Christian retail stores attract avid readers by providing informed, personal service they can’t find online.

When I was in middle school, one of my very favorite pastimes was heading to my local Christian bookstore to peruse the fiction selection. I saved my pennies and frequent shopper coupons and filled my basket with couldn’t-wait-to-read titles. With the downfall of Family Christian Stores and the scaling back of Christian fiction sections in brick-and-mortar stores, that shopping experience today has turned more online.

When it comes to fiction sales, Steve Oates, VP of marketing for Bethany House Publishing, acknowledges a very slight decline, but says, “Overall we’re selling about the same volume of fiction over the past several years. What’s changing much more rapidly [however] is where people are buying their books, and if they’re buying them new.”

A look at BookScan’s data from 2016 confirms this insight. More than 60 percent of all traditionally published fiction for adults (including e-books and audiobooks) is purchased online.

Changing Times, Changing Strategies

With this shift, publishers face new challenges. As Amanda Bostic, fiction publisher for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, puts it, “During the heyday of Christian fiction, our reader was shopping in an enclosed environment, and the context of their decision-making about what they wanted to read next as well as our competition for their attention was limited to other books. Now, our readers make decisions about what to purchase and read within a much broader context. The bar is now much higher for capturing and keeping a reader’s attention.”

Karen Watson, fiction publisher for Tyndale House, addresses the financial challenges more specifically. “The financial model … both what we pay and what we can realistically expect to earn on our investment has significantly changed. Beyond that, without a huge breakout earnings leader in a publisher’s list, there are fewer profits to re-invest in up-and-coming authors. Our challenge isn’t finding great writing and authors. Our challenge is in how many authors we can reasonably invest in based on the cost of development of a title vs. the expected lifetime return.”

“From a publisher’s standpoint, it’s important to evaluate constantly to provide the material and the authors that have popular appeal,” says N. David Hill, executive director of sales and marketing for Kregel Publications, “and to assist retailers by promoting the titles that are showing the most interest to the broadest reader audience.”

As Bostic explains, “You never know what story is going to resonate with a reader, so we provide content that represents a wide variety of inspirational perspectives. Christian fiction readers are not one-note, and they’re looking for stories that speak to what they need at a particular point in their life.”

Having a selection of books geared toward reader interest is key, but so is cultivating reader engagement. Despite the increase in online fiction sales, most avid readers still have a great love for physical bookstores; however, it is difficult to find them and, specifically, to find stores that carry up-and-coming authors.

Bringing Readers Back to Stores

With a large number of fiction sales coming from online purchases, how can publishers and Christian stores work together to encourage an increase in brick-and-mortar sales of Christian fiction?

Oates has some insight. “The place to focus is on the sales that can be won back. How can we let our best customers know about when new titles are available, and provide the kind of information to help them make quick, informed decisions about what to buy, and what they might like if they like a similar book? Do we know our customers by name? Do we know what they want? Informed, personal service is what can provide retail service that they cannot get online.”

Shannon Marchese, senior editor at PenguinRandomHouse’s WaterBrook and Multnomah, remembers when the superstores first started out, “they employed book lovers.” By employing people who really cared about their sections, these stores were able to provide informed, personal service.

“The best indie stores become part of the community,” she adds. “To become a community hub, I think retailers need to consider events again. They may need to diversify their stock. Carry classics and school reads alongside other books. Have space for a kid’s birthday party. Or a book club to meet.”

And while Marchese thinks book-signings alone probably won’t garner a ton of new interest, she offers another out-of-the-box possibility: “A panel of women writers talking about historical investigation…”

To have an event like that offered at a local bookstore could potentially appeal to a broad community of readers. Marchese also encourages retailers, “Don’t be afraid of pop culture. Is everyone is watching The Crown? Do a giant English fiction display.”

Baker Book House Fiction Buyer Chris Jager recognizes the importance of community outreach and prioritizes matching books to readers.

She points to Baker Book House as a successful example of these principles. Among other community engagement activities, the store is spearheading a fiction readers summit this month.

Baker Book House Fiction Buyer Chris Jager not only recognizes the importance of community outreach but also prioritizes matching books to readers. “I consider who my readers are, what’s selling in my store, and what I’m asked about,” she says. “I carry authors and genres that are not my favorite but I make a point of having them on the shelves and a working knowledge of them.”

From the retailers’ perspective, both Jager and Lorraine Valk of Banner Books Parable Christian Store of St. Joseph, Michigan, agree on the importance of pre-sale cooperation between stores and publishers, particularly as it relates to advertising. Suggests Valk to publishers, “In all their ads promote purchasing at the local Christian bookstore before they mention the obvious online giants.”

Bostic sums up this constantly changing dynamic with hope. “It has been a challenging few years in our category, but I think the current environment has made us all better at what we do. And that is ultimately a very good thing for the future of our industry.”

—Carrie Schmidt