If things had gone as the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) planned, this month your local Christian bookstore would have been changing its name and appearance and joining a nationwide coalition of Christian retailers known as “LifeDiscovery” stores. Modeled after the plan that united hundreds of independently owned hardware stores into the nationally advertised True Value chain, LifeDiscovery was to be the centerpiece of CBA’s campaign to expand the Christian bookselling market.

But after three years and $425,000 worth of research, development, and promotion costs, CBA announced just prior to its annual convention last July that LifeDiscovery had been put on indefinite hold. Even though the plan initially had been endorsed by many Christian publishers and Christian bookstore owners, CBA’s president, Bill Anderson, said it became obvious “the industry was not behind us.”

Twice in the past year the plan had been scaled back as commitments failed to materialize. Apparently few retailers were willing to sacrifice their hard-earned local identity to the new, nationwide LifeDiscovery label and to commit themselves to carrying the LifeDiscovery “product of the month.” Suppliers were reluctant to pay for their participation (costing from $10,000 to $50,000) if stores weren’t going to carry the featured products. In the end, only 110 of some 2,700 CBA-member stores and two suppliers had signed on. CBA refunded all the participants’ deposits in full. “LifeDiscovery isn’t a failed program,” Anderson said. “It’s a program that didn’t happen.”

The suspension of LifeDiscovery is only one of a number of recent setbacks for CBA, the Colorado Springs-based trade association for the $3 billion Christian retailing industry (see “CBA Besieged,” p. 62). But LifeDiscovery’s apparent death has also left many wondering about the future of the Christian bookselling market.

A “Mom-And-Pop” Shop

Christian bookstores have undergone radical change in the past 25 years, according to Anderson. “Twenty-five years ago the average age of an owner/manager was 54 years. Today it’s 37. Twenty-five years ago the average annual sales for a Christian bookstore was $33,400. Today the average is $233,000.”

Books remain the leading product, accounting for 25 percent of the average store’s sales dollars. But music—recorded and printed—now accounts for nearly 20 percent, followed by Bibles (16%), curriculum and church supplies (15%), jewelry and gifts (13%), and greeting cards (7%).

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Despite gains, however, Christian stores still suffer from isolation, slow growth, and a poor image. According to studies conducted by the Barna Research Group, only about 25 percent of evangelical 2 Christians shop in Christian bookstores. Many consumers do not perceive a Christian store as a place with products that are relevant to their lives. And studies commissioned by CBA’s National Image Committee revealed that consumers think of a visit to a Christian store as similar to a visit to mom’s house: neat, clean, and feminine, but a little old-fashioned and confused.

For bookstore owners, such an antiquated image carries a double liability: It hurts the bottom line, and it hinders them in what many see as a calling to distribute Christian books, music, videos, and related products.

Separate But Unequal Markets

To find new customers, many Christian publishers and retailers have for several years sought ways to reach beyond their provincial market, usually into the general marketplace of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton stores. But to date, the efforts—now including LifeDiscovery—have been largely unsuccessful.

Problems of poor communication—both inside and outside Christian book selling—have often hindered potential growth. Dan Johnson, who heads the Nashville-based IdeAgency and served as a consultant for LifeDiscovery, recalls last spring reading a full-page article about the Moody Press book The Agony of Deceit in Time magazine, the kind of exposure Christian publishers long for. “The same day I happened to walk into a Christian bookstore, and the people there had neither heard of the book nor knew of the article,” Johnson said.

One Christian publisher, Crossway, has had some success at reaching new customers. Frank Peretti’s two best-selling novels, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, are available in Waldenbooks and B. Dalton stores nationwide. Waldenbooks’ September Religion/Inspiration Bestsellers list places them as numbers 2 and 3.

