Lines Between the Christian and Trade Markets Continue to Blur With Growth on All Fronts
As the entire world raptly parses the papacy, smack in the middle of an overtly faith based presidency, it should come as no surprise that religious books have achieved double-digit growth every month for the past few years. Evangelical viewpoints in particular have surged into the mainstream. As Christian based books, movies and other media have found their way into the mass market, the once solid barrier dividing Christian audiences and their mainstream counterparts is eroding, allowing for a new generation of crossover successes to take their place. After years of trying to break into the CBA market, major trade publishing houses are developing their own Christian divisions (eg. Warner Faith), as well as signing authors (e.g. Penguin, S&S, Warner Books, HarperCollins). Similarly, religious books, once relegated to CBA markets, have been steadily moving into trade, and now comprise 11 percent of trade sales, bringing in $1.9 billion dollars annually. And it isn’t just a one-way street: Penguin recently signed a multi-million dollar deal with Strang Communications for distribution into CBA stores, thereby closing the distribution circle. And author and editor Greg Tobin notes that the CBA seems more open to Catholic titles – “an encouraging economic ecumenism.”
Since 1992, the religious marketplace has seen a compound growth rate of 14.5%, over double that of adult net sales, exploding by 50% between 2002 and 2003 alone. For the general public, references to Christian bestsellers usually evoke inspirational titles (Rick Warren‘s The Purpose Driven Life), apocalyptic adventures (Jerry Jenkins‘ and Tim LaHaye‘s Left Behind series) or – if one is a little more old school – historical romance novels (Janette Oke‘s multiple variations on the sweet-farm-girl-meets-chaste-hunky-preacher theme) but such cornerstones of the Christian literary marketplace are only the tip of the evangelical iceberg – well known figureheads at the crest of a wave that is spilling out of the CBA and onto the banks of popular culture both here, and – increasingly – abroad.
CBA Stores Torn Asunder
“Five years ago, the assortment of Christian titles that a general market retailer carried would have been limited to key bestsellers and a couple of Bibles,” Jay Echternach Senior Director of Sales at Multnomah Books, said. “Due to demand for these products now, those same retailers are carrying assortments that rival a small Christian bookstore.”
The mass-marketization of the industry can be traced back to the mid-1990’s when Christian publishers began forging relationships with big box stores like WalMart and Costco. Today, these stores are invaluable resources for an increasingly sophisticated market. So much so, that a recent search for books on WalMart.com using the keyword “Christianity” came up with 60,000+ hits. Because of this increased distribution in big box and mass-merch stores “we’ve seen hemorrhaging in the CBA,” Rolf Zettersten, Publisher of Warner Faith, said. “I’ve been in meetings with retailers who have said, ‘we’re going after the CBA market’ and I think it’s a deliberate and calculated business move.”
As sales at independent Christian stores decline, and business disperses, they are compensating by providing more of what big-box and mass-market chains don’t – ancillary products like key chains, bible covers, screen savers, and a slew of other inspirational trinkets. According to Christianity Today, books now account for about 25% of sales in CBA stores, while ancillary products account for upwards of 70%, with specialty gifts and music leading the way. “The real tension,” Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing explained, “is between the Christian retailers and the Christian publishers. You know it’s ‘Great news! Christian books are selling at WalMart’, and ‘Bad news! Christian books are selling at WalMart. Christian retailers want to see their category sell as broadly as possible, but they don’t want to hurt their own sales either.”
Still, as with the ABA, Christian publishers insist that the CBA plays an important role in sales. “CBA stores are critical to our success, and to the health of our backlist,” said Stephen Cobb, President and Publisher of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House. “They will carry many more of our core titles than a general market chain or big box store.” Jenny Baumgartner, fiction acquisitions editor at WestBow Press (Thomas Nelson) says, “The Christian stores can hand sell books, getting to know their customer’s interests, while also speaking to the Christianity in the books. We sell about 50/50 – CBA to ABA/mass.”
According to Scott Bolinder, Executive VP and Publisher, Zondervan‘s sales also showed a 50/50 split between CBA and ABA/mass/on-line, while Thomas Nelson’s 2004 annual report showed a slightly different breakdown with a third of its $222 million income ($74 million) coming from CBA stores, while combined ABA and mass market sales came to $63 million.
Although most agree that CBA stores will continue to lose business to mass-market retailers, they agree that one of the largest remaining avenues for growth for Christian independents is the opportunity to actively pursue sales through churches and individual pastors. Nancy Guthrie, CBA Media Relations, said, “Stores are returning to focus on church customers, finding innovative ways to reach the average person who sits in a pew.” Such an angle may prove to become more lucrative as the congregations of popular pastors become stadium rather than basement sized. Many of the Christian best-selling authors, like Rick Warren and Max Lucado, are pastors themselves, and have an extensive reach into both their in-person congregations (16,000 show up each week, with over 50,000 on the Saddleback Church roster for Warren, and 3,500 congregants appear each week at Lucado’s Oak Hills Church) as well as the hordes that log on daily to their stylish websites.
“Prairie Romances In Deepest Africa”
Another burgeoning avenue for growth is international sales. At the moment according to Butcher, “US based Christian publishing tends to dominate,” with mainly niche fiction along with select Christian chick-lit titles selling abroad, primarily in Europe. “Prairie romances in deepest Africa don’t go down particularly well,” he added.
But as the industry moves from the tame romances of Janette Oke to the edgier contemporary fiction of Melodie Carlson, international audiences seem to be responding. Bolinder highlighted increased international and Hispanic market sales as a consumer trend that will have an impact on growth in Christian publishing over the next five years.
Tyndale Rights Director Dan Balow explained that there are two parts to this growth: “First, the market for Christian books in areas where we export them is growing faster than in the US. There are a couple of factors at work – increased interest in Christian books and the weakness of the US dollar make our products more competitive.” He continued, “Second, in virtually all continents, sales are growing faster than the US. Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil), and simplified Chinese are seeing very healthy growth. For exports, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, and even Nigeria are growing quite fast.”
Bolinder agreed, and added India to the list. Mirroring domestic trends, Christian publishers are selling into both trade and religious markets abroad. “We are seeing some secular general market publishers taking some [religious] books – it is happening in select countries – South Africa and Australia are particularly big,” Zettersten said, “We just got a deal yesterday from Spain.” Bolinder noted that the different markets are usually dictated by language, “For English titles, we sell through Christian distributors and trade distributors depending on the channel of distribution – much like we do in North America,” he said. “When we sell foreign language rights, it is most often to a Christian publisher.”
One foreign scout suggested that if Christian literature is growing abroad, it is only due to the fact that people are reading it for a behind-the-scenes-what-the-hell-are-those-Americans-thinking look into our increasingly faith based activities. “People think that Americans are so crazy, so fundamentalist,” Elizabeth Gold, a Senior Editor at Guideposts, added. “They want to find out what it’s all about.”
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