Changes and challenges Print
Written by Staff   
Thursday, 30 June 2011 01:01 PM America/New_York

Industry leaders and insiders get personal on trends and issues

It has probably never been truer for the Christian products industry that change is here to stay.

From the accelerating digital-publishing revolution and its impact to ongoing shifts in retail, new consumer habits and business practices are emerging. Christian retailers and suppliers must look to the future, preparing for its challenges and opportunities.

We talked to a broad range of industry leaders and insiders to get their personal and professional take on some of the big issues and questions.

We asked them:

WHO are you reading or listening to right now and why?

WHAT is the biggest change you have made in your business in the last year and why?

WHY do you enjoy your current role?

WHERE  do you see notable innovation and leadership in the Christian products industry?

WHEN Christian products are available everywhere, what can Christian stores offer/do to set themselves apart, in differentiation?

HOW has digital publishing (music and books) affected your own consumer habits and practices? 

Here is some of what they told us: 

Almack_DavidDavid Almack

National director and publisher, CLC USA

INNOVATION: A company in the U.K. called run by Jonathan Carswell and Hearts & Minds bookstore in Dallastown, Pa., run by Byron Borger are both using a creative strategy of doing book tables at major conferences and events in addition to Web sites, blogs, the physical store. The key idea is taking the books to the people rather than waiting for people to come to them.

DIFFERENTIATION: Hire people that love books and love the Lord. Having a product knowledge-driven staff is essential to the future of any Christian store. Also, understand the market niche you are serving and do it with innovation and excellence.

HABITS: People are buying e-books more than ever before, but they are still also buying physical books and probably will for some time to come.

DeVore_Tessie_06Tessie DeVore

Executive vice president at Charisma Media, book publishing division

CHANGE: I think the biggest change for us has been our focus on digital and how we’re handling the licensing and all those things from A to Z—from how it affects contracts all the way to how we approach an author.

 HABITS: Me, personally, it has increased the amount of books I’ve purchased on a monthly basis, and the amount of music I’ve purchased on a monthly basis. However, what has changed is the ratio. Before digital came around, I may have bought three printed books a month. Now I may be buying two printed books a month, but then I’m buying two, three or four digitally. 

Dunham_RyanRyan Dunham

Senior vice president of sales & marketing, David C. Cook

READING: Love Wins by Rob Bell—a lot of controversy erupted even before the book was out. I am a firm believer in digging in for yourself and making your own informed decisions. 

CHANGE: There was period of time where we simply needed to stabilize our ministry from a business standpoint. That was a very difficult time and one I would rather not repeat. We now find ourselves in a place where “investment in the future” is the key mantra for our organization.

LEADERSHIP: There are many organizations within our landscape that are doing some great things. However, I believe all of us are really testing everything because no one knows for sure what the path to success in the digital arena looks like. Early on, I think many of us jumped in and acted too quickly, signing agreements with content resellers that are not good for the consumer, the reseller nor the content creator (author/artist) and the content provider (book publisher or music label). I know many of my peers are regretting they signed certain agreements. 

DIFFERENTIATION:  I really believe the strength that Christian stores need to leverage is the passion, “the reason why they got into business in the first place,” and their ability to act “small” are things that the big box online resellers will not be able to replicate. Obviously, Christian retail stores need to be price competitive and should offer the best selection, but nobody should be able to outserve, or out-customer-service the local Christian reseller. It should be part of the DNA. 

HABITS: For books, I have bought digital copies and they are convenient for travel, but at the end of the day, I like the physical copy. I like to underline. I like to write. I like to dog-ear my pages. I love the look of a library from just an aesthetic point of view. So for me, I find myself buying multiple copies of books. I buy a digital copy for convenience, but if I really like the book and want to read it again or find myself wanting to underline it, I also buy the physical copy. 

Franklyn_PaulPaul Franklyn

Director of Bibles, reference and e-publishing, Abingdon Press

CHANGE: We have been hiring even as the industry shrinks because we are focusing our resources on new things that are working.

