Christian Retailing

Retail Successentials October 2014: How to plan profitable product assortments for your store PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Nielsen   
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 07:58 AM EDT

Manage your product mix to maximize sales year round

BillNielsenInChairGMROI mystifies many a retailer, but the acronym stands for a factor so critical for your store that you should know what it is and why it’s beneficial. But if you don’t get it, you are not alone, as a large percentage of retailers do not fully understand its value. GMROI stands for Gross Margin Return On Investment and is the single most important metric to retailers.

Why is it so significant? At a glance, GMROI is a ratio that will tell you how healthy your inventory is and exactly how much profit you are making for every dollar of stock on your shelves.


Now that I have your attention, let me show you how to calculate your store’s GMROI. Follow these three simple steps:

1. Determine your average inventory at cost. Start by adding the starting cost of inventory for a 12-month period and add to that number the ending cost of inventory for the 12th month as well. The sum of these 13 values is then divided by 13 to get your average inventory at cost.

2. Calculate your gross margin for the same 12 months. Next, take your total sales number for the 12 months and subtract from it the cost of goods sold during that period. The result is your gross margin.

3. Divide your gross margin by your average inventory cost to calculate your GMROI. The result is a ratio that represents how much profit you make on every dollar of inventory you stock on average. The higher the number, the better you are doing.

So what drives GMROI? Even when customer traffic is down and sales are hard to come by, you can increase your GMROI dramatically and thereby improve cash flow and profitability by making sure you are managing your inventory effectively.


The best strategy for inventory management includes a careful combination of the following:

Your first return or markdown is always the cheapest. By this, I mean having inventory on hand that is not selling costs you money every day. Get rid of nonproductive stock as soon as you see it and as quickly as you can. Run a “not-sold-since” report that shows you how long a product has been sitting on your shelves. If you do not have a system that will do this, you may want to consider getting one, as such investment will pay for itself in short order by freeing up valuable open-to-buy dollars. Any item that has not sold in more than 90 days is suspect. Items that have not sold in more than 150 days need immediate action.

Don’t fear the cost of returns or even the pain of selling items at or below cost. You are far better off to take an item that cost you $1 and get rid of it for 75 cents so you can reinvest that same 75 cents in something that will meet the needs of your customers and make you money rather than stock items that no one wants.

Be sure you are in stock on what customers expect to find. Identify what products are hot or, based on seasonal reports, what is about to be hot, and invest appropriately in those items. Include advertised products in your focus as well. Keep doing this by stocking and replenishing fewer of the right products more often.

Trying to take these steps manually and consistently across hundreds or thousands of products is just not practical. The issue is compounded even more by the retail best practice of managing different classes of inventory differently. Consider the need to manage new releases, best-sellers, core items that sell well and seasonal items—all based on their unique and respective characteristics.

The good news is that the cost to have a world-class merchandising solution has come down dramatically in recent years. Small retailers can replace their POS and inventory-management systems for as little as $1,500 up front and $99 a month with a tool that will perform as well as the very expensive systems that could only be afforded by the largest of retailers in the past.

Take care, however, as replenishment systems are like shoes: Most look great, but not all of them fit well or wear well for the long haul. Be sure to do your homework and get the advice of someone who will take the time to get to know your business and has your best interests at heart. If you’re still using technology from five or more years ago, you will be pleasantly surprised with how investing in a new retail solution will pay for itself in a very short time and then drive incremental profits for years to come. Do your homework and don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional in your area, or email me at for fast and free help in finding a local provider. In the meantime, manually check for old stock by walking your aisles and noting the dates on the pricing labels.

Lastly, sell it before you own it. Taking orders and shipping product to the customer means you get paid before you have to pay for the inventory. Yes, your profit-margin percentages might be a bit lower, but such a strategy is the best and easiest way to generate profit-margin dollars, increase GMROI, and give your bottom line and cash flow a shot in the arm. To do this, you need to go back to being an omni-channel retailer and make sure customers can find and order products from you, be it in the comfort of their home or while standing in your store. Again, seeking help here and investing in the right business solutions can bring great returns on relatively small investments.

Most retailers have 15-25% of dead, nonproductive inventory. Implementing the above steps to ensure that 100% of your inventory is working for you is one of the top Retail Successentials for driving sales, profit and cash flow.

As you bring all of this together, take time to strive for balance in your assortment. An easy-to-use but proven blend of the following will serve you well.

Capitalize on core. Your core should be the best-selling items that you merchandise in-line. Generally I suggest to clients that they stock no more than one or two units of all of their core-assortment titles, knowing that they will be replenished weekly. Assuming two units of each title and a desired turn goal of three, any nonseasonal item that sells six or more units in a year would be a candidate to be in your core.

A subset of your core are the top-tiered items that we should plan to stock in great depth up to a four-month supply that will yield a inventory turn of 3.0. These are the items that customers count on you to always have in stock. Think bread, milk and eggs at the grocery store and apply it to your assortment.

Seasonal items help you be relevant all year long. However, the key is to order pre-season and stop replenishing four weeks before the season ends. For example, back-to-school items should be ordered to arrive by July 1 and should not be replenished after Aug. 1.

Each of these three groupings of products should be planned for the turn-goals mentioned since, of course, your actual turn will be a good bit lower since some items likely will not sell as planned. Do this well and your store can reach an inventory turn of 3.0 or better, which will generate a very good GMROI and positive cash flow for your business.

