Christian Retailing

Guest Editor: Mark Schoenwald Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Wednesday, 09 May 2012 10:13 AM America/New_York

MARK SCHOENWALD is president and CEO of Thomas Nelson. Prior to joining the company, he was involved in the private equity business, primarily on the operating side, having served as president of three portfolio companies that focused on home furnishings, gifts and distribution. He began his career at Lenox Brands, where he served in various sales, marketing and operations positions. Guest Editor Michael Briggs continues his "In Conversation" interview from the June 2012 issue with him here.

Physical product is what so many in our industry are dependent upon for their living—retailers and publishers alike. Self-publishing appears to be coming on strong, both with unknown writers and some brand-name authors, and digital is a primary format for them. Will this have an adverse effect on the production of physical product?

No, not at all. Because we have changed the way we develop and manage our content assets, we have the flexibility to take advantage of such opportunities. More importantly for retailers, Thomas Nelson is positioned to share this capability with our retail partners in a couple of ways.

First, our self-publishing imprint, WestBow, allows CBA to participate in the self-publishing movement. WestBow offers an affiliate program in which retailers can be rewarded by helping aspiring authors self-publish. Second, our custom publishing capabilities enable us to work with retailers to develop exclusive or propriety product and drive differentiation among competitors in both print and digital.

Do you see bundling or enhanced digital product coming to our market soon as means of providing greater value to the end-consumer?

While enhanced digital products have received a great deal of press, it remains to be seen if there is a sustainable business or demand from consumers in this format. A couple factors will influence this. The first is technology. The digital formats are still evolving, and currently what works on one reading platform does not work on another. The other factor is the category of content. One category that Thomas Nelson will be focused on is group study and curriculum; this area is one in which we believe consumers will support a multimedia experience.

We are experimenting with bundling because it presents an opportunity that is less dependent on technology. We are exploring ways to create value with bundles, and we are testing several approaches to find the most successful path. We are also working with various retailers to differentiate product offerings while addressing the value equation, rather than a buying decision based solely on price.

How is Thomas Nelson helping its customers grapple with the change in content delivery?

The first way we help is by ensuring our titles are available everywhere consumers look for Christ-centered content. Next, we encourage our CBA partners to participate in what is taking place in the market. We continue to maintain one of the largest sales forces in our industry, with over 20 salespeople committed to serving the Christian retail market. We recently added a manager of e-media sales as a consultant/partner for our entire sales force to help develop and manage our digital promotions. For the past two years, our sales team has been helping retailers connect with technology providers and develop strategies regarding exclusive content, promotions, merchandising, training and development of their digital plans, if retailers are motivated to do so.

The biggest “traffic-driving” category in our industry is fiction, and my understanding is that it is also the fastest-growing category in digital publishing. Do we not risk losing exposure to all categories if consumers continue to bypass the brick-and-mortar store for the downloaded e-book? How can we combat this?

To add some context here, we have found fiction to be the leading category for e-books. Currently, nonfiction is trending at about half the rate of fiction. However, there are still several positive factors for brick-and-mortar stores.

First, over half of Christian retail store purchases are gifts or items to be given to someone based on a current need. It is difficult to replicate this with an e-book. Second is the role of the trusted and informed store sales associate. Christian retailers are uniquely qualified to be that trusted advisor. I remain amazed every time I visit a Christian store at the level of knowledge and the important role that sales associates play in putting the right book in someone’s hand at just the right time. Third is the role physical stores play in helping consumers discover new voices and new content. Trusted retailers providing information and suggestions for content that will meet an individual’s need are critical.