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In 2013, Christian book retailer, Cokesbury Bookstores, closed all 38 retail stores. In 2017, Family Christian Resources shut down all 240 locations in the midst of mounting debt and bankruptcy. Then, this year, LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest Christian retail chain in America, announced that it would be closing all of its 170 stores this year.
While Christian book publishers have sold their products on Amazon for years, these closures still affect their business, says Mark Taylor, the president and CEO of Tyndale House Publishers.
“In some ways, Amazon has been a boon to publishers of all types because they are now our largest trading partner and have been for a number of years,” said Taylor. “The key issue that we talk about at Tyndale House is what we call ‘discoverability.’ How will a consumer find the new books or the old books that we are publishing?”
Taylor recounted a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, where, after browsing through the offerings, he found a book by a longtime Tyndale author Jerry B. Jenkins.
“I ‘discovered’ it by seeing it in Barnes and Noble,” said Taylor. “We’ve all had the experience that Amazon is a great place to shop for anything … and their customer service is outstanding. But how do you discover new books?”
Taylor joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the golden years of Christian publishing, how publishers have adjusted their selling strategies as brick-and-mortar stores have vanished, and just how significant the Amazon effect is.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Bloodline, the new book by Skip Heitzig, gives you an up-close view of the cross that reveals God’s ultimate mission to save you from sin’s destruction. Bloodline is available wherever books are sold.
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Music by Sweeps
Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee, Richard Clark, and Cray Allred
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Bloodline, the new book by Skip Heitzig, gives you an up-close view of the cross that reveals God’s ultimate mission to save you from sin’s destruction. Bloodline is available wherever books are sold.
Transcript March 27, 2019
Morgan Lee: It is Wednesday, March 27th. And this is Quick To Listen, where we set aside hashtags and hot takes to discuss a major cultural event. On today's show, we will be talking about the state of Christian books and Christian bookstores. Mark Taylor from Tyndale will be discussing that with us today.
Thanks for joining us this week. I'm Morgan Lee, digital media producer here at Christianity Today, and I'm here with our editor-in-chief my co-host, Mark Galli. Welcome back.
Mark Galli: We are joined by Mark Taylor, who has held various posts at Tyndale publishing house since 1984, certainly. He is Chairman and CEO currently. He's been involved in publishing most of his life, since his parents started the company when he was 11. He's served as chief stylist and director of The Bible Translation Committee for the New Living Translation. I'm excited about having him because he's just been a key player in book publishing for decades, and so he will have some I think some insights for us to consider as we talk about that topic today. Welcome, Mark.
Morgan Lee: I'm sure it might be kind of obvious to some what we're talking about, but in case everyone missed it, actually back in 2008, we here at Christianity Today ran a cover story entitled, "How to Save the Christian Bookstore." So, we discussed the various challenges the physical bookstore then faced, including the rise of online stores like Amazon—some may be familiar with that. As the article put it, "To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the Christian bookstore's demise may be exaggerated." Last week though, contrary to our earlier optimism, LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest Christian retail chain in America, announced that it would be closing all of its 170 stores this year. This news came two years after its competitor, Family Christian Resources, shut down all its 240 locations in the midst of mounting debt and bankruptcy. Another Christian retailer, Cokesbury book stores closed all 38 retail stores in 2013. At the same time, we were not particularly worried. We didn't see all this coming quickly. Perhaps this is why we aren't called Christian Prophecy Today. That is courtesy of Mark. In case you wanted to know who's trying to make a joke.
Mark Galli: It was an attempt at humor.
Morgan Lee: So, as Amazon and other online shopping outlets—but mostly Amazon—continue to upend the industry, the big question is how will this impact Christian book publishing, and what's next for this industry? What difference will it make for the Christian reader of books? All right Mark, this is definitely due for a good gut check because this is pretty big news as we saw with our own stats of all the people that wanted to read about this news last week when this came out.
Mark Galli: Yeah, it was our one of our highest traffic news stories in a long, long time.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, several years.
Mark Galli: Yeah, I'm kind of a hypocrite here because I was managing editor when we publish this article about optimism about the bookstore, and yet when the news came out, I wasn't that surprised. Because you've been hearing bookstore chain after bookstore chain folding. I was amazed that any continues. There's a little bookstore downtown Glen Ellyn that continues year after year. I don't know they're making money or if it's a boutique type place. But anytime I see a book store open, physical bookstore, I'm just amazed. So, it wasn't all that surprising that LifeWay just couldn't make it.
