The Future of Christian Bookselling
I’m a Christian bookstore junkie, and I’ll bet you are one too.
It’s nice to wander around, seeing what’s new, recognizing old friends on the shelves, grazing though the pages of a particularly captivating book like a contented bovine in a field of rich grass.
However, the opportunity for such uplifting experiences is becoming less common. What is the future of Christian bookstores? Can that be understood without understanding Christian publishing and the kind of books Christian authors are writing?
Chains and Independents Are Both Closing
The stark reality is that retailing in general is undergoing a transformation. Major companies like Sears, Kmart and JCPenny have closed a large number of stores due to changing consumer buying habits.
Chain bookstores were among the first hit with the mass closing. Borders and Waldenbooks ceased being profitable in 2006 sand filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
These chains, along with the rise Amazon, had already killed off untold numbers of independent “mom and pop” bookstores.
Their nationwide chain of 240 stores put many local Christian bookstores out of business when they were successful. Their final failure crippled Christian publishers since Rick Jackson and his team saddled them with a reported $100 million for books and other merchandise they received and sold but did not pay for.
Christian Bookselling Trends
Christian bookselling is at the center of several conflicting trends. Christian bookselling is not isolated from the writing and publishing process. We must accept the fact that the local Christian bookstores that we once loved are rapidly becoming part of the nostalgic past for a number of reasons.
Big Box stores like Walmart have had an impact because they carry top-selling Christian books at discounted prices. Even Hobby Lobby is now selling Christian books.
Local churches, especially mega-churches, have also had an impact. Most have their own Christian bookstore on their campus, so the focus has moved away from Main Street. These church-related bookstores are often well—stocked and do a booming business, but they serve their own members for the most part, not the wider public.
Christian bookstore owners, both chains and independents, have probably done more to damage their credibility than anything else. In recent decades most have made a definite shift from selling Bibles and solid Christian books to fringe books, music and tee-shirts.
They see themselves as “Christian retailers” selling all kinds of Christian kitsch, with no clear personal ministry focus.
There was a time when Christian bookstore clerks saw their work as an opportunity for personal ministry. They listened to the needs of people and recommended certain books to them as a means of soul care. One of my favorite Christian bookstores in the past was located in Palmer Square in Princeton, New Jersey. They offered coffee and reading areas (much like Barnes and Noble stores today), and they held casual Christian book study groups for the community, including curious Princeton University students.
Today, I live in a town that serves a population of about 175,000 people. We had a Christian bookstore in a strip mall that served the area since the 1960s, as I recall. It was a great place to buy Bibles and Christian books. In recent years their inventory began to change. The bookshelves became bare and the stock primarily became Christian music CDs, tee-shirts and trinkets some people call “Jesus junk.”
What’s the status of that Christian bookstore today? I don’t know. They closed the store where they had done business for decades and opened a new one on a historic street in our town. When I visited it during business hours recently, I found the windows covered and the doors locked. It looks like it has closed forever.
The shift from Christian bookselling to Christian retailing was a shift from ministry to marketing, and that has not served the Christian community well.
The Christian Bookselling Elephant
What is the elephant in the room when it comes to Christian bookselling? It’s the Internet, of course.
Those of us who love to browse in a bookstore think of Amazon as one of the signs of the Apocalypse, but we need to rethink that. We need to embrace Amazon and other online supply chains.
The Internet has become mandatory in many areas of life. Recently, I needed a car tire inner-tube. No need to go into why, but I checked all the local tire and auto parts stores. I discovered that no one seems to carry them anymore. What did I do? I checked Amazon, found what I needed, and they delivered the inner-tube to my door in less than 48 hours.
My grocery shopping habits have changed because of the Internet. Rather than wander around my local Walmart Superstore or other chain grocery store, I go online because Vons (a division of Safeway) delivers in my area. I have a standard shopping list I have created on their website, and I click on it, and the next day they deliver a couple weeks of food to my door.
The way we buy Christian books should be no different. There is no need to be nostalgic about it. The widest selection of Christian books, and the fastest delivery, is from online sources.
That’s true when it comes to Christian music too. CD music sales are in rapid decline; people are downloading digital Christian music directly to their smartphones or tablets.
