|Written by Natalie Gillespie|
|Monday, 05 August 2013 05:10 PM America/New_York|
Digital shift brings a new opportunity for CBA retailers as big-box stores cut back
When describing the state of Christian fiction today in a single word, “flux” springs to mind. Dictionary.com defines it as “continuous change, passage or movement.” Christian fiction print sales have taken a beating at brick-and-mortar stores in the past few years, declining in dollars and shelf space in big-box retailers and Christian stores alike, while e-book sales have gained ground due to “flash” sale pricing and the increase in popularity of e-readers. That has turned the fiction category into a roller-coaster ride not only for retailers, but also for publishing houses.
Guideposts announced in July the end of its fiction retail sales; Moody Publishers’ young fiction imprint, River North, said it will cut back on new titles this year; and B&H Publishing Group “reset” its fiction line in May, announcing it will only publish new fiction that ties in with ministries, external film partners and the like. It was only six years ago that B&H announced it would be investing heavily in fiction, hiring well-known editor Karen Ball and launching the website www.pureenjoyment.com the following year.
On the up side, this fall Zondervan is launching new Young Adult (YA) imprint Blink, which will publish mainly fiction for teens (with select nonfiction and autobiographies); the FrontLine imprint of Charisma House Book Group hit the fiction big-time with runaway best-seller The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn; and Howard Books announced it is beefing up its fiction offerings this year after signing a 10-book deal with Christian fiction’s reigning romance queen, Karen Kingsbury, whose hardcover novel The Chance debuted in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list in March.
Even with all the ups and downs, Christian publishers report feeling hopeful about fiction overall—hopeful that sales at Christian retail can rebound, that the effects of digital downloads are becoming more predictable and that Christian retailers should be able to poise their stores once again to be the go-to destination for Christian novels rather than big-box competitors.
TURNING THE TIDE
Christian Retailing spoke to representatives from the editorial, marketing and publicity teams of several Christian publishers, including HarperCollins Christian Publishing (parent company of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan), WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, Howard Books and Bethany House (Baker Publishing Group) about the state of Christian fiction today, what trends they foresee and how Christian retailers can rebuild their sales in this category.
“I think it is probably not an overstatement to say that the Christian fiction category has been the most aggressively challenged category in CBA because of the shift to online publishing,” said Daisy Hutton, vice president and publisher at HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s fiction division. “Our category has lost more shelf space, and we feel like we have been really fighting for the hearts and minds in this category.”
“I think we can say that it is stabilizing,” said Noelle Buss, fiction publicist for Bethany House. “While the market has been very volatile over the last few years, we are now seeing a leveling off and some rebounding.”
“I think we are coming into a time of right-sizing, as opposed to downsizing,” said Shannon Marchese, senior editor of fiction for WaterBrook Multnomah. “In part, it’s because of the explosive growth of Christian fiction 10 to 15 years ago, followed by declines in the last seven years. I think we’re coming into a right-sizing era now. We’re not throwing as much against the wall to see what will stick.”
Christian fiction sales quadrupled from $1 billion annually to $4 billion from 1980 to 2000, jump-started in the late-1990s by the best-selling “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, according to a study presented at the 2009 International Christian Retail Show.
When the post-rapture series took off, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Target and Sam’s Club hopped on the bandwagon and began aggressively stocking Christian fiction, and Christian retailers found themselves struggling to keep up with the discounted pricing. Then online powerhouses Amazon and Christian Book Distributors began to help themselves to large pieces of the Christian fiction sales pie; and in the last few years, e-readers and digital downloads carved out yet another big chunk of sales dollars. As orders shifted to online retailers and digital downloads, fiction sales at general market and Christian brick-and-mortar stores suffered.
The 2013 BookStats report from the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group shows that e-books have grown 45% since 2011 and now constitute 20% of the trade market. The largest e-book sales category? Adult fiction. Strangely, Christian market publishers feel that may actually bring a ray of hope to Christian retailers. Why? Because since readers are turning to their tablets for the latest titles, big-box stores are now pulling back, stocking fewer print titles for shorter amounts of time. CBA publishers say this gives Christian stores a renewed chance to pick up sales, if they are willing to give the category another look.
“With a smaller footprint in the big-box stores, there is definitely the opportunity for Christian retailers to offer more diversity,” Marchese said. “Consumers will look to them to be the place to go to find that depth and diversity.”
The ongoing challenge for publishers is to connect with consumers in many places and spaces in order to help them find Christian fiction amidst the wealth of fiction, nonfiction, films, television shows, newspapers, magazines, games, websites that constitute consumers’ daily media menu.