NEXT ISSUE: We will look at how to plan stock-to-sales-to-space in your store.

Bill Nielsen is a 25-year Christian retail veteran, having served in C-level positions with Family Christian Stores, LifeWay Christian Stores and Berean Christian Stores. Nielsen is now president of The Equation Team, a consulting firm that specializes in retail and publishing.

Independent Thoughts October 2014: Merchandising for Christmas PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dave Sheets   
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 07:53 AM EDT

Be prepared to meet the needs of new and loyal customers coming to your store for unique gifts during the holidays

DaveSheetsChristian retailers who sell independently published books offer customers the opportunity to purchase unique gifts—and a huge reason for them to shop at Christian retail for Christmas. As such a retailer, you may feel you need some help with your sales plan, so here are 10 tips for merchandising indie books this special time of year.

1. Front and center

Don’t hide your indie books. Place them front and center in your store to draw attention to new authors and subjects. Play up the indie aspect with signage that not only identifies the books as independently published titles, but also as unique cutting-edge books.

2. Gift with purchase

Offer a gift with the purchase of a particular indie title—or a few. People love to get a little something extra with a purchase—whether they keep it for themselves, give it to the book recipient or use it as a separate gift. It doesn’t have to be big—maybe a special bookmark or a small plaque.

3. Gift baskets

Indie books are naturals for gift baskets—and shoppers love gift baskets around Christmastime. Having a pre-organized basket of goodies (including gift and food items) prettied up takes the pressure off and makes the shopper look like an artistic hero. If you’re not particularly creatively inclined, utilize the talents of a team member to organize baskets for men, women, teens, children, teachers, caregivers and anyone else appropriate. Make sure to label the type of basket for easy selection.

4. Hard-to-shop-for

Everyone has at least one person on their Christmas list who is difficult to shop for. These people are perfect candidates for receiving indie books for Christmas. Create an endcap or a table set aside for the hard-to-shop-for individual. Create your own shelftalkers to help match these people with book topics and authors.

5. Point of purchase

Obviously, you’re still going to have customers looking for a specific book or gift they know you carry, so introduce them to some eye-grabbing indie books at the cash wrap. Set up a small display of the books, with a thought-provoking shelftalker. You might also consider offering such a book at a discount.

6. Pre-wrapped

In your indie book section, pre-wrap a few of each title, leaving one copy out for customers to peruse. Don’t forget to label the wrapped books!

7. Signed, sealed and delivered

For the most part, indie authors are trying to create recognition, a buzz, for themselves and their books. As a result, they may be quite amenable to working out an arrangement whereby customers can “special order” a personalized, signed copy of an indie book for a friend or family member. This will require you to train your team to take the customer’s information, have them pre-pay for the book, send the book to the author for personalization and signing, and mail the book to the customer who purchased it. It’s a unique service not many big-box stores will offer!

8. Read and meet

Arrange with an author to have a book discussion/signing after Christmas, and sell copies of the author’s books beforehand, providing a certificate inviting the recipient to attend a special evening at your bookstore meeting the author and discussing the book—two gifts in one!

9. Gift certificate

For the shopper who can’t decide—and the recipient who likes to choose their own books—offer a gift certificate for use on indie titles. Be creative in its design, emphasizing the uniqueness of the indie authors and books you carry.

10. Like that, try this

Match up indie authors and book subjects with established, traditionally published authors and topics. Help your customers by creating signage that takes the guesswork out of which indie books to buy for gift recipients who enjoy traditional authors and books of a similar nature. This makes finding just the right gift easier.

These are just a few ways to help you merchandise indie books for Christmas gift-giving. Customers look to your specialty store to offer unique gifts and services. Use these ideas as a launching pad, and you’re sure to help your customers fly through their shopping lists this season.

A publishing industry veteran, Dave Sheets is a thought leader with 1Source—a consortium that includes BelieversPress, SuzyQ Author Coaching, Bethany Press, Glass Road Media and Anchor Distributors—that provides a full range of independent publishing services for print and e-books for faith authors and publishers. Sheets has worked for Tyndale House Publishers, Multnomah Publishers, Send The Light Distribution, Harvest House Publishers and Snowfall Press. Contact him at


Independent Thoughts September 2014:Five ways to drive store traffic PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dave Sheets   
Monday, 11 August 2014 11:15 AM EDT

Work with independent publishers to attract more customers

DaveSheetsAs a Christian retailer competing with a variety of brick-and-mortar and e-commerce competitors, you understand the importance of thinking “outside the box” when it comes to driving traffic into your store. Likewise, independent publishers typically have an entrepreneurial approach to handling their “traditional” publisher competition. Working together can be profitable for both parties.

Once you start to build relationships with independent publishers, see if there are ways you can partner with them on driving traffic into your store via their authors. Chances are they have some excellent ideas on events, merchandising and special offers that will pique your customers’ interest.

The following are five ways you can work with independent publishers on driving store traffic, but don’t be limited by these. Brainstorm with them to learn even more!

1. Get to know indie authors via their indie publishers. Your independent publisher contacts work closely with their indie authors and understand the importance they bring to Christian publishing. These authors provide new voices to an industry filled with established authors. Independent publishers can help explain their authors’ backgrounds and the types of customers who would benefit most from their books. All you need to do is ask.