There is little or no personal ministry happening in brick and mortar Christian bookstores anymore. Since the shift has already occurred from personal ministry to marketing, then the Internet is now the preferred place to buy Bibles and Christian books.
There is no point in mourning the passing of brick and mortar Christian bookstores. Times have changed. We must be busy inventing the future of Christian bookselling.
The Three Parts of Christian Bookselling
The paradigm shift from chain or independent brick and mortar bookselling to the Internet is not the first seismic change.
Most people don’t recognize the term “Colporter” today. It describes a person who travels and sells books.
Dwight L. Moody started The Bible Institute Colportage Association (BICA) in 1894 and in 1941 it became known as Moody Press. It survives today as a major Christian publisher.
Moody was a visionary because he understood that Christian bookselling and ministry to book buyers was closely interwoven. He also realized it was necessary to reach out to people and Christian books were a tool to achieve that aim. Curiosmith lists Moody’s twelve reasons why colportage was an important way to sell Christian books.
Colportage has faded like the door-to-door sales of brushes and vacuum cleaners. People are often no longer home during the day. Times have changed.
So, what can we learn from this already confirmed shift in buying habits? There are at least three parts to the bookselling puzzle:
Diversity is Good
Christian authors and readers must be wary of the consolidation of the Christian publishing industry. The two largest Christian publishers, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, are owned by Rupert Muchdoch, the media magnate who also own Fox News. His choke-hold does not serve the Christian community. Profits will dictate doctrine.
Family Christian Stores is an example of the bad things that can happen when diminished diversity enters the Christian book supply chain. Their size and market share damaged the reputation of Christians, Christian books and Christian bookselling when they failed. Also, they severely wounded Christian publishers who will likely be publishing fewer Christian books to compensate for the financial loss caused by Family Christian Stores.
Genuine Indie Publishing is a Cure
The cure is for the rise of a new wave of Independent Christian publishers. No, not more terrible “pay-to-publish” schemes like Thomas Nelson’s Westbow imprint, or Xulon. But genuine Indie publishers who are willing to mix vision and risk, and use the technology of our times to publish and distribute Christian books. The “Small Press” model can offer both quality Christian books and profits. Christian publishing could benefit from decentralization.
We need more Christian Indie publishers willing to reach targeted audiences. They should exist, not to trumpet that they support worldwide missions projects, as the broken ethics of Family Christian Stores allegedly led them to do, but to reach people one-on-one in a very personal soul-changing way. That has been the purpose of Christian literature since the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter and others followed with their Gospels.
A book is personal and so should the ministry that goes along with selling it.
Christian Writing Needs Rethinking
Sensationalism has always been a part of Christian fiction. That’s why we have The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and other spurious works from apostolic times. Someone has always been trying to make a buck by fictionalizing their view of biblical events.
In modern times the Left Behind series is an example of the kind of dross that fuels book sales but not spirituality. It has been followed by books that made huge profits at the expense of Christian truth and values. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven and others in that genre are other such examples.
We also have entire series of Amish bodice-rippers, a type of Christian romance novel, and similar genres. They are entertainment, but only serve spiritual development in the same way that potato chips fill people when they could be eating healthy food.
These books have a profit motive, and only a tangential spiritual purpose. Not that there is anything wrong with profits, but it comes at the expense of sensational, supposedly nonfiction “Bible revelations” or torrid romance or other light-weight fiction.
The world would benefit from more solid, interestingly written, life-related nonfiction.
Yes, we need edgy, modern Christian fiction too. There is no doubt about it. But today’s Christian fiction writers would benefit from reading more substantial Christian fiction like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton’s Paradise Lost and even C.S. Lewis’s or Madeleine L’Engle’s work to find their roots. Even Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, for all its simplicity, was a major conduit of Christian values.
Christian publishing conglomerates are looking for the corporate profits that Christian blockbusters bring. Sadly, many Christian authors are willing to satisfy the demand for that kind of detritus. Only a phalanx of Indie Christian publishers, in my view, will be able to select more meaningful books and diversify the marketing channels. It seems many are called to be Christian writers, but few are called to be Christian publishers.
Decentralization of Christian publishing, via Indie publishers, can pull us up from our present writing, publishing and bookselling kamikaze dive. A Christian Indie publishing movement can give rise to a new golden era of Christian publishing.