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Why the best books aren't on the shelves

2009 International Christian Retail Show, Denver, Colo.

He looked vaguely like an early 19th century American president. James K. Polk, I believe. When I climbed into his shuttle van at the Denver airport Tuesday night, I was already very tired.

“Okay,” the driver said cheerily, “our last stops will take about one hour, 45 minutes.”

A woman behind me gasped.

“Don’t worry, dear,” the driver promised. “I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

Not many minutes had passed when we found ourselves in a Denver suburb, on a dark street. The driver helped a passenger to the steps of a private residence, then he got back in. He watched her intently.

“I’d better make sure she gets in,” he said. “This is a really bad street. I mean, really bad.”

I peered into the darkness and clutched a bag. What a way to end my life: on my way to the International Christian Retail Show, only to be murdered near a crack house with President Polk.

I’ve taken many of these trips, but this week’s was the most bizarre. It was an apt metaphor for the Christian retail industry: navigating through some difficult territory and feeling, at times, quite alone.

The first of these shows was held in 1950. Naturally, it was organized by plenty of purists, people who only wanted to share the gospel. There are still lots of good people in Christian retail – at all levels – but the thing has come to resemble a cynical, secular business. And in today’s climate, that means keeping an eye on the bottom line while at the same time, keeping an eye on the bottom line.

Conservative books, those that I consider are read and valued by Bible-believing Christians, are not necessarily part of the landscape in the Christian retail industry anymore. For one thing, at ICRS 2009, I found a shockingly small number of publishers actually showing. The largest, Thomas Nelson, has pulled out altogether, although the company did have a hospitality suite downstairs.

The days of elaborate booths that resembled upscale mall displays are over.

Next week, I’ll discuss more in-depth reasons why I (humbly, truly) think Christian retail/publishing is experiencing difficult times. They don’t all have to do with the economy. But for today, I’ll just focus on some factual stuff from last week’s show. The landscape was fascinating.

A decade ago and more, the aisles at what was then called CBA (the Christian Booksellers Association still sponsors ICRS) were choked with buyers, many from independent bookstores. There were many dozens of publishers, and in fact, CBA required large convention centers to accommodate such a gathering. I well remember walking from hall to hall.

The aisles weren’t crowded at ICRS in Denver

Now I stroll from aisle to aisle and, in just a few short steps, transition from the book section to the gift and music sections. This week, the hall was small.

That’s not to say certain companies aren’t doing good business. One mid-size publisher told me that they wrote $100,000 in orders last year and expected to do similar numbers this year. I don’t know what you consider “success” to be in publishing, but in the present economy, if you can end up $10 in the black, you’re pretty happy. Revenue is revenue, and companies that actually wind up with a decent profit at the end of the year are fairly rare.

And those publishers are now forced to deal with a shrinking customer base, in terms of actual stores. A few years ago I asked a CBA representative how many Christian bookstores are in the U.S. No one had an answer; I’ve heard anywhere from 2,500 to more than 10,000. Someone, somewhere must have the numbers, but what we do know is that the thousands of independents from yesteryear are gone. In their place are a handful of chains: Family Christian Stores, LifeWay and a few others.

And this brings us to a key detail about Christian retail: in the past, a publisher had the opportunity to pitch product to a great many people, thus, in theory at least, creating a dynamic in which book X could truly get distribution coast-to-coast, and in many nooks and crannies in between.

Now, publishers meet with a single buyer for a chain. The chains have bought up the independents and are in effect the gatekeepers to product selections for the stores. If a certain buyer is having a bad day, or is personally biased against a certain title, that book will not be in a Christian chain store. Its exposure is more limited.

As these limitations have come to Christian retail, however, opportunities for some of these projects shut out of traditional outlets are abounding in other places.

Many Christian stores fail to understand that their basic formulas for stocking product – “Can we sell this to women from the ages of 20-60?” – are limiting their opportunities for selling.

If only about 10 percent of Christians shop in Christian stores (shaved to about one percent of the overall population, at best), it’s easy to see that Christian retail is reaching a very small number of people.

There’s still decent business for well-run operations, such as Family Christian Stores, but the dilemma for others is the obvious: how do we expand our reach?

This single question dominates the thoughts of CBA folks. They know where many customers have gone, and I’m not sure the answer can bring much comfort. Buying habits have shifted.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble online sales are the obvious new giants of retail books, but let me suggest another Christian buying juggernaut: grass roots.

I believe a powerful, grass-roots buying community is now buying from WND, some key distributors like CBD and from various ministries. They’re also talking to each other constantly via email, Facebook, cell phone and at church.

Although many CBA establishment types no doubt dislike entities like Lighthouse Trails Publishing – conservative independents – they also know that the independent publishers are reaching big, new audiences.

A few hours ago, I received an email from a pastor who networks with 6,000 fellow pastors. He was strongly suggesting that these friends buy Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto,” available for a phenomenal price from the WND Superstore.

Look, I realize that many Christian bookstores stock this title; I’ve seen it. But what they are missing is the vast network out there that naturally supplements their personal libraries with like-minded titles. Many of these titles not only can’t be obtained from traditional, mainstream publishers, but those publishers don’t even have the same worldview as conservative Christians.

I’m out of time and space this week, but check back next week. We’ll examine some underlying, powerful reasons why much of the Christian publishing industry is struggling, shivering on the ride through a dark economy.