effective June 30. Tree of Life cites one main factor in its closing is that the costs of operating the business continue to increase, while sales decrease as competition online gets harder to compete with.

Cedar Springs Christian Stores also announced that it will be closing two of its three stores. At one time, Cedar Springs Christian Store was the largest independent Christian bookstore in the country. Cedar Springs cites that changing habits is a major factor in its decline as more people shop from the Internet.

Independent Bookstore Day is meant to bring attention to booksellers in these changing times. While independent bookstores only account for about 10% of all book sales in the United States, they continue to be an important piece of the bookselling puzzle. Traditionally, small independent bookstores have been instrumental in helping small and local authors gain traction for their books.

Yes times are changing. More books are purchased online then in brick-and-mortar stores. However, books are still purchased in stores. As authors and publishers, supporting local bookstores not only helps the overall book market, it also helps you since you are part of that book market.

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A Shakeup in the Christian Book Industry

A shakeup is happening in the Christian book industry. Family Christian stores the largest Christian store chain in the country (counting locations, not necessarily sales revenue) with 266 stores in 36 states has filed bankruptcy.

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Initially, Family Christian filed for a sale of its assets and operations under Section 363 of Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy code. This allows the company to reorganize. Family Christian Ministries, which owns the stores, had formed a new subsidiary to buy the stores for $73,773,000 and assume the property leases and other accrued operating liabilities. It was reported that the company expected to continue operations without closing stores or laying off employees.

Then last week, a group of 27 Christian publishers filed a joint lawsuit against Family Christian to keep the retailer from selling their products at a future auction. It appears that Family Christan recently made the decision to sell around $20 million worth of books, music and DVDs at an auction scheduled for later this year. However, the products that Family Christian plans to sell they did not purchase; rather these are consigned products. A few years ago Family Christian stores went to a consignment model to save money. In this model, publishers shipped merchandise to Family Christian and Family Christian did not have to pay the publishers for the merchandise until it sold.

Court documents show that Family Christian owes banks and vendors (publishers) about $97 million, not including the consigned inventory. Publishers are concerned that if Family Christian auctions off the inventory that they have consigned, they will not be able to recoup any money for these products. In the lawsuit, the publishers are demanding that Family Christian either return consigned inventory to each respective publisher or pay the publishers outright for the products.

All this appears to point to the fact that Family Christian is not doing as well as they originally indicated. That, in fact, if they need to auction inventory to raise money, they may have to look at closing stores and laying off employees. The company may not be able to continue “business as usual” even with a reorganization.

If this is true, it bodes ill for the Christian book market. While some reading this blog may say, “Since more books today are purchased online than in physical stores, the impact won’t be much.” I disagree. The more channels through which consumers can purchase books, the more books will sell—and selling books in bookstores actually earns an author more money.

Bookstores are important when it comes to selling books. A recent study showed that while only 54% of traditionally published books actually made it onto bookstore shelves, those that did earned their authors a median of $5,000 to $9,999 across all platforms. Traditionally published books that were not sold in bookstores only made their authors a median of $1 to $499. For self-published books, the study showed that those that were sold in bookstores (only 12%) earned a median of $500 to $999 compared to $1 to $499 for those self-published books that weren’t.

Every time a sales channel is lost, book selling takes a hit. If the largest Christian bookstore chain ends up closing its doors, publishers and authors will need to be creative to adapt and create sales opportunities elsewhere.

Update as of March 20, 2015:
Family Christian has filed a court notice withdrawing its motion of plans for bankruptcy. The company announced its plans this week through an official statement.

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