Morgan Lee: You know, I covered some of the Family Christian Resources news when this happened a couple of years ago, and I actually had never even heard of either of these chains. I'm assuming it's because I grew up in the Bay Area, where we had one small independent Christian bookstore in the city that I lived in, but neither of these chains was there. But after Family Christian Resources shut down, I thought that this would give LifeWay some sort of an opportunity to gain more of a foothold in the market, with you know one of their main competitors not there anymore. But I haven't been to a Christian bookstore in ages, so I wasn't exactly sure how they were still drawing people in. Of course, every single brick and mortar store really suffers from the problem of often serving as the product showroom for Amazon.
Earlier, we were talking about triathlons and biking, and when I did a triathlon last year, actually one of the places that we did a lot of kind of had like the training out of, they shut down and they had like bikes for sale and other products for sale. And I think is because of the same reason, where people want to go in there, they want to have the personalized staff recommendations, they want to have some sort of human walking them through it on the other end, but they don't want to pay for the actual type of experience that they're getting when they are very well aware they can buy all those products without having to pay more of that online. So, it feels really sad to say that it feels like an inevitable demise of something, but I also feel like I'm with you like it's not completely shocking in that way.
Alright, so Mark Taylor, we are interested in getting your opinion on this LifeWay news, but maybe we can back up a little bit to get some context about what's going on. When we're talking about like the Christian publishing world or the Christian book industry, what kind of came first: these Christian bookstores or the Christian or Christian publishing?
Mark Taylor: I don't know when Christian bookstores first became an independent kind of retailer. Some of the Christian Publishers go back to the 19th century, for instance, Fleming Revell, which is now part of Baker. My recollection goes back to the late 1950s and there were thousands of independent Christian bookstores, there were a few small chains. There was a Berean Bookstore chain.
Mark Galli: I remember that.
Mark Taylor: But I don't know if LifeWay existed as a chain in those days. Family Christian was actually owned by Zondervan Publishing Company back in those days, so it was called the Zondervan chain of stores. But for the most part the Christian bookstores were independent stores back into the 1950s, and they really came on strong in the 60s 70s and 80s.
Mark Galli: I'm glad we have Mark on today because it did raise questions about how are we going to, in a sense, help Christian readers know that there are some really good books out there? Because that was one service that Christian bookstores did. They picked out what they thought were the best books for people to read, and that they could sell, and they had some knowledge of the books, and the authors, and the publisher. Representatives from the publishers would come and visit the bookstore, and they come to visit the book buyer and they come with their catalog, and they would basically pitch the books to you as the book buyer, why you should get this book, why would fit your particular bookstores’ readership. Then we would buy so many copied, buy five copies, buy 10 copies, with the idea that we could return them if they didn't sell.
So it was a very personal, a lot of one-on-one sales, promotion, so by the time that book got on the bookshelf there had already been a number of human beings who had been involved in deciding that for this community, these books, were the things that we think are the most important for you. And now that that process is gone—there is still another process in place, which I want to hear about more—but that gives you an idea what it was like in the 70s, 80s, 90s.
Mark Taylor: Yes, at one time Tyndale House had 10 or 12 sales reps who had territories, and they would do exactly what you're describing. They would go into a bookstore, pitch our new products to the buyer at the store, and walk out with an order of products that that store buyer, often the owner, said "yes, I can sell these products in my community." Now, we're down to three of those sales reps because there just aren't very many bookstores left out there.
Morgan Lee: Well, it also seems like the people that you would be having those conversations with changed, in the sense. From what I understand, LifeWay and Family Christian also kind of took over some of these independent bookstores as well. And so, then you would be working with whoever the execs are there to be picking all that type of stuff, rather than working with the mom and pop stores. I'm wondering at what point you began to see LifeWay and Family Christian acquire some of the family-owned stores.
Mark Taylor: I suppose it goes back 15 to 20 years. Family Christian said at one point that they wanted to have, I think 500 stores, you know, just huge, huge number. They got out to 240 or 250, but they were not operating profitably. They were a for-profit company, then they converted to being a not-for-profit company. So, the implication there was they didn't have to pay income tax. But if you don't have income, you don't have to pay income tax anyway. Finally, they actually went through bankruptcy one time and all of the suppliers, like Tyndale House, wrote off millions of dollars of accounts receivable, but they came through that bankruptcy and said we want to get started again, but without all this debt. So, Tyndale House said, well, we will continue to sell to you even though we just wrote off something like 1.7 million dollars, because those 240 bookstores are a very important part of our distribution network.