You may find that independently published (indie) authors are more accessible as far as the time they’re willing and able to put into getting to know retailers. This gives you a great opportunity to build relationships with them. By and large, they are marketing their books solo (or with guidance from some indie publishers that provide marketing and publicity options), so they need you as much as you need them. Your common goal: to get their books into the hands of your customers who will benefit from their content. Independent authors need you, and your customers need their stories, information, inspiration and insights. Be the conduit that builds up tomorrow’s best-selling authors by connecting them with today’s readers.

2. Go local! Locate indie authors in your community and introduce them to your customers.

Today, creating a sense of community in your store is extremely important to the success and sustainability of your business. This is what keeps people walking into your store rather than purchasing their books via the Internet. They want to be a part of the community—the community in which they live and the community in which they gather. If you’re not instilling that feeling in your store, then you’re basically hanging a sign outside that says, “Stay away.”

A great way to build that sense of community is by seeking out indie authors who live in close proximity and who have become—or are in the process of becoming—active members of your community. Align with them to help build community in your store. If you expect your customers to “shop local,” why not exemplify that yourself by inviting local authors into your store and introducing them to your customers?

ABA booksellers have a long history of encouraging and building up new authors to help sustain and grow the publishing industry, most notably small and independent publishers. They “get” the importance of building a community in their stores, of being an inviting gathering place for people of like minds, of establishing and maintaining relationships with new and local authors. Take a mini vacation from your store and visit area ABA stores, or plan to visit an ABA store or two if you happen to be out of town at a conference or on vacation. Take notes. You may even want to introduce yourself to the store owner or manager and pick his or her brain for ideas. Borrow brilliance!

Likewise, work with your independent publisher to identify indie authors who live close to your store. They can usually help facilitate a meeting between you and the author. Again, you all—publisher, store, author—are indies who should be working together to bring these books to the industry through your store.

3. Invite indie authors to your store to talk about their books. Book signings are great, but independent retailers know how difficult it can be to get traditionally published authors to come to their stores to participate in one. And, book aficionados also are looking for more than just an autograph. They want to engage with authors—get to know them, their thoughts, their backgrounds. In short, they want to learn about what inspires them.

Let your independent publisher know that you’re interested in bringing authors into your store. They may have some ideas for you as far as authors who enjoy doing this more than others. You want your event to be a hit, so you’ll need to make sure the author you invite is dynamic enough to keep a group of customers interested, and wanting more!

Invite these dynamic authors to your store to talk about their books with your customers. Make it a special event. Send e-mailed invitations to your customer list. Put invitations in bags. Focus on the subject of the book if the author is relatively unknown. Make sure that the subject is a draw. Serve light hors d’oeuvres or dessert and coffee. Make it cozy. Encourage interaction.

4. Design a “Local Authors” and/or “Indie Publishers” section in your store. Once you’ve located and built relationships with some local writers, set up a special section, endcap or display table for local authors’ books. Celebrate them as members of your community. If they have their own blogs, include information about them on signage, encouraging your customers to check them out online and then purchase their books in your store.

In addition to your Local Authors section, consider building a new section just for independently published titles. This “Indie Publishers” section will draw attention to these books and authors and give credibility to the importance of independent publishing in today’s market. It may even encourage your customers to put their writing talents to work and attain their dreams of writing a book (see Tip No. 5).

Also, if you don’t yet have a “Pick of the Week/Month” shelf, why not institute one in your store? In addition to the Fiction, Nonfiction, Children’s, Young Adult, Theology and other such categories, add independently published titles to the selection.

5. Start a writers’ group and/or an indie book club. The attention you’re going to draw to indie/local authors might just inspire your customers to pursue their dreams of writing books. This presents a super opportunity to start a writers’ group at your store. Like a book club, a writers’ group brings traffic, sales and increased customer engagement. Be sure to stock books on writing to cater to this group of customers. Become their one-stop shop for all things writing and reading.

Speaking of book clubs, consider forming a club just for independently published books. This will also pave the way for more indie-author in-store events and appearances.

Indie authors provide new voices and books with fresh perspectives, and the partnerships you create with these authors and the independent publishers that work with them are vital to keeping fresh product in your store that will appeal to your community—product that is not as easily available via your competitors. Independent publishers have great ideas to help drive foot traffic into your store—to help you succeed!

A publishing industry veteran, Dave Sheets is a thought leader with 1Source—a consortium that includes BelieversPress, SuzyQ Author Coaching, Bethany Press, Glass Road Media and Anchor Distributors—that provides a full range of independent publishing services for print and e-books for faith authors and publishers. Sheets has worked for Tyndale House Publishers, Multnomah Publishers, Send The Light Distribution, Harvest House Publishers and Snowfall Press. Contact him at

Retail Successentials September 2014:Maximizing productivity pays off in improved customer service PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Nielsen   
Monday, 11 August 2014 11:09 AM EDT

Employ a simple data solution to make your store hum

Being productive is something everyone can agree on. But, truth is, many frontline operators do not track the all-important metric of retail productivity. Doing so, however, brings new accountability to how they schedule their staff and how they train and lead their team to sell.BillNielsenInChair

In other words, retail productivity is the art and science of increasing the sales revenue you create for each man hour worked. Drive productivity too high and your customer service will suffer, which is sure to lead to lost sales opportunities. But if it is too low, you are spending too much on payroll and killing your profitability. So let’s review the ins and outs of retail productivity.


