Stores with knowledgeable staff
stand out, but customer service training is key
Reaching the “thoughtful” books reader takes a retailer committed to stocking appropriately and building a reputation as the “go-to” outlet for such titles. It also doesn’t hurt stores to have someone on staff willing to answer the questions of inquiring customers. We discussed some of the key players in this category and its future with representatives from four publishers of “thoughtful” and academic titles in the Christian market.
Taking part in the conversation were:
LAURA BARTLETT, academic marketing manager, Kregel Publications
JEFF CROSBY, associate publisher/director of sales and marketing, InterVarsity Press (IVP)
DAVID DOBSON, executive director of publishing and editorial director, Westminster John Knox Press
JESSE HILLMAN, marketing director, academic and reference, Zondervan
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What types of books do you classify as academic that Christian retail stores would sell?
JEFF CROSBY: Within any of the academic lines represented by the four of us, there is a broad range of disciplines covered and a spectrum of academic levels (undergraduate, graduate, seminary, doctoral) within them. What those of us in academic publishing call “core texts” probably would not, for the most part, be strong additions to a Christian retail store. Exceptions might be Bible background works, such as a major series Zondervan publishes, or a two-volume series that IVP publishes, among others. But what are known as “supplemental texts” often would be, particularly in categories that are of importance to—or should be—the church at large.
When I owned and managed a Christian retail store from 1983 to 1996, books such as James Sire’s The Universe Next Door and Colin Brown’s Philosophy and the Christian Faith, or Jesus studies titles by J.P. Moreland and resurrection studies by William Lane Craig, all were a regular part of my assortments—and success. And none of those were thought of as purely “academic books.” But times have changed, obviously, and today they typically are thought of that way and slotted in academic lines such as those we work with. But they still speak to their original audiences, which are both inside and outside the academy.
I find that titles in categories such as apologetics, preaching, commentaries, reference works (both mass market “pocket” titles and larger, one-volume works), political science, theology, vocation studies and books addressing pressing issues of the day, such as the problem of evil, war, poverty, immigration and others, often do find homes in Christian retail stores. And when they do—such as at Hearts and Minds in Dallastown, Pa., or Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kan., or Logos bookstore in
Dallas—they become a part of the store’s image and attract an expanded clientele.
LAURA BARTLETT: There are many academic books that thoughtful Christians pick up and will enjoy and benefit from. Academic books don’t have to be inaccessible. For example, many “armchair theologians” enjoy our “40 Questions” series of books. Similarly, pastors are increasingly viewing themselves as pastor-scholars, and so exegetical commentaries and other biblical studies books are very relevant to them and other lay church leaders.
DAVID DOBSON: While Westminster John Knox Press has generally not had the same presence in the Christian retail market for our academic books as for our laity books, some of our academic books do cross over there. These tend to be reference works in Bible and theology, along with some of our homiletics books. But our academic books mainly sell through stores at mainline seminaries and graduate schools and, of course, online booksellers.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What are the publishing seasons in this market?
CROSBY: Traditionally we had two (rather than three, as with the trade) publishing seasons—February and October. Catalogs were geared to those months for course adoptions in the autumn and spring semesters, respectively. However, about three years ago, we moved to three publishing cycles, in tandem with our trade catalog. The additional “touches” of professors—through our IVP Academic Alert bulletin and the printed catalog—have helped us stay in front of them and the institutional stores they are connected to, and we have become more timely in getting our information out. The autumn selling season is typically larger than the other two because the major conferences—the Evangelical Theological Society and the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature—are held in November.
JESSE HILLMAN: The announcement of our academic releases are driven by our three trade sales cycles as well. We do maintain a flexibility, however, to set release dates based on what’s best for each individual project. And we are always revisiting this due to changes such as those brought on by the Textbook Provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act and the increasing ease through social media to reach out to both consumers and key academic buyers. Digital-first releases also require more nimbleness than the traditional trade season structure.
BARTLETT: While we announce our academic books to the trade on a three-season cycle, our consumer-facing announcements remain on a two-season cycle as this feels most natural to professors on a two-semester class/textbook planning schedule.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: While the academic market is probably not very trendy, what publishing patterns are evident?