ROLE: My career in publishing over 28 years has been devoted to new business development, first for three years at Nelson and since then at Abingdon and now with launching the Common English Bible. Starting new business—and most recently directing a new Bible translation—is so satisfying that I thank God most days for the work of publishing important ideas and handling sacred words. 

LEADERSHIP: I’m impressed with Baker as a publisher and CBD as a retailer.

DIFFERENTIATION: Serve congregations by selling products that the online stores and secular chains don’t want to pursue, including curriculum, supplies and Bibles. Bibles are not so easy to sell online because most of them need to be touched while browsing for gifts.

Graham_DebDeb Graham

Co-manager, Prestonwood Bookstore, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas

CHANGE: We are streamlining our inventory and doing an extensive inventory audit.

ROLE: I am positioning myself to hand off projects and jobs which others can handle. This frees me up to plan and put more time into buying.

DIFFERENTIATION: Carrying as many unique Christian gifts and turning inventory is the key to standing out today.

Hill_BrianBrian Hill

Co-owner, Lighthouse Christian Supply, Dublin, Calif.

READING: Rob Bell’s Love Wins, because I’ve read his other books and (because of) the controversy around this one. Agree or disagree, it is always nice when a book comes along that challenges the norm and makes you really think about what you believe and why.

CHANGE: We have simplified our mission to, “Your spiritual success is our mission.” And because of that, we have begun offering more events such as Bible Seminars, a Prayer Wall for people to leave prayer requests, the Gospel Challenge to get them reading the Bible.  We are really trying to build a sense of community with our customers and to have them feel that Lighthouse is a faith community for them instead of simply a business.

ROLE: In spite of the greatest financial struggles we have seen in our 23 years in business, I am enjoying my job more because of the sense of community we are building. I’m no longer simply selling books that can change lives, but I believe we are offering opportunities where lives can be changed right here in our store. 

LEADERSHIP: I’m not sure that I do. We seem to be so far behind the mainstream as evidenced by CBA’s continued lack of any kind of e-book strategy. Someone needs to find a vision for the future of Christian retail. As hundreds of stores close every year, I don’t think we can keep chanting the same mantra of: “Customer service and selection will enable you to survive.” It’s going to take more than that if Christian retail is going to be around in five years.

HABITS: Unless I buy music from Lighthouse, I buy it from iTunes. For music and the way I listen to music, I don’t need or want the physical CD.  I have yet to get an e-reader and really don’t want one. When I’m at home, I want to hold a book. I want to dog-ear the pages and underline sentences and enjoy the book. If I traveled more, I could see the advantage, but I’m a paper guy. 

Jenkins_Jerry-BJerry B. Jenkins

Author and owner, Christian Writers Guild

READING: I’ve just finished the two kids-who’ve-been-to-heaven books to keep up with what’s hot. Currently reading Rob Bell’s controversial book, same reason. 

CHANGE: At the Christian Writers Guild, we’re conceding that social media is here to stay and the way to reach a younger audience, too, so we’re immersed.

LEADERSHIP: The new Worthy Publishing and Summerside/Guideposts are both going against conventional thinking to succeed.

HABITS: I hardly buy a book anymore if it’s not available in e-format, and as an author, that’s a huge statement.

LePeau_AndyAndy Le Peau

Editorial director, InterVarsity Press

READING: I just finished Merchants of Culture by John Thompson. While Thompson focuses on the big trade houses, his analysis will offer helpful insights for a variety of people in the industry, including authors and booksellers as well as those who are in small- and medium-sized publishers, academic and niche houses, those who work with agents and those who don’t, and more. The virtues of Thompson’s book include his up-to-date statistics and his ability to get key players to speak frankly (though anonymously).  

CHANGE: We are continuing to put increasing emphasis on social media to get the word out about our books. 

DIFFERENTIATION: Knowing their customers personally and meeting/anticipating their needs. Stores can still offer the personal touch, can still initiate events and services like organizing reading groups or creating a comfortable gathering place.  