First and foremost, we need a clear definition of productivity, which is sales revenue divided by the number of man hours worked. You can either track all man hours worked or only man hours worked on the sales floor. The key is to pick one method and stick with it as your baseline.

Next, we need to make sure you are set up to capture clusters of productivity data. The ideal data set is to make sure you capture sales and man hours worked for every hour of every day. You also need to be able to see this data by store location and by employee. Viewing the data by hour helps you spot when you have too many or too few staff working. Viewing the data by store and/or by employee allows you to compare stores and employees to learn from the best and to help those on the low end grow.

Capturing the actual data is the next step. In order to manage this area of your business quickly and effectively, you must invest in technology. While larger companies will find the top-of-the-line analytics solutions from RetailNext or Trafsys the way to go, smaller retail stores that want 90% of the features in a cost-effective solution that is easy to install and use will appreciate a solution called SWARM, which is offered by

Solutions like SWARM can cost as little as $99 down and $69 per month. They not only help you measure and manage productivity, but also can tell you how many people walk by your store versus the number that come in to shop, enabling you to measure traffic and determine what percentage of “lookers” you convert to shoppers. They can even automatically send a message to lookers’ smartphones to give them a special offer or enroll them in your loyalty program.


Generally speaking, you get what you measure and you always deserve what you tolerate. When it comes to productivity, it is important to measure and compare the data to threshold (minimum acceptable metric), target (ideal metric) and peak (maximum acceptable metric) goals. Productivity goals for each business will vary. Specialty retailers often set their threshold metric and peak metrics at 80% and 120% of target, respectively. So, if you determine that you want each man hour worked to generate $150 in sales, that becomes your target. Threshold is then set at $112.50, and peak becomes $187.50.

How do you move the bar? Praise staff who excel. Any store and any employee delivering between $112.50 and $187.50 in sales for every hour they work is to be recognized and perhaps even rewarded.

Conversely, coach those who underperform. Those performing below $112.50 need to refresh their selling skills.

Also, don’t forget that you might be the culprit behind productivity that is too low or too high based on how and when you are scheduling your staff. To avoid this, run productivity reports by hour and by day. Then divide the hourly sales by $150 to determine how many employees you need to have scheduled to work. While creating an acceptable schedule will result in some hours having lower or higher productivity, you should not have any hour scheduled below your threshold or above your peak target metrics. You will likely find that you need fewer full-time employees and more part-time workers with flexible schedules.

Once your schedule is published, you are now set to focus on training and developing selling skills for each of your team members. Another important factor in productivity is to train your managers and/or shift leaders to adjust staffing as needed based on actual hourly sales achieved that day versus the forecast sales assumed in your schedule. Letting people go home early or calling others in to staff up is ideal. At a minimum, reviewing the results each day and then adjusting the next several days is a useful approach.

So, between the science of capturing the right data and the art of coaching, training and adjusting schedules to actual sales patterns, you will find that you are able to provide better service to your customers, maximize sales opportunities and make sure your payroll costs are managed well. The combination of higher sales and lower payroll equals greater profits for you.

NEXT ISSUE: We will focus on the topics of inventory management and improving inventory turn.

Bill Nielsen is a 25-year Christian retail veteran having served in C-level positions with Family Christian Stores, LifeWay Christian Stores and Berean Christian Stores. Nielsen is now president of The Equation Team, a consulting firm that specializes in retail and publishing.

More than just a pretty face PDF Print E-mail
Written by Deonne Lindsey   
Monday, 11 August 2014 10:30 AM EDT

Devotional books offer rich spiritual content for the growing Christian

Devotional books didn’t often make headlines, that is, until Sarah Young came along with her 10-million-copy-selling “Jesus Calling” brand from Thomas Nelson. Ann Voskamp of One Thousand Gifts fame also has had success with a devotional based on her best-selling Zondervan book that helped readers cultivate thanksgiving and joy—and this year Tyndale will release her Christmas devotional, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. Whether headline-making or not, readers of devotionals often want new titles for themselves and to share with others.


Mercy&Melons-AbingdonWith fall and winter the key selling seasons for the category, Christian retailers may be asking what’s trending.

Publishers are releasing to market devotionals that include morning and evening readings, sometimes as a value-oriented pairing of two different previous or classic works—for example, the classics God Calling and God at Eventide edited by A.J. Russell (Barbour Publishing, September)—and at other times as way to offer multiple brief readings such as in the holiday offering All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas (Abingdon Press, October).40DaysofPurityforGuys-B&HBooks

Marketers are using words such as “quick” and “convenient” to appeal to consumers as well as pocket sizing for readers on the go. For many readers, devotionals that fit into their busy lifestyles, often promising that they can be read in anywhere from one to five minutes, are a must.

Another focus is encouragement, which seems increasingly to be oriented not around major life occurrences, but simply around the routine challenges of life and trusting God in them. It’s a theme on which Voskamp continues to focus.NewMorningMercies-Crossway

In terms of price point, this category hovers under the $20 glass ceiling, as publishers recognize the reluctance of customers to spend much more for the type of book they’ll want to purchase annually. In format, devotionals remain evenly split between specialty bindings and trade paper or traditional hardcover options.