CROSBY: It can actually be more “trend-conscious” than you might think. Publishing follows (and sometimes guides, we hope helpfully) conversations about core aspects of religious faith and engagement in the broader culture. Of late, there have been trends in the study of the historical Adam, the study of the doctrine of the Trinity, atonement, studies related to the apostle Paul and his writings, the resurrection and, of course, the so-called “new atheism,” which really wasn’t new at all, just a bit more sensational in the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’ version. But beyond that, there is a growing issue that I call the “Google effect” whereby many students and people in the church believe (mistakenly, in my opinion) that research and reading on the Internet will suffice when it comes to studying and working through critical issues and concerns. Additionally, there is a significant trend toward “digital lending libraries” of academic and reference works, and “value-added” features for digital versions of those works. So, as with trade publishing, there are trends, and all of us are trying to stay on top of and respond to—and guide—them.
BARTLETT: Often, trends in popular culture follow trends in academia—but months or years behind. Not all academic trends filter down to popular culture, but an academic emphasis today on, for example, the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament may result in homiletics books next year on preaching the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, which may result in popular-level books and sermons on the subject the year after that. Digital publishing, e-learning and self-publishing are examples of patterns that are increasing in prominence within academic publishing.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What traits make an academic publisher strong in the Christian market?
CROSBY: It’s important to know both who you are, as a publisher, and who your audiences are, and publish into that with excellence on a consistent basis. That builds trust and repeat buyers, whether professors, students or consumers outside of the academy. And that excellence includes a very strong editorial process that regularly has peer-reviewed vetting of manuscripts to ensure the scholarship is up-to-date, accurate and presented in a clear, well-articulated manner. As with trade publishing, a strong academic publishing program will feature authors who are genuine experts in their field, but are able to communicate to their target audience. And that looks, feels and reads very differently at the undergraduate level than the graduate or post-graduate levels.
BARTLETT: It takes consistent and open communication with quality Christian booksellers. That is certainly more natural for those of us publishers with a trade division than it is for university publishers. Further, there are certain academic authors who know how to speak to a lay Christian audience as well as they do to a scholarly audience. Perhaps you have heard the saying, “If you can’t communicate clearly, you don’t really understand your subject.” We think that this is usually true and we use this as a filter in our acquisitions process.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Do we see new publishers entering this market, or is it pretty stable?
CROSBY: Absolutely. We see what have historically been “trade” publishers vying for the same authors and books as those that IVP Academic has long been working with, and we also see an expanded presence of university presses publishing evangelical and other Christian voices into the religion category—places such as Indiana University Press, the University of North Carolina Press, Baylor University Press and Oxford University Press, among many others.
BARTLETT: An interesting new entry to the market is Asbury Theological Seminary, with their Seedbed publishing venture. They have begun publishing Wesleyan resources, written primarily by their own faculty.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: How are academic trade publishers competing with university presses?
CROSBY: Our prices tend to be lower than a traditional university press, our print runs higher, and our marketing budgets larger. Additionally, we have a stronger ability to reach into the church, and … many of the books in our academic lines really do speak to concerns that pastors and church leaders and lay people are grappling with.
BARTLETT: The fact that each of us also publishes books in areas other than academic publishing means that we have better and wider distribution relationships than university presses do.
DOBSON: Price has always been a competitive advantage for us, whether competing with university presses or other academic publishers. This continues to be the case. Quality is another advantage—the quality of the editing, the copyediting and the entire book production process sometimes helps us draw authors who might have otherwise gone to a university press.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What associations and conferences are important to academic publishing?
CROSBY: The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and American Academic of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) are the three core societies that we are a part of. We also take our publishing program to the Society of Christian Philosophers, Christians in Political Science and the International Conference on Patristics, among others.
HILLMAN: Other related societies also plan meetings in connection with ETS and AAR/SBL. … Compared to events such as ICRS [International Christian Retail Show], which is important for other areas of our business, the ETS/AAR/SBL meetings bring together a wider array of people that are central to our academic publishing business—our current and prospective authors (we have several hundred authors in attendance); consumers (instructors, scholars and students); and important trade/industry contacts, both domestic and international, digital and traditional.
BARTLETT: Preaching/pastoral conferences such as the Evangelical Homiletical Society and the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference are significant ways we reach readers and gatekeepers.
DOBSON: AAR/SBL continues to be the key event for us each year, both from a bookselling/course-adoption standpoint and from an author-recruitment standpoint. ETS is important, as is the Catholic Biblical Association annual meeting. We also attend smaller conferences, like the Society of Christian Ethics and Academy of Homiletics.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What key partnerships are evolving?
