Thursday, August 10, 2006

Christian Retail: Dead or Just Breathing Hard

Close readers of this blog will remember that in reporting about the Random House acquisition of Multnomah Publishing last week, I mentioned that the Christian bookselling marketplace has been struggling for years. While I was President of R.R. Bowker, we forged an agreement with the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) to provide the reporting mechanism for their point of sales reporting tool. During this time, I and a number of my staff attended meetings and events and heard of the issues that the Christian booksellers were having in the market.

Recently, in reporting on the Harpercollins results, Jane Friedman commented on the decline in their Christian imprints as one reason why their results were not better. These comments were reported at Publishers Marketplace. She commented that the segment was “seeing hard times”. Harpercollins has had impressive wins with Christian titles particularly The Purpose Driven Life and their acquisition of the publisher Zondervan a number of years ago was prescient. While all of this made sense to me, I wasn’t too surprised to see The Bookstandard release a story with the headline Is Religious Publishing in Trouble (although the use of the word Religious versus Christian should have been a give-away). The article promised to “investigate what is going on in religious publishing so far this year.” But is doesn’t; it is entirely superficial and I would have thought that a company with more resources than me could do a much better job.

Firstly, there are a few items wrong with this story. 1. There are no primary references. 2. There are no relevant stats quoted (Bookscan data is not relevant). 3. The Christian retail market is not homogeneous; in recent years there has been a close partnership between ECPA and Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). 4. Religious books don’t equal Christian books just ask any ECPA member. This simple error tells me the author is missing something fundamental.

So what is going on. ECPA publishes annual statistical data derived from their POS data and from industry market research. ECPA has not released recent sales numbers to the public but it is a good bet that book sales through the predominately Christian retail outlets have continued to increase in line with prior years. Additionally, as this press release reports Christian buyers buy more and buy more frequently. And look at the following quote from CBA:

"According to CBA, the international trade association for Christian
retail, sales of Christian products are on the rise. Sales of religious
books grew from $4 billion in 2000 to $4.34 billion in 2004, the CBA reports.
Christian retailers still sell a majority, about 53 percent, of the goods,
while warehouse clubs, big-box stores and national, general bookstores sold
31 percent."

Competition is a bigger deal with Christian retail than in years past, with more and more ‘mainstream’ retailers such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, Sam’s Club and Costco taking Christian publishing more seriously. This is taking volume from the Christian independents. Unfortunately, many industry participants believe there will be a reduction in the number of independents similar to what happened to the ABA stores during the 1990’s. Additionally, the two largest Christian chain stores Lifeway and Family Christian are growing more sophisticated and market savy which could have an impact on independents as well.

With over 2000 CBA stores, the reference to the Bookscan data in The BookStandard article is irrelevant because these stores don’t report to Bookscan. Their numbers maybe directional but in the manner in which they are used they could result in a wrong conclusion. Quoting the Bookscan manager makes no sense when they could have called ECPA and CBA directly for some relevant insight.

Lastly, aside from the Religious versus Christian semantics the product mix is very different for Christian retail. In addition to the traditional fiction/non-fiction, there are devotionals, music and gifts and other merchandise and published products which don’t fit the traditional bookselling model. For a true analysis of whether Christian retail is dead, some understanding and analysis of this issue and it’s impact should be discussed.

It seems there has been some interest in this topic whether driven by Jane Friedman or not and below are some links to other news reports. To understand what is really going on in Christian retail there is a report published by Simba in conjunction with ECPA if you are interested.

Nashua Telegraph
Ventura County Star

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