While lesser-known names still manage to gain footholds with segments of readers, it’s no surprise that recognized author names and brands, as well as best-sellers, tend to dominate the category.JesusDaily-FaithWords

The popularity of Tyndale House Publishers’ One Year brand has led to new releases under that moniker for September. Capitalizing on the general rise of interest in biography and history, The One Year Women in Christian History Devotional by Randy Peterson and Robin Shreeves (Tyndale) will cover women of significance from biblical times through modern history. The One Year Book of Bible Promises by James Stuart Bell (Tyndale) is the most recent in a series of similar books with a focus on praying the Scriptures, and Walk Thru the Bible Editor Chris Tiegreen has written The One Year Hearing His Voice Devotional (Tyndale Momentum). All three release Sept. 14.TheUncommonMarriageAdventure-Tyndale

Baker Book House Manager Sue Smith notes that Tyndale’s promotion on its One Year line is one that her store staff looks forward to each year since it allows them to stock up for Christmas and the New Year when sales are heaviest.

BeautyOfBelievingJoyce Meyer appeals to viewers of her TV program, Enjoying Everyday Life, with The Power of Being Thankful, coming out in October from FaithWords. Another popular pastor, Joel Osteen, offers Daily Readings From Break Out!, based on his Break Out! trade title, both from FaithWords.

Pastor and best-selling author John MacArthur focuses on the believer’s ongoing communication with God in A Year of Prayer (Harvest House Publishers), releasing Sept. 1. The September releases of Faith for the Journey by Charles Swindoll (Tyndale) and Beside Bethesda by Joni Eareckson Tada (NavPress, distributed by Tyndale) focus on courageously trusting God and on deeper healing, respectively.

Best-selling author and pastor Dr. David Jeremiah capitalizes on the popularity of his Turning Point TV broadcast with Turning Points With God (Tyndale), a year-long daily devotional releasing in October. New York Times best-selling author Steven Furtick—the young but popular pastor at Elevation Church based in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area—delivers The Greater Devotional: A 40-Day Experience to Ignite God’s Vision for Your Life (Multnomah Books, Sept. 9).

Pastor Kyle Idleman is back with a 40-day devotional, 40 Days to Lasting Change: An AHA Devotional (David C Cook, January), which ties in with his AHA book. Also from Cook, Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and grandson of Billy Graham also is set to release his 365-day devotional It Is Finished in January.

John Piper has penned a 25-day Advent devotional, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy, released last month from Crossway.


Apart from the December-February selling season, devotionals comprise a category that lags for many retailers. Digital availability may be a factor that has added to the issue of seasonality.

Manager Sue Smith of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, asks a good question about the genre: “I’m wondering if the release of new devotionals has declined with increased blog traffic—people using blogs for devotionals or email delivery of devotionals—and the total domination of the devotional section by Jesus Calling.”

Smith and other Christian retailers, including Mark Hutchinson, president of the Blessings chain in Canada, indicated that Jesus Calling and the other titles in that brand have remained top sellers in the last several years. Indeed, three of the top 20 nonfiction and three of the top 25 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association best-seller spots for July belong to Jesus Calling-branded projects.

To keep other devotional options in the mix for their customers, Smith’s team has gotten creative. One successful strategy has been making use of promotions offered by publishers, including the Manager’s Choice Promotions offered by HarperCollins Christian Publishers, which also publishes Jesus Calling.

“This allows us to create a sale around the book of our choosing,” Smith said. “We have a few titles that are continual best-sellers, so we keep those devotionals on a perpetual promotion. One good example would be Cowman’s classic Streams in the Desert.”

Mollie Lassiter Flowers, owner of Gospel Music & Christian Bookstore in Laurinburg, North Carolina, said that several of her top sellers annually are Christmas titles from Guideposts or The Upper Room daily devotional guide (Abingdon Press). These make up about 50% of the year’s sales of devotionals, while the other half comes from a small group of continual customer favorites like Max Lucado’s Grace for the Moment (Thomas Nelson), Joyce Meyer’s Starting and Ending Your Day (FaithWords) and Rick Renner’s Sparkling Gems From the Greek (Harrison House).

Renner’s book is proof of the power of knowing your customer and employing hand-selling approaches. The book carries substantial weight at more than 1,000 pages and is priced at $34.95, much higher than typical devotionals.

One title that may be easier to promote than others is Jesus Daily by Aaron Tabor, M.D. (FaithWords, Oct. 21). Based on Facebook’s No. 1 fan page with its more than 27 million followers, it includes interactive devotions. The book features creative elements in its design and uses the author’s posts, fans’ comments and questions, and responses from what Tabor considers “the largest ‘Roman Road’ in history.”

New Morning Mercies (Crossway, Oct. 31) by Paul David Tripp also was born out of a social-media concept. It provides 365 meditations led off by a gospel-centered tweet (140 characters or less).

Another gospel-centered title is Gospel Formed by J.A. Medders (Nov. 27). The Kregel Publications book focuses on the sufficiency of the cross for everyday life.


Not surprisingly, women’s and children’s devotionals remain popular choices. With a number of the women’s devotionals done in a gift-friendly, fashion-forward style and with many children’s devotionals inviting family participation, these two groups of readers are perhaps less impacted by blogs, e-books and other digital offerings.

