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Are Christian retailers a dying breed?

Posted By Jim Fletcher On 02/20/2012 @ 5:46 pm In Diversions,Faith,Front Page | No Comments

I recently watched a presentation by Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson publishers. It seems to be from a few years ago, but in his remarks, Hyatt – a publishing guru if there ever was one – lays out 10 reasons he’s still excited about Christian retail.

This refers to those stores out there across this great land of ours, many of whom are struggling in the recession. The truth is, though, they were struggling long before that, as competition from the “big-box” retailers plucked sales away.

Fifteen years ago were the heady days for Christian retail, as the aisles of conventions were full and fat with product and buyers. For at least a decade, however, there have been grumblings. I got the feeling that Hyatt, trying to encourage retailers, was really talking to the large chains, like LifeWay and Family.

He even revealed a fascinating bit of data, that when Nelson really got down to the nitty gritty, it was discovered that less than four percent of the company’s accounts brought in 90 percent of the revenue.

“That just is outrageous,” he said, in a moment of real candor.

Yes, it is outrageous, from a business standpoint. Nelson then made the decision to slash half its upcoming list, from 700 titles per year to 350. Hyatt said matter-of-factly that they had calculated and the company could sustain that and not suffer any loss in revenue. This at a time when the recession has flat scared most publishers; Hyatt says the “waters are choppy” out there.

That is a very telling comment. One could ask why they were doing the other 350 books, anyway, although Hyatt is far more open and transparent than most publishers, who jealously guard “secrets.”

He then went on to remark about the 250,000 new books published in this country each year and said, “We don’t need more books, we need better books.”

In a recent blog (I highly recommend MichaelHyatt.com), Hyatt wrote that, “The nature of publishing is that more projects fail than work.”

He also wrote in the same blog: “The project will then be discussed for another few minutes. Then each sales channel leader ‘votes’ on the project by writing down how many books he thinks he can ‘lay down’ (the initial shipment) and then sell in the first six months to a year. (It depends on the type of product. Some have shorter expected life cycles than others.) This is important, because the higher the sales forecast, the higher the probability of your book being published.”

Notice in this brief discussion of how a project is reviewed in-house, Hyatt never mentions if the project has spiritual content that needs to see the light of day; the discussion above – admittedly just part of the decision-making process for publishers – is about dollars and cents. Or euros. Or pesos.

I’ll just highlight a few of Hyatt’s 10 Reasons to still be optimistic about Christian retail:

  1. Demographics. People are living longer and have more time to think about important things.
  2. People are drawn to spiritual things more than ever. Hyatt made the point that, “I’ve never seen more spiritual interest in younger people, ever.” He also said, “Biblical literacy, I don’t think, has ever been lower.”
  3. Christian products have never been better.
  4. Christian retailers are passionate about their mission. Hyatt said, about his own sense of career choice: “I’m here for one simple reason –Christ has called me to this.”
  5. God is at work.

I’d like to briefly comment on these few bullet points:

  1. It’s probably true that there are simply more people to put a Christian book in front of, yet I wonder about the quality we’re putting in front of them. The typical store today stocks Spurgeon’s sermons, along with Joel Osteen and what I’d call charismaniacs who distort the gospel. There really is a free-for-all in the inventories of most Christian stores and the leaven is much in evidence.
  2. People might be more spiritual, but the buzzword today is: “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” This usually means they are not following orthodox Christianity. And, Hyatt’s telling phrase that biblical illiteracy is a scourge is dead-on. So … the question can be asked: how successful has Christian publishing been, in light of that fact? Much of what is produced for the student demographic today is spiritual poison, because biblical worldview is not a major priority of many publishers. Again, hear the emphasis on profit margin.
  3. I actually think Christian products have never been worse. I’ve touched on some of those reasons in this column, but there are many more. The smorgasboard mentality of publishing leaves me dismayed. Of course, I can be denounced as a downer fundamentalist, and that allows people not to think about these things too deeply. Suffice to say, when you have everything allowed over the transom, and “secular” publishing giants are gobbling up Christian companies (Nelson being one of the latest), the whole enterprise is compromised.
  4. No doubt there are plenty of retailers out there who feel led of God to do what they do.
  5. God has always been at work. I don’t think invoking him in this discussion really addresses the woeful state of much of Christian publishing and retail.

Hyatt, in that confident, open way he has, fired somewhat of a shot across the bow of those who bring light to the negative aspects of Christian publishing: He said it’s time for people to stop complaining.

“If you don’t like it, get out.”

Wow, that’s cold, but actually not far off the mark.

I should probably get out of the Christian publishing business.

Hyatt began his presentation with his testimony, which was compelling (I suppose most are). He began life as an agnostic and was led to Christ through a friend who gave him a copy of The Living Bible.

A Texan, he then made a very interesting comment, after mentioning that for a time, he became an encyclopedia salesman: “I can’t tell you how many times in West Texas I heard the gospel at the kitchen tables of ordinary Americans who loved me enough to share it with me.”

He was describing, I think, an America that no longer exists. One that was essentially Christian, or at least guided by Judeo-Christian values.

The passing of that era is one of the chief reasons I do not share Michael Hyatt’s enthusiasm for Christian publishing.

Indeed, the waters are choppy.


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