So, it was very frustrating two or three years ago, when Family Christian went through bankruptcy again, but this time they literally went out of business. And Mark you were talking earlier about how much any of us knew about how long LifeWay might survive. Before we came in the sound studio. I told you that I had been telling people, I think LifeWay won't survive for another five years. Well suddenly, the news came out last week: no, they're shutting down this year, and it was, and it wasn't a surprise to us at Tyndale House. LifeWay went through a dramatic shift in their merchandising strategy about a year ago. They returned oodles of inventory to us and everybody else, and they frankly didn't have a whole lot of inventory in the stores. And I think customers would walk in and say, where are the books? So, as far back as a year ago, we were very frustrated. We felt that LifeWay was on the wrong track, and it turns out they were.
Morgan Lee: So, when Amazon came into the picture, I'm really curious about how that affected you, being the head of a publishing house, I'm curious about that. I'm also, maybe even want to walk it back a little bit further, because what is the unique value add that a Christian bookstore gave to you guys given that I'm sure your some of your books obviously sold at Barnes and Noble, Borders—does anyone remember Borders—or some of these other airport book store chains, for instance. So, it wasn't necessarily like you guys weren't going to have a place to sell your books, and in some ways, Amazon may have even been a boon to you guys when they came on the scene.
Mark Taylor: Yes, in some respects Amazon has been a boon for all publishers of all types, because they are now our largest trading partner and have been for a number of years. And the key issue, Morgan, that we talk about it Tyndale House is what we call discoverability. How will a consumer discover the new books that—or the old books—that we're publishing. If you walk into a bookstore—just last week, I was at the Barnes Noble here in this area, and it just does good things to my soul to walk into a bookstore. Here are thousands of titles, and I can just browse forever, and I walk out with a book. In this case, it was a novel by Jerry Jenkins that I hadn't seen before. So, I saw it at Barnes and Noble, and I bought it.
Mark Galli: And he hadn't published it through Tyndale. That son of a gun.
Mark Taylor: So, I discovered it by seeing it in Barnes and Noble. We've all had the experience that Amazon is a great place to shop for anything from books to toilet paper to avocados. And their customer service is just outstanding, but how do you discover new books if you go to Amazon because you're looking for something specific? You know, there are four or five books at the bottom of the screen that say, "people who bought this, liked these," and I look at those and say, yeah those look interesting too. But what about the other thousands of books? And of course, Amazon carries, I think, literally every book that's in print in the United States.
Morgan Lee: So, it's really about the browsing capacity of a tool like Amazon or a company like Amazon?
Mark Galli: Or their ability to help you compare books. I often buy books in translation. I want to read Dante's Divine Comedy or all want to read something by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, and so naturally want to know who the translator is and how do those translators compare? Well, I usually have to go off-site from Amazon and do a lot of research to find that out because their information about that level of interest is just not available. Which if I was in a bookstore, I'd just open the jacket, I'd read a little bit about their philosophy of translation and why they translated the way they did. And I'd able to make a decision immediately.
Mark Taylor: So, everybody in the publishing industry is very sad that LifeWay is shutting down their stores, but when you step back a little bit you realize they had a hundred and seventy stores, that means there were a hundred and seventy locations where people within maybe a five-mile radius would go to that store. That's really, if you put that on a map, that's a lot of small circles across the United States.
Mark Galli: Even if they're in highly dense cities.
Mark Taylor: Yes. So, you know, most people no longer live within easy driving distance of any kind of bookstore. And even if they do, it's real easy at two in the morning to just go online and go to Amazon or to CBD—let's put in a plug for Christian book distributors, because they are specifically a Christian distributor of products. So, they are a very important trading partner for us at Tyndale House.
Mark Galli: Especially if you read on a Kindle, and you're impatient like I am, and want it immediately.
Mark Taylor: I remember one-time Mark; I was standing in a boarding line on a plane. I was heading overseas, and I wanted a new book to read while I was on this transatlantic flight. And I downloaded a book just while I was standing in line.
Mark Galli: Yeah, it's amazing.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, and just kind of the expectation that you can do that, right?