Women’s devotionals remain a mix of feminine covers and giftable bindings. The 2015 edition of Daily Wisdom for Women (Barbour), available in October, provides readings for each day in a floral-inspired cover that can be imprinted for personalization. At $14.99, it represents the sweet spot that has become the median price point for devotionals. The annual has sold over 80,000 copies in previous editions.

Other Barbour offerings for women include Encouragement and Hope for a Woman’s Heart (October); Where God Leads, I Will Follow (October); 180 Prayers for a Woman of God (September); and The Woman’s Secret to a Happy Life (October), a daily devotional journal based on the Hannah Whitehall Smith classic The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

One of Tyndale’s latest offerings was written specifically with busy moms in mind. The September title 365 Pocket Prayers for Mothers applies the successful concept of convenient pocket-sizing along with daily prayers and Scripture readings to the challenges women face as mothers.

Revell (Baker Publishing Group) adds a new devotional from Holley Gerth to the September releases with What Your Heart Needs for the Hard Days. Gerth, co-founder of (in)courage and a partner with DaySpring, wrote the devotional as a companion to her book You’re Going to Be Okay after seeing a need among women for reassurance that God is still God regardless of all the hard things that may come into their lives.

That trend is something that Kim Venema, associate at Living Water Christian Resource Center in Big Rapids, Michigan, sees as a key factor devotional sales.

“Many times, people come in looking for something that will help someone through a time of trial, whether that be grief or something else,” said Venema, who pointed out that devotionals must often be in the best-seller range to find year-round sales.

For the younger set, a number of new releases this coming year are part of a larger brand that already has seen success in the marketplace. That may mean building on a brand already connected with devotional products for adults to appeal to parents. For example, The One Year Devotions for Active Boys (Tyndale, October) and Daily Whispers of Wisdom for Girls Journal (Barbour, September) would be familiar to many parents. Another new release for girls is God Hearts Me (Barbour, October), a devotional collection for 10- to 14-year-olds.

Beauty of Believing (Zonderkidz, Oct. 7), a year-long devotional collection connected with the Faithgirlz! line, is a good example of one of the ways publishers such as Zondervan are freshening up their materials with new packaging and fewer ISBNs, yet still keeping a strong brand in play.

Other new releases include the revised edition of Adventure Bible Book of Devotions for Early Readers, NIrV by screenwriter Marnie Wooding (Zonderkidz, Oct. 7) and Devotions for Beginning Readers by author and Mothers of Preschoolers speaker Crystal Bowman and filmmaker Christy Lee Taylor (Thomas Nelson, Oct. 14).

New from B&H Publishing Group in September are 40 Days of Purity for Girls by Shane King and 40 Days of Purity for Guys by Clayton King, both tied to King’s True Love Project trade book.

Another category returning in devotionals is marriage. Tyndale is betting on the value of well-known names with two projects from best-selling brands. The publisher will be releasing The Uncommon Marriage Adventure from Tony and Lauren Dungy (Tyndale Momentum) in October as a companion to the Uncommon Marriage book released earlier in the year.

Tyndale also is set to release The Best Year of Your Marriage, a 52-week devotional with readings from Focus on the Family counselors and edited by Focus President Jim Daly and his wife, Jean. Rounding out the fall offerings from the company is the November release of a tan imitation-leather edition of The One Year Love Language Minute Devotional by Gary Chapman.


From the United Kingdom come two voices lesser known to Americans. Angus Buchan, a farmer-turned-evangelist in South Africa, offers Now Is the Time (Nov. 27), available through Monarch Books and distributed by Kregel. Buchan is known to those who watched the 2006 Affirm Films movie about his life, Faith Like Potatoes, available through Kregel.

Simon Guillebaud writes of his life in Burundi, Africa, where the contrast between Christianity, militant Islam and the repressive powers of witch doctors is stark. His devotional, Choose Life (Monarch/Kregel, Sept. 27), releases in September.

Mercy and Melons by Lisa Nichols Hickman (Abingdon Press, September) features meditations that help readers pray through the alphabet in the spirit of the Hebrew acrostic tradition. Also from Abingdon, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door by Chicago Tribune columnist Barbara Mahany (October) offers thoughts on seeing the sacred in the everyday.

Retailers may want to know how to give lesser-known devotional works a fair shot with their customers. For Flowers, one of the biggest aids is hand-selling.

“When people come in looking for a gift, I go and get one that fits what they’re looking for and just about every time I get one and put it in someone’s hands, they end up buying,” she said.

Flowers admits that another part of the equation is having an extremely loyal customer base, but notes that the practice of hand-selling works well with many types of devotionals.

“I like to ask customers what their birthday is and then I’ll turn to that day in a devotional and let them read through the day’s thought,” she said.

Keeping a balance between best-sellers, classics and fresh voices, as well as putting effort into merchandising devotionals near related books or in prime spots for impulse buys and making sure to hand-sell your staff’s favorites will help give devotional sales a boost throughout the year.

Engaging an ever-changing market PDF Print E-mail
Written by Natalie Gillespie   
Thursday, 07 August 2014 03:56 PM EDT

Relentless readers drive the twists and turns of Christian-fiction publishing

Talk to Christian retailers, publishers, editors, agents and authors, and they all say the same thing about the state of Christian fiction: Like a good suspense novel, the plot keeps changing.