CROSBY: We have for more than 15 years been in partnership with the theology department at Wheaton College as a co-sponsor of the Wheaton Theology Conference. Last year’s theme surrounded the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Prior conferences featured J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright and other prominent voices within evangelicalism. And in the realm of Christian psychology/counseling studies, we have a formal publishing partnership with the Christian Association of Psychological Studies, which has led to publishing five core textbooks in that field.
HILLMAN: We are gearing up for a major announcement of a new partnership this September. For us, professors, schools and decision-makers in the academy are some of the most important partnerships to foster. We have a staff person whose sole responsibility is to build rapport with professors and proactively seek ways to inform and help them.
BARTLETT: Kregel also has a forthcoming fall announcement of a significant new publishing partnership. Our partnerships with schools that use e-learning resources have been mutually beneficial. We can in some cases tailor our resources to the needs of a particular school.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What is the place of Christian academic e-books?
CROSBY: Our best-selling academic books in print—such as Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes—are, likewise, our best-selling e-books. Digital lending libraries, driven by institutions more than professors or students, is another force within academic digital publishing. But even more than digital trade publishing, academic books are increasingly loaded with “value-added features” for classroom use as well as personal study.
DOBSON: We’re seeing a definite growth in our sales of academic e-books, but it’s not yet clear that a single standard is emerging. Do students and teachers want a regular e-book, an enhanced e-book, web-based content, PDFs or some other format that hasn’t been developed yet? We’re looking carefully to see where most of the growth seems to be happening, so we can be ready to address it.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What are Christian academic booksellers doing right?
CROSBY: For what are largely academic stores, the Dallas Theological Seminary Bookstore (DTS) and the wtsbooks.com online store are among the locations that stand out. Both know who their audiences are and cater very strongly to them. They have knowledgeable people working behind the scenes and behind the cash wraps. In the case of DTS, it is merchandised in a very organized, attractive manner and they have a rigorous customer service training program in place that makes the exceptional service happen. In the case of wtsbooks.com, they are uncommonly creative in their pricing and promotions.
For trade stores stocking academic-oriented products, I have already referenced three exceptional examples: Eighth Day Books in Wichita, which caters especially to a more literary and reference academic clientele; Hearts and Minds in Dallastown, whose assortment of books is perhaps the broadest I have encountered in recent years, and whose staff is among the most knowledgeable about what is on their shelves; and Logos bookstore in Dallas, which has for more than 30 years serviced students, pastors and church leaders of the Southern Methodist University area.
HILLMAN: Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich., is another strong academic store. They excel at hosting community lectures and events featuring thoughtful discussions, reaching out to church leaders and stocking a wide selection of biblical-theological books, used and new, that bring in academic customers from all over the region. They also have knowledgeable staff dedicated to this area of business and an online presence through their Baker Book House Church Connection blog.
BARTLETT: One great example is Signs of Life near the University of
Kansas. They are a bookstore/coffee shop/art gallery, which serves as a gathering place for discussion groups and has many academic books which are attractively merchandised by topic.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: How can Christian bookstores maximize their reach to academic readers?
CROSBY: By stocking an assortment of titles that reflect well upon the store’s commitment to the category of “thoughtful” or “academic” books, and staying in it for the long haul; by finding ways to reach out to pastors, professors, university students and church leaders and letting them know the store is committed to stocking this type of product; and by working with academic publishers to find out what our best-selling titles are to fellow trade stores, and asking about special pricing and terms to help the stores integrate the product into their assortments and promote them to potential buyers.
BARTLETT: Bringing in a staff member who is conversant in biblical and theological topics and trends can help a store build a reputation as a go-to place to discover new books in those areas.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: How can academic titles best be promoted at Christian retail?
CROSBY: Christian retail stores can choose two or three categories of books and work with publishers to bring in an assortment with special terms that allows stores to feature them on an endcap with discounted pricing. Ask about sample copies to give to pastors or instructors of Christian schools, colleges or universities in their communities, and drop them at their offices or in the mail with a special offer.
CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What else do Christian booksellers need to know about this market?
CROSBY: The store I ran in the ‘80s and ‘90s was two blocks from Indiana University, a Big 10 campus of some 40,000 students. I was privileged to engage with pastors and students about the kinds of issues and thinking and scholarship reflected in what we now would call “academic” books (though we didn’t then, often) and seeing the proverbial “light bulb” come on. ... Those readers are still out there. They are looking for someone to engage with them, and provide good books for their academic pursuits. CR