Crossway, however, wanted respect in more secular best-seller charts. Last spring it ran an ad in Publishers Weekly arguing that Peretti’s two novels should have earned places on the magazine’s 1989 Paperback Bestsellers list. “Surprise,” the ad said, “some best-sellers got overlooked.” While the ad may not have won the company any arguments, it did help secure its largest single order from the Waldenbooks chain. And it raised an old issue for Christian publishers: that the general market best-seller lists, such as those in Publishers Weekly and the New York Times, ignore figures for books sold in religious stores and exile otherwise popular titles from the market (see CT, Feb. 17, 1984, p. 45).

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William Griffin, contributing editor to Publishers Weekly specializing in religious publishing, agrees that Christian titles get all too little attention in the general marketplace. “Christian publishing is a very large and important part of American publishing—much more important than you will discover from reading the pages of Publishers Weekly.” But he believes best-seller lists are not the problem, nor do they hold the solution. “All best-seller lists are defective.” He points out that books from general publishers seldom make it onto CBA’s Bookstore Journal best-seller list.

“The idea of an untapped market is a myth,” Griffin says. “Every book is available in the United States if you will ask a store to order it for you.”

Untapped or not, research has shown that “there are people who would love our products if only they knew they existed and knew where they could get them,” says CBA consultant Johnson. And while the CBA community has struggled to find a winning approach to reaching new customers, Waldenbooks appears to be tapping the religious market. According to publicist Susan Arnold, the chain expects religious book sales to grow 15 percent by the end of this year. And Waldenbooks is planning to add expanded Christian Living sections in selected stores where customers can shop from a wider range of religious and evangelical titles.

CBA’s Anderson, however, is undeterred in pushing the trade toward new markets. People in the Christian publishing industry are beginning to realize “that there are stores, and there are customers, and one of us has to move to reach the other,” he says. “We can’t just wait for the customers to come into our stores.”

By Steve Rabey

CBA Besieged: Setbacks Hurt Image

Though membership in the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) has remained fairly constant in recent years—about 3,000 stores internationally (up from 724 stores 25 years ago)—the organization’s image as industry leader has been tarnished by a series of setbacks. Most notable:

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• Various lawsuits were filed by Alexander Scourby Bible Recording, Inc. (ASBR), over rights to the late announcer’s 1950s narration of the King James Bible. In January 1988, ASBR sued CBA for $2 million on six counts, claiming that CBA had breached a contract by not publishing results of a 1985 arbitration as soon as the settlement required.

CBA was fined $45,000 for the delay, and another $75,000 for ASBR’s legal fees. CBA’s president, Bill Anderson, says deadlines made it difficult to publish the information in 30 days, and that CBA is considering an appeal of the decision.

• CBA created its Information Systems Division (ISD) in 1981 to provide computer hardware and software systems to member stores. At its peak, ISD served 225 stores managed by 24 CBA employees. But the ISD systems failed to meet the needs or budgets of many member stores. And when CBA refused to accept advertising for competing systems in its monthly Bookstore Journal, one board member resigned.

Earlier this year, CBA virtually eliminated its ISD, and in May sold its computer service.

• For 20 years, CBA has offered health insurance to member stores and their employees. But a switch in insurance companies led to complaints about unpaid claims. A routine Department of Labor audit of CBA’s insurance plan “went okay,” according to CBA’s Anderson. But the Denver Post recently reported the Colorado Department of Insurance is conducting an investigation. Anderson said he is confident that all will be worked out, and in time all claims will be paid.

• In 1988, CBA announced its support of Books by Wire, a book industry version of the “tele-floral” delivery that would have made it possible for customers to send a Christian book and a greeting anywhere in the U.S. by calling a toll-free number. One year later the Books by Wire company folded.

CBA’s Anderson says he sees “a success story in each one of these items,” but admits that CBA’s members may see an unpleasant pattern in these recent setbacks, including LifeDiscovery.

In spite of the problems, Anderson says that CBA needs to take risks. “One thing these events show is that we’ve tried to break out of the mold,” says Anderson. “Our industry is owning up to the reality that we’ve got to innovate and continue to try new things. I want our industry and our members not to shortchange ourselves.”

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