HABITS: Digital is much broader than iTunes and e-books, so I find myself enjoying Pandora and accessing articles and reference material online. But when I want to seriously engage a book, print is my preferred medium. And if I want to give a gift, it’s hard to think of giving an e-book or an iTunes download. Those just don’t have the same meaning or personal significance that is carried with a physical CD or a print book.

Maricle_RandyRandy Maricle

Sales and marketing manager, The Parable Group

ROLE: I enjoy my role with Parable for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is that I get to play a small part in affecting lives for Christ in local communities across the country. 

DIFFERENTIATION: The key is quality frontliners. Product knowledge and customer service will make all the difference. Creating a safe haven of Christ’s love in CBA stores will give the consumer confidence to come to their local Christian store for the content that can and will impact their life. 

HABITS: My personal buying habits have been changed. My wife, daughter and I still love to turn pages of physical books. However, we have become consumers of “songs” more than “music.” All of our music is now digital, and instead of the stereo we used to have, we use MP3 players. 

Mullins_AndreaAndrea Mullins

Publisher/director, New Hope Publishers

CHANGE: The biggest change is working on a new Web site that will connect our authors with readers and retailers. This has been a yearlong project.

DIFFERENTIATION: Be alert. Market via social media to bring people in around the most current news and events of the day. Daily contact with your community and relevance to their felt needs are what I believe can have an impact.

HABITS: I do most of my shopping online, but like going into Barnes & Noble for the experience with my nook. I shop at the local Christian bookstores, but while I hear from B&N often via email, I only hear from local Christian retailers when they mail a catalog. 

Nori_JonathanJonathan Nori

Vice president/COO, Destiny Image Publishers

READING: I’m reading a wide range right now: Chris Brogan, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Howard Schultz and Nilofer Merchant all present various views on what the “next” iteration of the future will look like—and how we’re going to get there. I believe that understanding “the future” is more important than understanding “the industry” right now because the fundamentals of buying and selling are undergoing a huge transformation, and having an understanding of what the end result may look like in five, 10, 15 or even 20 years can give insight into the changes we need to make today.  

INNOVATION: “Christian” and “innovation” are two terms that in prior decades have not really gone together very well. However, the changing landscape of digital media has really helped to open the doors to a much wider base of creative people, from film and music to publishing and advertising and even political activism. These are all up for grabs at the moment. It’s too early to tell who the new leaders are going to be, I think, but some strong frontrunners are XPMedia, B&H, Crossway and, I like to think, Destiny Image. 

DIFFERENTIATION: Christian stores have long been places that non-Christians don’t want to enter. That has to change. Christian stores need to be outreaches to their community, being active in community events and supporting a strong role in the local political landscape. I hate to use the Starbucks example, as it’s been beaten to death, but it is popular not because they have coffee (really, everyone has coffee), but because they’ve turned their stores into places where people want to hang out. 

HABITS: Digital publishing has changed my consuming habits in ways I didn’t realize at first. Most of my music is now purchased after I’ve heard it. If I hear music I like, I’ll get the files from friends. If I like a few tracks, that’s what I then buy from iTunes or Amazon, as opposed to full albums. But I buy much more music than I did before. Books I consume very differently. I still buy a lot of physical books. I also buy a lot of e-books. It has to do with convenience. I bought a copy of Onward at Starbucks because, well, it was there.  

Raney_Deborah-CreditReneGutteridgeDeborah Raney


CHANGE: My career is writing, but I’ve tried to bring in some extra income recently by adding editing to my repertoire.

ROLE: Because I feel I’m using the creative gifts God gave me in ways that bring glory to Him and encourage the body of Christ.

INNOVATION: For starters, I see it in the digital magazines Christian Retailing and other retailers’ publications are offering. It’s more “green,” it’s right at my fingertips every day at my desk.  

DIFFERENTIATION: My favorite Christian bookstores are the ones who offer a place for people to gather––either a coffee shop, a reading corner, a room for book clubs or writers’ groups to meet. Those things make  the store more of a destination.

HABITS: I never thought I’d say it, but I now own a Kindle and the whole e-books phenomenon is growing on me. That said, I may be one of those readers who has to own both the paper book and the e-book.  

