Publishing professional and friend, Dan Balow, recently took a look at the Christian fiction category in his blog for the Steve Laube Agency. His analysis includes some counterintuitive insights for publishers and some very specific advice to retailers that I wanted to share here. (Since my novels are considered “tweeners” – somewhere between the Christian and general markets, I especially appreciated what he had to say.) Dan – thanks for permission to use the following!
Just how well is Christian fiction doing?
Last year, two Christian publishers downsized or suspended their fiction programs. Currently, some Christian publishers are nervous about fiction and in a wait-and-see mode before they attempt to expand it or try new things. Others are excited about growth potential in the category and are taking an aggressive stance toward it.
Similarly, some Christian retailers are doing quite well with fiction, others are lukewarm with it and some are not doing well at all.
The answer to the question, “Is Christian fiction thriving?” is no, but it is certainly interesting to explore the reason behind such widely diverse opinions on the subject of Christian fiction today. How can one group see great potential and another see little or none?
Here is why I think Christian Fiction is causing some publisher and retailer confusion right now:
First and foremost, fiction is the segment of book publishing and retailing most affected by the sales of eBooks. In some cases, 50% or more of unit sales on a particular title can be digital. Because eBooks are cheaper than printed editions, overall revenues to the publisher will decrease or remain flat, all the while readership increases. For a particular novel, digital sales might be 50% of the units and 20% of the revenue.
A new business model eventually emerges, but it takes time for publishers and retailers to adjust to new realities.
Retailers can easily recall how the decline in physical product sales were affected by music downloads (iTunes started in 2001), video download/streaming and audio book downloads. The migration to digital delivery in music, video and audio resulted in a corresponding drop in physical product sales at retail. But knowing the cause doesn’t make it easier to handle.
The second major contributor to publisher and retail confusion about fiction is the relatively small number of titles published. Even in good years, the total output of new Christian fictions titles by the main ECPA Christian publishers are not more than 250-300 annually. (I am not counting the various Harlequin Love Inspired and Heartsong mass market lines which publish over 200 titles per year.)
According to R.R. Bowker data from a couple years ago, the entire U.S. publishing industry (not self-publishing) released over 250,000 new titles annually, of which about 40,000 are novels. There is no completely accurate data available on Christian publishers, but not long ago the total output of books from Christian publishers was around 10,000 new books annually. If Christian publishers followed the same ratios in fiction as the general market, there should be over 1,000 new novels each year, not 250-300. Not every category growth problem is solved by doing more books, but in this case, I believe it has something to do with it.
Similarly at retail, when a category suffers a slowdown, reducing shelf-space for the category only hastens the decline. The huge disparity between fiction in the general market retail and that in the Christian market would leave one to wonder whether some are giving up too early on it.
The final reason for confusion about fiction is there are a limited number of genres published by Christian publishers. For reasons that may or may not be obvious, Christian publishers cannot publish in as many genres as a general market publisher. For instance, erotica will never be a category in Christian publishing, while it is a major category in the general market.
Combine these three things…eroding physical sales due to digital delivery, a small number of titles in relatively few categories and maybe we can understand why it is rather confusing time in the Christian fiction category.
What can retailers do about it? (other than stocking current best-sellers and new titles)
- Begin with the inventory. Carry the classic backlist. Not just In His Steps or Pilgrim’s Progress but the authors who made the category successful over the last 30 years … Janette Oke, Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye, Bodie and Brock Thoene, and Francine Rivers to name a few.
- Decide to add a new genre of fiction that heretofore you have not carried or promoted. This is to grow your customer’s taste for a wider type of fiction.
- Consider rearranging the fiction section by genre to help readers find new authors. Perhaps using a variation of the umbrella categories that the Christy Awards uses to separate the genres.
- Encourage fiction reader groups among your customers. This will show how fiction can communicate spiritual truth in an effective manner.
Steve Laube, the founder and owner of the literary agency with whom I work, was a Christian retailer himself before getting into the publisher side of the equation over 20 years ago. In 1989, his Berean Store in Phoenix, Arizona was named the CBA Store of the Year. I asked him to give his perspective on how retailers can sell more fiction:
The key was that great story that got people telling their friends. Word-of-Mouth. Second was a staff that was knowledgeable about the various fiction offerings. Hand-selling is still a critical piece of what makes the physical store a destination. Hand-selling is a form of word-of-mouth. For example, when Mrs. Sally came in the store each month and asked us, ‘What’s new?’ we could direct her to the latest and greatest because we knew the type of stories she liked and the type of stories that were on our shelves. That principle has not changed over the years. I am always attracted to the part of any bookstore that has a ‘Staff Recommendations’ section. I find it fascinating to see what other people think is worthwhile to read.
Keep in mind, that if readers don’t find what they need in the Christian store, they will look elsewhere and personally, I’d rather they find a lot of great reads among titles from Christian publishers in Christian bookstores.