Christian Market spoke with Christian publishing veteran Byron Williamson, CEO of Worthy Media, Inc., following his being named the new chair of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

Byron Williamson
CEO of Worthy Media, Inc.

CM: What significant trends are you observing in Christian publishing?

BW: E-books have kind of plateaued and in some measure declined a little bit to maybe 16 or 17 percent. Much of that nationally is romance fiction and similar kinds of categories, so if you look at nonfiction across the board, whether it’s Christian nonfiction or mainstream nonfiction, the share of e-books is generally below 10 percent. For even some pretty big name authors, e-books maybe don’t amount to more than 4 to 6 percent of their sales.

There were some who thought that e-books were going to completely obliterate ink, but in fact it capped out two or three years ago and is now just a kind of a little category like audiobooks. The difference is that the audiobooks category is growing. So many people are commuting farther and the audiobook category has kind of come alive in the last couple of years.

Physical books are down, but there’s actually been a resurgence of physical book sales. And one of the exciting things is millennials are some of the most intense readers of physical books in generations. They came up on “Harry Potter.” They got used to reading not just single books, but long series, and there were several of those dystopian series that came out of that and sold like crazy.

So that’s encouraging for publishers, that the younger generation likes to read and they’re buying books for their children. We’ve got a huge group of children coming and so children’s publishing right now is the fastest-growing category—that’s CBA and ABA both, and particularly for young children. We’re talking about 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year-olds. That’s a booming business that’s up double digits the last couple of years.

CM: How have e-books impacted the industry beyond sales?

BW: Probably the biggest impact in my view is to devalue books. People are used to saying they can get what might be a $20 print book as an e-book for $10 or $8, and then you have these promotional efforts on the part of publishers in which you go out for a day or a week and offer the book as an e-book download for $1.99 or $2.99, even some cases for 99 cents, just to grab attention and get people talking. But I think that has conditioned how people think about the value of a book. There are probably more paperbacks being published now than there are hardcovers.

In some ways the internet has actually helped reading. I read more newspapers now than I ever have because I’ve got four on my phone. I get these stories popping up telling me about some new trend: I’m provoked all day long by content. I think the internet may have taken more time away from television and radio than from books.

CM: How is what’s happening in the broader culture affecting Christian publishing?

BW: I think that the current economic, political, cultural milieu that we’re swimming around in right now is muddy enough, frustrating enough, aggravating enough, and disillusioning enough that one of the positive effects is that is it’s going to drive people to books. I think people are tired of all the noise. Turn television on at night and try to find something that you want to watch that enriches you or blesses you and that’s hard to do. I think book reading looks more interesting.

CM: Christian publishers have long said that Christian retail is their most important channel; is that still true?

BW: Christian book publishers have not lost their heart for the Christian bookstore: we want to do everything we can do to support and encourage Christian retail. It’s very important to us and we would like for it to grow, and there’s a little bit of a sign of that with some new stores opening.

CW: What can Christian publishers do to support Christian retail?

BW: There’s a conversation among various publishing houses about some ways that we can join forces with what we usually have referred to as direct to consumer, but one of the innovations that we’re looking at right now is cooperating with Christian retailers, and what we’re referring to now is direct to reader, D2R. The strategy there is to be able to communicate with readers and drive them to retail.

I’m not the point person for this, and neither is the ECPA. It’s some specific CBA retailers, long-time leaders. There’s a dialogue that has begun about trying to find a way for us all cooperatively, the publishers and the retailers, to sort of join hands and try to create what amounts to an online community of customers. [Find out more about CBA’s Get It Local Today! initiative at cbaonline.org/get-local-today/]

When you lose literally thousands of retail locations across America, it’s pretty sobering for the publisher, and authors for that matter. When your average sale for a book over a 10- or 15-year period of time may have fallen by 50 percent on average, you have to look at how can we get that revenue back. But I don’t think any of the publishers have been remarkably successful trying to add on additional sales by dealing with consumers.

CM: Some Christian retailers have been frustrated with Christian publishers for direct-to-consumer efforts.

BW: With one publisher being an exception out of 50 some other members of ECPA, there is nobody in ECPA that’s selling material books direct to consumer. That’s an illusion that someone might have, but it’s not happening, not in any consequential numbers. The numbers there that are significant are authors themselves who are selling direct to their fan base, which they have the right to do, but they have always done that.

CM: What about direct to churches?

BW: It’s not anything to write home about. I might even be excited if it were, but it may be one or two percent of a given publisher’s revenue and a lot of that comes in just sort of incidentally. You hear people talking about doing social media campaigns, Facebook live broadcasts and all this, but for projects like that they may sell 100 copies. They might get lucky and sell 1,500 copies, but the publisher that would do that is going to have to sell millions of copies of some books a year to keep the doors open. Everybody talks about it, but the truth is if you lift up the cover there’s really nothing going on there that really would affect the Christian retailer, or the general market for that matter.

CM: Why does Christian retail remain important to Christian publishers?

BW: For one thing, you’re sure not getting hand-selling in the mass market. Occasionally we’ll get a book in a big box and there’s nobody taking people over and showing them that book and suggesting they read it. Christian retailers are advocates for authors and content, Bibles, new concepts. Any Christian retailer is probably worth two of something else, just in terms of the marketing impact they have on product.

CM: What should Christian retailers be focusing on?

BW: I’ve never been a retailer; that’s a tough job and the retail world is different, so I don’t know that I’ve got advice for them. I think any would be advice that is sort of general for all of us, and that is figure out what you do well and do it well and stay focused on that. I have an old West Texas expression I use: Don’t chase too many skinny rabbits. You chase the fat rabbits.

If somebody wants to be a bookstore, and in the idea and the content and the life-change business, then be the best one you can be. You just have to be careful how diluted you get so that if your customer thinks that they can find as many Christian books at a mainstream bookstore as they can at the Christian bookstore, and maybe get a better selection in some cases, they may go to the mainstream bookstore.

There was a time when people only bought Christian books. Now I think the average person in the pew is more eclectic in their reading. So for a Christian retailer to really capture the imagination, they’re going to have to have a good enough selection and enough service to the customer when they come in that they wouldn’t even dream of going anywhere else to buy the Christian book.

CM: Many of the big name authors today were around 20, 30 years ago; does that suggest Christian publishing is a bit stagnant?

BW: I don’t think so. Although there are a handful of authors that have been around for decades, I think there’s a newer generation of authors that’s beginning to show up and dominate the list.

However, it’s much more difficult for new authors to find a market now because of the limited number of stores. Also—and this is a huge issue—the half-life of a book at retail: It used to be you would ship a book to retail and it would sit there for a year and it had time to sort of slowly build an audience. Today people are looking at returning books sometimes as little as 60 to 90 days after the book’s hit the store. Six months, nine months in the store is rare.

CM: Why did you get into Christian publishing?

BW: My undergraduate and graduate degrees were in ministry and church history. That’s where my heart has been from the beginning. I started out as a director of Christian education in a church and started writing adult small-group curriculum. All I’m doing is what I started out doing when I felt called in my teens and it just sort of evolved into what I’m doing now.

—Andy Butcher