Rodriguez_CarlosCarlos Rodriguez

Director, Shoreline Café and Bookstore, Shoreline Church, Austin, Texas

READING: I usually have many books going at the same time. Rob Bell’s Love Wins—I love the outside-the-box thinking that challenges me at the core of my beliefs. The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga by Sage Rountree is a book that I am skimming through for flexibility and strength-building for my active lifestyle. I just finished Fit for the King by Dr. Laura Koke and Moses Wasn’t Fat by Tom Ciola. 

CHANGE: We have made some tough decisions to no longer order books and music that are not being requested. We have discontinued business with a gift-company rep group and a gift supplier. We could not generate profit with the product selection and offerings. 

ROLE: I love the fact that I am in the business of re-sources. I want to love like Jesus and I believe that I get to tap into that by partaking in the passing of the information that the source has given us. Re-source points to the source. All good things come from the Source—our Lord and Savior.

DIFFERENTIATION: Each individual has been chosen to serve in our bookstores for such a time as this. We are also shopped by customers for such a time as this. I feel that it is important to look at each person who enters our stores as a divine appointment that was scheduled by the author of our lives. We need to staff our teams in such a way that we can pour into others in a way that shares the overflow that God is continually filling us with. 

Rooker_DavidDavid Rooker

General manager, The Scroll Christian Bookstore, Tyler, Texas

READING: I’ve really been impressed with Timothy Keller’s writing; finally got around to reading The Reason for God and really enjoyed it. I also worked through Rob Bell’s Love Wins to see what all the ruckus was about.

CHANGE: I haven’t had enough time to make much change. We are most likely going to make some significant changes this year, though. I think we will be moving to a better location and sharing our site with some other Christian ministries (a retailer and a service organization). My hope is that together we’ll be able to create a synergy of services that will help all participants. I’d like to see some kind of “Christian Life Center” develop in the new location. 

DIFFERENTIATION: Really, the only thing we have going for us is relationships. Amazon is not going to pray with you or give you a free cup of coffee. Barnes & Noble is not likely to have anyone who can walk you through the difference in Bibles and help you pick something best for you. I don’t think the impact of “experience” in shopping will change, and in this climate where our most important products have become commodities, people will shop our stores because they like coming. Whether that is enough to sustain us remains to be seen.

Schoepke_MarkMark Schoepke

Owner, Tree of Life Christian Outlets and Stores, Oregon and Washington

ROLE: Challenging times can bring you down on your knees and help you stay there.

INNOVATION: Digital books.

DIFFERENTIATION: Pray, pray and pray more. Make a list of the things you can improve on. Increase your gross profit. Share with your staff what’s happening in the industry and how it’s affecting the business. Cut costs as much as possible.

HABITS: When books are released in hardcover for $25.99 and you can buy a digital copy for $9.99, it isn’t a level playing field. Backlist books are being offered at $5-$8 when the retail prices are $18.99-$22.99. Once someone goes digital they stop buying printed books.

Schultz_ThomThom Schultz 

Chairman, Group Publishing

 READING: I’m reading American Grace by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell right now, to better understand what’s happening to the spiritual landscape in America.

CHANGE: We reorganized our teams to better align with our customers. Before, we were organized around our functions and products (such as curriculum, magazines, events). Now we’re organized around our end users’ jobs and interests (such as children’s workers, youth workers). This has greatly helped us to better know and serve our customers.

HABITS: When I need a book immediately, I download it. Otherwise I usually like the ability to physically interact with paper and ink, mark up pages, make notes, fold pages, and gifts of books and music work best in physical form.

Schwartz_KeithKeith Schwartz

President, Nicole Brayden Gifts & Divinity Boutique

CHANGE: We added a catalog for the Divinity line to make reordering easier for stores. We added a Web site for the company to make the product line more visible for stores and to make ordering and reordering easier. 

DIFFERENTIATION: The successful stores are focusing on gifts. They are expanding the areas where they can still provide a point of difference and diminishing the areas that they can no longer compete. They need to work hand in hand with local churches and continue to market to those core customers who support the store. Make yourself important to those churches that can support you—don’t wait for them to come to you. 