“There has been such a resurgence of epic fantasy in the larger culture, and I have wondered why that hasn’t spilled over to stronger book sales in the category,” Hutton said. “Part of the answer, I think, is that in that category, we’re not just competing with other Christian books or even general market books, but also every TV show, every film and every video game in this space. Consumers just have so many choices now for how they spend their time being entertained, and we are competing directly for their attention with those other forms of media.”
CBA publishers are trying to drive consumers to buy Christian fiction in any format they can manufacture, be it virtual or physical—so that they can keep publishing, period. Readers no longer discover books they like or uncover new authors they might want to follow at local bookstores. Instead, fiction audiences are developing their reading tastes online through “word of mouth” on Facebook, blogs, author websites and book-dedicated websites.
“Ask people how they are finding new authors, and they say ‘online’ or they got a recommendation from someone who found the author online,“ said Steve Oates, vice president of marketing, Bethany House. “There is no longer one gathering place for us to find our audience, so we have to go to 15 or 20 of them and think about how to reach readers in all of these spaces.”
Thousands of bloggers review Christian books, “blog tours” abound to get the word out about new authors and titles, and many a website is dedicated exclusively to Christian fiction. Zondervan created BookSneeze.com, a site where bloggers can request free books in exchange for reviews on their blogs and on retail sites like Amazon. For consumers, LifeWay hosts the Christian fiction blog “A Novel Bookshelf,” and WaterBrook Multnomah launched NovelCrossing.com last year, a site dedicated to becoming the “intersection of fiction and faith,” as its tag line reads. The site offers reviews of books from many publishers, author interviews, an interactive community and graphic resources to “pin” on places like Pinterest, Facebook and blogs.
“NovelCrossing.com is less than a year old, so the proof is not in the pudding yet,” Marchese said. “But we are hopeful.”
INVESTING IN AUTHORS
Christian fiction does seem to be succeeding in content. The quality of stories in the Christian market has increased significantly in the last decade, and publishers are branching out into many genres, as well as putting new spins on the tried-and-true.
“What’s interesting to me is the new books that fit into an older genre but have something that makes them a little bit unique,” said Beth Adams, senior editor for Howard Books. “We have the Amish title Promise to Return [by Elizabeth Byler Younts, October] about a young Amish man who gets drafted in World War II. Because the Amish are pacifists, he is sent to a public service camp, where he realizes that he wants to enlist and go fight. This book fits squarely into the Amish category, yet it has a unique quality that makes it stand out.”
“Amish is incredibly strong for us, but the requirement more and more is for something that makes those books distinctive,” agreed Hutton. “We are past the point where we can turn out vanilla titles. We also want to find books that transcend genre, and those are often the hardest to publish because they don’t fit into any one slot.”
Hutton points to the upcoming contemporary debut novel Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, November) as a good example.
“It is one of the more literary books that we would ever publish, yet it has strong commercial sensibility and lots of hooks,” she said.
“Romantic suspense is really growing for us,” Oates said of Bethany House, which publishes popular suspense author Dee Henderson. “And historical fiction has helped us. Some of the top authors are rebounding, and we have been curiously watching the sort of nonfiction-fiction titles like The Harbinger and The Shack. But those kinds of books are either huge or don’t do much.”
“We are focusing less on trends and more on voices,” Marchese said of WaterBrook Multnomah. “We are focusing on a group of 12 to 15 authors with really strong voices. We found a great new voice, Tim Lewis, whose first book is coming out this fall. His book Forever Friday is in the same vein as Nicholas Sparks.”
Publishers agree they are all continually looking for the next big thing—big idea, big audience, big voice. They look for new authors at writers’ conferences, through agent submissions and via blogs and self-published books in digital stores. As competition becomes stiffer, first- and second-time authors usually must have a built-in audience for a publisher to sign them or keep them on their list.
“If a new author’s first book is not a hit, we are not seeing as many get a second and third chance,” Marchese said. “If an author’s first series didn’t launch like we wanted it to, but it got great reader feedback and had just what we want to hear spiritually, we want to keep investing in that author. We need to. But that part feels harder.”
“It may be harder to invest in those authors, but it is definitely something you have to do,” Buss agreed.
TRACKING WITH TEENS
One area that has always had room to grow in Christian fiction is Young Adult. In the general market, teens pick up fiction at Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart or order it online. In the Christian market, teens generally don’t shop on their own at Christian retail. The teen books that sell in the Christian market tend to be nonfiction, books that parents pick up for their kids to read or youth pastors use in their youth groups. If teens do walk into Christian stores, publishers say they sometimes shy away from fiction because it is often shelved next to the kids’ section.