HomeOfOurHearts-AnchorDistributorsIt is changing because some longtime authors like Bill Myers, Robin Jones Gunn, Angela Hunt and others are trying their hand at self-publishing rather than sticking only to traditional publishing houses. It is changing because readers often devour the latest fiction on their device instead of picking up the print version at their local bookstore. It is changing because a tight economy has forced publishers to make cutbacks—in the number of titles they publish, the new authors they are willing to try, and the number of sales representatives that visit stores. And it is changing because slowdowns in sales have caused retailers to reduce the number of titles they put on the shelves.

That’s one big bunch of twists and turns. 

Esther-BethanyHouseBut there are a few key elements that remain the same. First and foremost, people still love to read great stories. Talented Christian authors still want to write them, publishers still want to find them, and booksellers still love to put them in readers’ hands.

“The publishing houses have changed,” said Robin Jones Gunn, author of 85 books, including the best-selling Young Adult (YA) “Christy Miller” series. “The trends have changed. The bookstores have changed. The genres my agent has contracted me for have changed. But my readers have not changed. They are loyal, and they are relentless.”

TheDaughterOfHighlandHall-MultnomahBooksChris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 17 years, has this assurance for stores: “If you carry fiction and do it well, you will make money at it. My customers come back because I love fiction and I read fiction, so they trust what I have to tell them about it. It takes time. You have to work at it and build your reputation, but when you do, readers will trust you, and your fiction sales will grow.”


Today’s Christian fiction continues to generate subgenres within traditional genres—for example, Amish with a twist such as a mystery element; suspense, but with a legal or medical bent; biblical fiction written like action-adventure stories; or dystopian with biblical themes.

FarewellFourWaters-RiverNorth“The readership is changing, both in taste and in how and where books are being discovered,” said Daisy Hutton, vice president of fiction for HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “We can never sacrifice the soul of who we are as Christian publishers, but we simply must address the changing needs of our readers. A core aspect of that, I believe, is that our readers want their faith to be engaged with the world they live in and in conversation with it. They crave a faith that is unafraid of challenge, of struggle, of controversy, and they want to read novels that, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, ‘make belief believable’ in the larger world.”

PlayingSaint-ThomasNelsonReaders’ tastes have become more sophisticated, yet they also long for old-fashioned values and lasting love without erotica and one-night stands. In the wake of the overwhelming success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and as anticipation builds around the Fifty Shades movie, some readers are turning to Christian publishers and retailers to find love stories that do not center around explicit sex scenes. Regency romance also has seen a resurgence, perhaps for the same reason, but also because of the popularity of the PBS television series Downton Abbey.

BeYourOwnDuckCommander-TyndaleHouseSuspense is another growing category, with veteran authors like Dee Henderson and the recent breakout author Dani Pettrey gaining ground. And while there are fewer new authors signing with big Christian publishers for their first book, those who have something unique can still make the cut.

“We are really excited about suspense,” said Amy Green, fiction publicist for Bethany House. “Dee Henderson has been the big name for a long time, and she is back, plus we have Dani Pettrey coming up and expanding that genre.”

“Romance, Romantic Suspense and Suspense remain the strongest categories for us, and we are also seeing success publishing writers who ‘defy category,’ ” Hutton said. “We are profoundly committed to publishing new voices and helping them find readership. Some recent debut authors we have published who have seen early success include Sarah Ladd (The Heiress of Winterwood) and Katherine Reay (Dear Mr. Knightley).”


Retailers can expect a strong fall fiction season, with Bethany’s September releases including The River by best-selling author Beverly Lewis, as well as Mary Connealy’s Tried and True, a “humorous historical,” Green says. Lynn Austin’s Keepers of the Covenant (September), the second installment in the biblical fiction series “The Restoration Chronicles,” centers around the Old Testament prophet Ezra. Bethany introduces the Regency romance-laced-with-intrigue The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen in late November, followed by some big names with biblical fiction titles coming in early 2015.

“There was a time when biblical fiction was out of fashion, but in 2015, we will have Angela Hunt’s Esther: Royal Beauty (the first in the “Dangerous Beauty” series, January) and Cliff Graham’s Exodus, the story of Caleb and his conquest of the Promised Land (May),” Green said, adding that the success of biblical themes at the box office and on TV have helped bring back the genre fiction.

“This seems to be a time when we are looking for heroes, and the closest thing you can get to a superhero without Marvel or DC comics is biblical characters,” she observed. “They are flawed heroes, and that resonates with people and adds depth to our Bible reading.”

WaterBrook Multnomah releases Cindy Woodsmall’s Amish offering A Love Undone (September), followed by Kim Vogel Sawyer’s Mennonite tale When Mercy Rains (October). Carrie Turansky’s latest “Edwardian Brides” title, The Daughter of Highland Hall, also hits stores in October.

From HarperCollins’ Thomas Nelson side, contemporary suspense offering The Promise by Beth Wiseman Thomas releases in late September, followed by the anticipated Playing Saint thriller by Zachary Bartels and Austen-flavored Lizzy & Jane by Katherine Reay (October). Mystery Sister Eve, Private Eye by Lynne Hinton hits store shelves in November.