Seybert_JimJim Seybert

Author, consultant

INNOVATION: The real innovators in any industry are nearly invisible. They’re doing things that the rest of us won’t see until we are right on top of them and the innovators are long gone. 

DIFFERENTIATION: Christian products aren’t everywhere. Some very popular Christian products are being sold in the general market, but the list is quite short compared to the hundreds of thousands of titles in print. I wonder what would happen if Christian stores stopped trying to be like all the other stores and looked for a truly unique market position. Retailers still have to serve and be convenient to shoppers, so the uniqueness couldn’t be anything that would alienate shoppers, but I just wonder what the result would be if local Christian stores didn’t look exactly like local secular stores with different stuff on the shelf. 

Solarek_MitchellMitchell Solarek

President, Maximum Artist Management, and chairman, Gospel Music Association

READING: Power Thoughts by Joyce Meyer. I attended her conference with my client, Natalie Grant, who was singing at the event. Most of the time, I hang out in the green room or backstage, but this particular time I sat in a seat in the house. It was exactly where I needed to be. I took the book home and told everyone I knew to start reading it.

CHANGE: We have reduced the clients on our roster and are not working with many development artists. I personally have a real passion for developing talent, but I had to lead from a business perspective and reduce the workload on my staff. The other change is that we have taken on more gospel clients. Gospel has a ton of growth potential, and we want to be a part of that growth.

HABITS: I am completely old-fashioned when it comes to this. For my trade information, I rely on digital media. When it comes to personal reading, I have to be holding a hardback book. It is very hard for me to believe you will ever see my sitting by a pool reading something on a Kindle. 

Thoene_BodieBrockBodie & Brock Thoene


CHANGE: We have  published a serial contemporary e-book, Icon. We published one chapter per week for 20 weeks and garnered an enormous following. We have also published a 1st century e-book novel, The First Stone

INNOVATION: The innovators in Christian publishing and Christian retail are catching the vision that we must combine the old ways with the new to reach the world for Christ. Retailers who are holding home and church book parties, bringing the best Christian products to the people, get high marks from us.

Walter_PatPat Walter

Manager, Connections Bookstore, Woodmen Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colo.

READING: Just finished Rooms by James Rubart, which was excellent. Reading Love Wins, to be educated on the debate.  

CHANGE: I think just trying to freshen up the look and offering some new products and niches. Our café started serving sandwiches, we created a new apparel wall, and we have a Free Trade boutique we have developed. 

ROLE: I have always felt called to this role with experiences, skills and education that fit the role well. I love being close to God in this way and allowing Him to work through me in reaching out to others who may be struggling in one way or another.

Whitaker_ToddTodd Whitaker

Vice president, New Life Christian Stores, Lynchburg, Va.

CHANGE: High concentration on laser engraving. Traditional products are either declining or are available at many of our competitors. Our laser service and custom jewelry service are setting us apart from the other local retailers.

ROLE: Every day is different and you never know what is going to come along or what changes may be occurring in the industry. As frustrating as it may be, it’s fun to try to keep up with it all.

INNOVATION: P. Graham Dunn and Integra Interactive are doing things that weren’t available just a couple of years ago. Technology innovations are helping us compete with the big box stores.

White_DavidARDavid A.R. White

Co-founder, Pure Flix Entertainment

CHANGE: Pure Flix has been expanding to global distribution. We have been adding national film releases (What if…, Jerusalem CountdownChristmas With a Capital C) in addition to our DVD library. We are also seeing the interest in church ministry/movie night expand. It’s exciting to see how people are responding to the films everywhere.

ROLE: I find it rewarding to create film projects with content that inspires the human spirit. I am privileged to work with amazing people with the same spiritual desire/goals and witness how the Lord uses our films to touch people. It’s very humbling to be part of these projects. 

LEADERSHIP: I see it in producers being bold enough and strong enough in their faith to not waiver from the truth of the gospel, and not worry about approval from Hollywood.