Mark Taylor: Yeah, exactly.
Morgan Lee: So you've talked a little bit about how maybe you've had to adjust some of your book selling strategies as brick-and-mortar have gone away, but also as some of this consolidation was occurring at the same time, but I'm wondering how you guys have leaned into solving that problem of discoverability, and what that kind of looks like in the strategies that you employ for people to find your work.
Mark Taylor: Two things come to mind Morgan. One is we've invested a lot of money in our own website at Tyndale House, so that people can come and browse for Tyndale books on our website. And many of them buy directly through our website, or we know that many of them end up going to Amazon and that's fine with us. But they came to our website to discover those books or Bibles that we publish. The other thing is that social media is becoming more and more important. You know, here we are doing a podcast, which fits into that broad category of social media, and we find that when authors have a large social media platform that becomes a very very important way to communicate to potential consumers, here's a new book that I'm excited about.
Morgan Lee: So, does that maybe change the types of people that get book deals?
Mark Taylor: Realistically, it does. Mark and I were just chatting him a few minutes ago about the fact that he's working on a book and is hoping that Tyndale house will publish it. And more and more, we're looking for authors that have a huge social media presence because—how are you doing at social media?
Morgan Lee: His newsletter is the most popular one here.
Mark Taylor: But we feel like we need that connection with that author's interested audience in order to get the word out. That's part of the new reality of book publishing today.
Morgan Lee: How would you have described the type of calculus that you would have looked at before this time?
Mark Taylor: When there were still book store chains—and fortunately there is still Barnes and Noble, but they don't carry many Christian books—when we had the Family Christian chain, and up until now, the LifeWay chain, between those two accounts that was more than 400 book stores across the country. And there are still, I don't know how many, a thousand or 1500 independent Christian bookstores. So, those were important places for people to go, browse, find books. But, you know, now we don't have the Family Christian, and soon we won't have any LifeWay's, and there just aren't that many independent stores.
Mark Galli: Well, I think there's also been a change in publishing, all across the board, with the pressure of the financial pressures on publishers. My understanding, and you can correct me on this, is that one of the jobs of a book editor back in the day was to be looking to discover new authors, whether they had an audience or not. And to be willing to try out someone and publish a book or two of his or hers and see if they gained some traction. I don't know that publishers have that luxury anymore to do that. But I do hear stories about that in the New York publishing world, I don't know if that was true in the Christian publishing world.
Mark Taylor: Yes, publishing new authors has always been an important part of publishing, but it's tougher and tougher to do that today.
Morgan Lee: You know Christian book stores do sell Christian books. They also kind of are almost like a Christian third place, if you will, where you can have author/artist meet and greets, or signings, or kind of promote whatever type of Christian literary subculture this particular book store might be trying to foster. So, when there is this disappearance of Christian bookstores, you know, your kind of losing out on some of that ability to express that stuff. But what other casualties do you see there being when Christian bookstores go out of business?
Mark Taylor: There's been a resurgence over the past 10 years of larger churches trying to create book stores within their church campus, and I don't see a lot of success there. I don't know how many churches have bookstores in some ways. You would think this is the obvious thing to do. There are people going to church on Sunday morning or Saturday night, and let's have books there because that's where the Christians are.
Mark Galli: Especially megachurches. Lots of Christians are there.
Mark Taylor: Yeah, but we're not seeing a whole lot of success in the area of bookstores within churches. So, Morgan back to your question, the biggest challenge once again is for publishers, but also for the consumer, how does the book get from the publisher to the consumer? And for the most part that's through online sources now.
Mark Galli: It strikes me that that personal interaction between the author and the public, I don't know how huge of a portion that was in terms of books sales, but it psychologically I think it struck me as an area that was very important for the publishing industry in general.
Mark Taylor: Yeah, we call those books signings. And for the most part those are not terribly successful unless you have a really well-known author. So just last year, or two years ago, we published a book by Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, and we did maybe eight book signings in the Philadelphia area and they were just wildly popular because people wanted a chance to shake Nick Foles' hand and buy a book and have him sign. But if it's Joe Blow who has a new book that nobody's heard of and a bookstore says, hey, we're having a book signing by Joe Blow, nobody comes because they don't know who he is.
