ATLANTA – Here at the International Christian Retail Show it is, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, the best of times or the worst of times, depending on whom you ask.
Two years ago they stopped calling this expo the Christian Booksellers Convention. To be sure, book and Bible publishers are no longer the dominant force. They now share the exhibit floor with a dizzying array of T-shirt manufacturers, greeting card companies and even Christian candy makers.
Book publishers point out that Christian retailers are no longer their primary sales channel. Online sellers like Amazon.com, and “big box” stores like Wal-Mart, account for an increasing percentage of their profits – and their attention.
The two-pronged result has been a consolidation of Christian publishers and a closing of Christian bookstores. And yet, in a market where words like “hope,” “faith” and “grace” appear in hundreds of titles, there is always reason to believe.
To many, this is not just any business, it’s God’s business. To others, it is an opportunity to capitalize on the growing awareness of faith and the powerful political and social force of evangelicals. “The Prayer of Jabez” and the “Left Behind” series are just two examples of tsunami-like book sales that confounded the historically secular publishing industry in the past decade.
But the different approaches can create tension. Bill Anderson, president of CBA, the organization of Christian retailers that hosts the convention, said, “We represent stores where ‘Christian’ is a commitment, not a category.”
Referring to competitors like Barnes & Noble and Borders, Anderson admits that they, along with online outlets, have cut into the sales of the Christian stores that resulted in closure or consolidation for many Christian retail outlets.
On the Christian publishing side, the story is even more volatile. Best-selling inspirational titles caught the attention of major secular publishers, leading to a wave of acquisitions over the past decade. Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and other big-name secular publishers acquired Christian publishing houses, hoping for major income producers. Other publishers started religious divisions of their own.
In some cases, the strategy worked. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” published by Zondervan (which is owned by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) set sales records and created several years of remarkable profits for the company. But unable to produce an encore, Zondervan’s sales dropped and its president was let go in June by executives in New York who lost patience waiting for another blockbuster hit.
Mike Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson, the largest Christian publisher, predicts tough times for publishers owned by the major New York houses. “I think we’re going to see some of those Christian publishing houses back on the block,” he says.
“Christian publishers can be more innovative than the New York houses,” he says. “People are seeking meaningful experiences and we need to find better ways to meet those needs.”