“YA has been a very difficult market. I don’t think that’s new news to anyone,” said Jacque Alberta, acquisition editor, YA fiction for Zondervan and Blink. “Part of that has to do with shelving and part with who is going to the stores. We have had success with YA nonfiction [such as] perennial purity titles, student adaptations of best-selling authors’ books and books that youth pastors can use in their ministry. But we have not seen a lot of teens shopping at Christian bookstores, so fiction has been harder.”
In a move to capture a slice of the YA audience, Zondervan debuts new imprint Blink this fall, with six titles that will not contain overt Christian content, but instead will have “moral content” and be “hopeful” in tone.
“There will be nothing overtly violent or sexual,” Alberta said. “Our guideline is that you should be able to give a Blink book to a 14-year-old without worrying. There will still be adherence to Christian values, but not done in as overt a way.”
Blink books have been developed with the general market in mind to offer teens and parents alternatives to the graphic content found in popular teen fiction today, but Christian retailers also have been enthusiastic about the line.
“I’ve been on the Zondervan team for five years, and since I started, it has always been our initiative to help CBA stores get teens into their stores and to help it be a successful category for them,” said Sara Merritt, senior director of marketing for Zondervan and Blink. “We offer to have authors come in and do signings. We’ve had Christian retailers ask if authors can do video interviews, and we talk to retailers about shelving strategy and how moving YA could help sales. We want the Christian retailer to succeed.”
YA books need to be near music, T-shirts and jewelry—or at least away from the children’s section, publishers say, noting that teens don’t see themselves as kids and don’t want to be associated with the children’s department.
Among the Blink debut novels for fall are Doon by Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon, a fantasy romance loosely based on the classic musical Brigadoon; Merlin’s Shadow, a book by Robert Treskillard that takes a new look at King Arthur’s court; Running Lean by Diana L. Sharples, the story of a teen couple dealing with real-life personal issues and tragedies; and a dystopian title, Remnants, by well-known CBA author Lisa T. Bergren.
Alberta says outside of Blink there has been some YA movement in the historical category, as long as it offers a “new way of looking at the past.”
“Like the Tudors, as seen by some of the secondary characters,” she said. “I think we will see more of that, especially with common core educational standards coming into play.”
“We have seen some movement in YA if the author has a presence in the homeschool market, if the author is tied into the homeschool shows,” Marchese said. “Chuck Black is on the Multnomah list, and his books do well. We will have a new book with him next year.”
CLICKING WITH CUSTOMERS
For Christian retailers, fiction is a category with room to grow—if they can entice customers to put down their digital devices and drive to the store. E-book sales may be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean all brick-and-mortar Christian stores are doomed. With each arrival of a new media format, there have been predictions that older formats would die. In some cases, that prediction has come true. Cassette tapes did replace 8-tracks. CDs replaced cassettes. DVDs replaced VHS tapes. However, television did not signal the end of movie theaters. Redbox and Netflix have not shuttered all theaters either. Instead, time has shown that consumers like to watch movies across many channels.
Likewise, the newest digital devices and delivery systems have just squeezed into the existing media mix, perhaps taking more sales than their fair share, but not necessarily taking over. Yes, consumers read news online, but many also still like to hold a newspaper or magazine. E-readers are handy for carrying an entire library around all at once, but not many want to take them to the beach or the pool, not to mention that it’s hard to wrap an e-book and take it to a friend’s birthday party.
The problem for physical retailers is that online content needs to point customers to their stores, not just fuel online sales. It’s easy for consumers to read a review, decide they want the title and click through to buy it and begin reading immediately. But for Christian fiction consumers, the ease and unlimited virtual shelf space can be both a blessing and a curse. There is more to choose from than ever before, but that certainly doesn’t mean all the books are good or that they can all be trusted to provide clean, hopeful or gospel-based content.
Christian retailers can win back customers by offering online marketing and old-school customer service they can trust, by finding readers online through Facebook and Pinterest, and by offering digital coupons, flash sales, exclusive events and other in-store-only opportunities. Retailers can keep customers engaged by Tweeting; investigating ways to participate through sites like Shopkick, Foursquare and Groupon; and by surveying their customers about their online communities and spaces. Publishers say they’ll help by connecting stores with their customers’ favorite authors through book signings, online chats, links to author websites and custom editions, with several publishers making exclusive editions available to retailers.
Once customers have an online incentive to walk in the door, stores can make sure they get exactly what they need. Possibly more than any other book category, fiction is a section frontliners need to know. Fiction readers love to talk to other fiction readers. They want recommendations from others who clearly demonstrate a knowledge and passion for it. Good, old-fashioned hand-selling is still a key ingredient to fiction sales.
“We have unique content and a message the world is hungry for,” Adams said. “And fiction readers are the most loyal readers out there. If you get them hooked on a book or an author or a genre, they’re going to come back. I think that’s what makes fiction fun.”