Mark Galli: Yeah, I do recall an anecdote of that Chuck Swindoll told once. Even someone with as big a name of that, he went to a book signing at some bookstore and he said just three people showed up. It's just yeah, it's just a hard thing to do nowadays.
Morgan Lee: I'm wondering if maybe we can talk about Christian publishing for a second. I don't know exactly when Tyndale was founded, but it would be interesting to know the circumstances of what led to its founding. And then maybe if you can talk through if there was a golden era of Christian publishing or heyday of it, what that was like.
Mark Taylor: Tyndale house was started in 1962. Started in my parents’ home in Wheaton. And my first job after school when I was 11 years old was packing books in the garage. We started with just one book, Living Letters. That was a project my dad had been working on for a number of years. It was a paraphrase of the New Testament Epistles, because back in those times, in 1950s, early 60s, most people were still reading the King James Version. And that's pretty tough sledding for most people.
Morgan Lee: So, your dad was looking for a way to kind of get his project to a larger audience?
Mark Taylor: He actually submitted his manuscript to a handful of other publishers, and nobody accepted it. The irony is that he himself was the publisher at Moody Publishing. Because he would normally have been the person to accept a new book, he submitted this book idea to his boss who said, "Ken, I wish you wouldn't ask me to do that." Because he was afraid that publishing this newfangled kind of translation would turn off donors to Moody Bible Institute. So, my dad said, all right, well I know how to publish, we'll just start in our home. And he named the little tiny company Tyndale House Publishers, named after William Tyndale, who had translated the Bible into English back in the 16th century.
Mark Galli: And this eventually—other living portions of the scripture became translated, or paraphrased, and that became the Living Bible, which was a huge breakthrough in Christian publishing back in the 60s.
Mark Taylor: Yes, the Living Bible came out in one volume in 1971 and was the best-selling book in America for several years running according to Publishers Weekly.
Morgan Lee: Did we ever get a word back from Moody?
Mark Taylor: Whenever I chat with the folks at Moody Publishing, they just sort of roll their eyes and say, what were those people thinking back then?
Mark Galli: I do remember, as a boy. I remember the Living Letters being waved by Billy Graham or one of his associates on the televised Crusade, that if you sent in, I can't remember what we were asked to sit I think if you just requested it, you'd get it.
Mark Taylor: That's right.
Morgan Lee: Do you know how that deal was struck? That's a pretty good deal to get.
Mark Taylor: Well, it is an interesting story. Billy Graham's business manager, George Wilson, contacted my dad and said, "Mr. Graham is very enthusiastic about Living Letters, and we the Billy Graham Association would like to do a special paperback edition of Living Letters." And my dad was very enthusiastic about that. The Graham Association asked if they could print 50,000 copies. Well that was you know, just an incredible number to my dad, and George Wilson said and, "Besides that we want to pay you a royalty of five cents for every one of these copies that we give away." So, my dad very happily gives them permission to print 50,000 copies. Several months later, George Wilson called my dad and said, "Ken, we've got a problem. You know you offered it you gave us permission to print 50,000 of these paperback Living Letters. And we forgot to come back for more permission. We've actually published 600,000 copies. We hope that's okay."
Mark Galli: We were one of those families that got one of those copies.
Morgan Lee: Wow, so. After you guys publish the Living Bible then what came next? How did you guys move into fiction and nonfiction?
Mark Taylor: Fairly early we decided to publish other books besides the Bible, and the very first book that we published was by Tim LaHaye. A book called Spirit-Controlled Temperament. We actually have that book still in print at Tyndale, 50 years later. Another early author that we published was. Dr. James Dobson. We published his very first book called Dare to Discipline, a few years after that The Strong-willed Child, and we ended up publishing many many books by Dr. Dobson.
So, you were asking about fiction. We made a purposeful decision to get into Christian fiction probably 25 years ago. And the reason for that is that fiction speaks directly to the heart of the reader. You bypass the head; you go right to the heart. And fiction becomes a great way to communicate Christian truth in the form of a story. So, we're very enthusiastic publishers of fiction from a Christian worldview perspective.
Mark Galli: So, you got to talk about how Left Behind came together.