In September, Tyndale House releases contemporary offerings The Story Keeper by best-selling author Lisa Wingate and Driftwood Tides by Gina Holmes. The Story Keeper centers around a New York City editor who gets caught up in the story after a mysterious manuscript appears on her desk, while Driftwood Tides brings together an isolated widower and the daughter his late wife gave up for adoption—whom he didn’t know.

“We’ve always been strong in contemporary women’s fiction, but historical is still selling, and romance is making a comeback,” said Jan Stob, senior acquisition editor of fiction for Tyndale. “We also have a debut dystopian novel coming out next year by Rachelle Dekker (daughter of award-winning author Ted Dekker). The nice thing about Tyndale is that we have always been very diversified.”

While Bethany, HarperCollins, Tyndale and WaterBrook Multnomah all report holding steady this year in the number of titles they are releasing, Moody’s fiction imprint, River North, has cut its list to just a handful.

“We are trying to publish smarter,” said Janis Backing, publicity manager. “Before, if we found a good story we thought people should read, we would publish it. Now we can concentrate on finding out what people want to read and find the right stories.”

River North’s two fall offerings include debut novel Farewell Four Waters by Kate McCord (October), author of the nonfiction title In the Land of Blue Burqas and the business fable Sync or Swim by Gary Chapman (of “Five Love Languages” fame), Paul White and Harold Myra (November).

Kregel continues to make slow and steady inroads with its own fiction as well as imports from U.K.-based publishing partner Lion Hudson. From Kregel, The Bachelor by Stephanie Reed is the second title in the “Plain City Peace” series (October).

“Kregel fiction has focused on stories with a strong sense of place and history,” said Adam Ferguson, chief publicist. “For example, The Bachelor is the second in an Amish romance series, but it’s set in Plain City, Ohio, during the Vietnam War era. All of these elements add chances to pique the interest of the reader and provide bookstores with more merchandising and grouping possibilities.”

Lion Hudson releases The Heretic by Henry Vyner-Brooks (October), a post-medieval mystery set against the backdrop of the Reformation, and Dead Gorgeous by Elizabeth Flynn, a modern mystery set in the world of high fashion (November).

On the independent side, Robin Jones Gunn has revived her beloved characters Christy and Todd with the new “Christy & Todd: The Married Years” series. Forever With You released in May, while Home of Our Hearts will be available to consumers in November (Robin’s Nest Productions/Anchor Distributors).

“When publishers were reluctant to take on this series, my husband persuaded me to self-publish the books,” Gunn said, but she admits that getting the word out to retailers has been a bit of a challenge.

Kirk Blank, president of Munce Group, is addressing the author-retailer disconnect at the Writing for the Soul and American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conferences this month. He wants authors to know that Munce’s 420 independent retail store members need to be remembered.

“Fiction can still be a traffic driver, but authors need to stop focusing their readers to purchase at Amazon,” said Blank, who has conveyed to hundreds of authors a desire to see a change in their message.

Rather than stating that their books are “Available at Amazon,” he asks authors to use this phrase instead: “Available at Your Favorite Bookstore.” Blank noted that the advertising campaigns to “Shop Local” work to draw customers to stores, but it helps tremendously if customers are reminded by their favorite authors to go to their local Christian bookstore.

“Authors can help by joining into the conversation with consumers,” he said. “Authors should have a relationship with retailers. That’s what we are doing at the Munce Group—building strategic relationships with authors from Christian Authors Network (CAN), ACFW and the advanced Writer’s Guild through Writing for the Soul conferences.”


While fans follow their favorite authors on social media, book buyers at stores often don’t have the time to research and chase down every title. Sales reps used to stop in stores to describe upcoming titles and promotions. Now buyers spend their days on the computer, reading Christian publications, scouring websites, blogs, Facebook pages and online catalogs in order to figure out what they need to order.

“Because there are not as many sales reps on the road and because some authors are self-publishing, I have to work harder to chase information down, but I try very hard to do it,” Jager of Baker Book House said. “There is so much information online now that readers do not need to ask me when the next book is coming out because they already looked it up, but they do trust my blog and my reviews.”

To grow sales, she posts reviews and author interviews every weekday on her blog (, tries to stay on top of the novels coming out, reads as many of them as she can, and holds plenty of in-store events.

One event that has grown during her tenure is Librarian Day, held each April and October. Jager invites church librarians to attend a full day of seminars and shopping. She reviews recent books, gives away books and offers extra discounts that day. She said Librarian Days significantly boost fiction sales at the store.

“The first year, I had four librarians show up,” she said. “Now I have 80 to 100 each time. And I don’t do any outside advertising, just a few email blasts.”

Publishers agree that in the fiction category, old-fashioned hand-selling and word-of-mouth are still the best sales drivers.

“There is still no more effective vehicle for fiction sales than a passionate, well-educated salesperson or reader,” Hutton said. “Personal recommendation—whether through a friend, a social-media contact, or through a knowledgeable and engaged salesperson—is still the most effective way to sell fiction. Fiction reading is highly personal and subjective, and a strong recommendation from someone the reader trusts is unrivaled in its persuasiveness.”

Munce Group’s Blank knows the value of relationship in sales.

“Customers want a relationship and to be known by who they are—not just a sales history,” he said. “They want recommendations for books based on the relationship the local retailer has with the customer, not by Amazon’s algorithm.”

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