Mark Taylor: You know, that's an interesting story too, Mark. My colleague, Ron Beers didn't have any knowledge that Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye were working on this novel that they wanted to call Left Behind. A proposal actually showed up from the agent, Rick Christian, just showed up in Ron's box, his inbox. And Ron read it and said, this is very interesting. And he brought it to what we call our publication committee with the first chapter of what became Left Behind. And not everybody on our publishing committee was convinced that we ought to publish this book about the end times called Left Behind. But I was so intrigued by that first chapter—the rest of the book had not been written yet—but I said to our group, if the rest of the book is as good as this and if we really do it right, I think I said we could sell 200,000 copies. Well, Left Behind went on to sell something like seven or eight million copies, and then one book led to three books, led to six books, led to 12 books, there ended up being 14 books.
Morgan Lee: There are 14?! Somehow, I thought there were 7. Wow.
Mark Taylor: You've got to go back Morgan and do some catch up reading.
Morgan Lee: I know I read Left Behind teens. I remember that.
Mark Taylor: Yeah, and the Left Behind for kids, or Left Behind: The Kids as the series was called, that series sold, I think several million copies.
Mark Galli: So, Morgan was talking about the heyday of Christian book publishing. Would that be it, or?
Mark Taylor: Probably so. I'll just round numbers. I'll say the years 1995 to 2000. There were still thousands of Christian bookstores. There were on the general market side, there was the Borders chain, the Barnes and Noble chain, and then book stores began to disappear. I don't remember when Amazon first started.
Mark Galli: I think 1997.
Mark Taylor: Okay. And they started literally as an online bookstore. That was their thing, selling books. They said we're going to be the largest bookstore in the world. And probably within a week they already were the largest bookstore in the world. And now they're the largest everything store in the world.
Morgan Lee: When did you start to feel their impact?
Mark Taylor: We began selling to and through Amazon from the very beginning. One of our sales reps would meet with Jeff Bezos in his garage. Then, Amazon literally was a garage kind of operation. So, we began selling books to and through Amazon almost from the very beginning. But it was really probably ten years ago that we realized, oh they are really a force to be contended with, and we were seeing the intense competition between Amazon as an online seller and brick and mortar retailers. And of course, it's not just in books. Just a month or so ago, I think it's the Payless chain of shoe stores said they were going out of business. Why? Because people are buying shoes online. You know, you can order three or four pairs of shoes, they get delivered to your home two days later, you try them on, you return two of them, and you never have to go to a shoe store anymore.
Morgan Lee: So, during the 2000s, what was that like for you guys then? Was all that competition that was going on a good thing for Christian publishing? Or what type of unique challenges that present?
Mark Taylor: Well all the challenges that we've already been discussing. How do you get the books in front of the consumer? So, it's kind of funny to talk about social media being an important part of how we communicate with people today, but that is so ubiquitous in all of our lives. You know, everybody has a smartphone and if you want to find out anything, you just ask Google and Google knows the answer to every question in the world.
Mark Galli: Yeah, almost as smart as God.
Mark Taylor: My kids gave me a coffee mug at Christmas that says, "I don't need Google my dad knows everything."
Mark Galli: There you go.
Morgan Lee: So, when the story came out, we had some interesting things that I kind of wanted to go back to and touch on them. And one of the things that we talked about was just about bookstores kind of serving as gatekeepers, whether it comes to content—we mentioned in here like sexual content, profanity, or even theology—that people may not feel comfortable with. Was that a dynamic that also kind of impacted how you guys did your work at, all knowing that there were Christian bookstores who were monitoring, or keeping track of that? Or maybe not going to sell everything that was necessarily a Christian book?
Mark Taylor: It was certainly a factor for us, particularly with LifeWay because they were more conservative than Family Christian and more conservative than most independent Christian bookstores. So, there were some books that we knew LifeWay simply won't take this, but it still fits within our publishing philosophy.
Mark Galli: So, who are the main online retailers of exclusively Christian books or have a large Christian section? It would still be LifeWay and it would be CBD?
Mark Taylor: Yeah, CBD will now with—LifeWay have said they're going to continue on with lifeway.com, and how big that will turn out to be is anybody's guess. And I don't know if they will carry any books other than the ones that they themselves publish through their sister organization Broadman and Holman.
Mark Galli: That's CBD or you mean that's LifeWay?
Mark Taylor: That's LifeWay. And I think there's so much turmoil going on now at LifeWay, I don't think they know what they are going to look like a year from now. They have just a huge amount of work to do to close down 170 stores.
Mark Galli: So, does CBD have that function of only picking books it thinks its listeners, its readers, want to read? Or?
Mark Taylor: Yes, they don't carry everything that we publish, or everything that anybody publishes, the way Amazon does. Literally, every Tyndale book is available on Amazon, but not every Tyndale book is available on CBD.com.
Mark Galli: What type of book would they not be likely to sell at CBD? As an example, to give us an idea.
Mark Taylor: I think they carry all genres, but when we present books to CBD, they are asking themselves, will our audience be interested enough in this particular title? And of course, Amazon has distribution centers now all across the country. CBD is in Peabody, Massachusetts, which is a long way from most of the rest of the country.
Mark Galli: Yeah, so it takes longer to get the book. Do they sell electronic versions at CBD?
Mark Taylor: I should know the answer to that, but I don't know.
Mark Galli: Yeah, I should know the answer, too. There you go, our two experts.
Mark Taylor: Ask Google. They probably know.
Morgan Lee: I wanted to kind of read a couple of parts from this 2008 article, which is 11 years old right now. We mention a Christian bookstore owner who recently closed his book store, and it says that "he got a wake-up call when he purchased a Kindle, Amazon's $399 electronic reading device introduced last fall," which is amazing that has an explanation, and also those four hundred dollars when it first came out, too. And it also mentions here that the Kindle can store 200 e-books at any time. "Readers may choose from a hundred thousand books including more than 1500 Christian titles." I'm pretty sure you can get a lot more Christian title today.
Mark Taylor: Yes. I don't know how many total titles are available now through Kindle, but it would be in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps. But it's interesting Morgan, you're quoting from the CT article from 11 years ago. That was at the very beginning stage of e-books and for seven, eight, nine years, our e-book sales were doubling every year it started off. You know, just tiny, but every year it was doubling. But about four or five years ago, it plateaued, and we have not seen any growth in e-book sales in recent years. I think in part because—it's interesting, you mentioned that original Kindle that cost $400—now you get a Kindle I forget what they call it, but it's essentially like an iPad.
Morgan Lee: A Fire.
Mark Taylor: Yeah, so you have all Internet capacity right there. So, there's so much competition right on your handheld device for how am I going to spend my time? So, e-book sales are a significant part of what we do, but not growing any longer.
Mark Galli: I understand It's kind of leveled off somewhere in the 30%. People who read books, 30% of them prefer Kindle or electronically?
Mark Taylor: For us, it's not even that high, Mark.
Mark Galli: Yeah, that another mistake I made in my early years here. As soon as the Kindle came out, I thought this is the wave of the future, so I kind of kick-started a little book division for CT that went absolutely nowhere.
Morgan Lee: So, this article continues, and says that this particular former Christian bookstore owner says, "He downloaded NIV Bible to his Kindle in less time than it took for him to walk his entire Bible Department in his bookstore. And at ten dollars, he said it cost less than what he pays at wholesale." So, what I want to talk about here was just a little side tangent about YouVersion and Bible Gateway, which are two ways that I access scripture a lot, and how you've seen that particularly change the segment of your market that deals with selling Bibles?
Mark Taylor: In the final analysis, most people still want a physical Bible, even if they use YouVersion, as I do on a Sunday morning. If I don't carry a physical Bible with me, when the pastor is reading from the Gospel of John, I'll just pull out my phone. He thinks I'm doing email, but I'm really opening YouVersion.
Morgan Lee: Who knows, sometimes they're doing both!
Mark Galli: Yeah, I have members of my family who will not even let me take out my phone if I'm reading the Bible in church.
Morgan Lee: Yes Mark, they know you.
Mark Galli: It's verboten!
Mark Taylor: So, you know you're talking about, whether you have to pay to download any particular translation—
Morgan Lee: How do you guys make money off of this? Just because, I mean, it seems like every single translation—I don't know all the translations, so I don't want to over-generalize, but when I'm going on YouVersion and on Bible Gateway, I feel like I have so much access to Bible translations right away, right? And it can just flip between translation seamlessly. Are you guys getting royalties for that? What is the agreement?
Mark Taylor: No, we make the New Living Translation available free of charge on YouVersion. And you're right, one of the things that's very nice about YouVersion is the ability to flip back and forth between translations seamlessly, so that you can see how different translations have handled particular passages. We see it as simply part of the process of letting people try out our translation. In the final analysis, we hope they will buy a physical copy. But if you're not if you're publishing an English Bible, and you're not on YouVersion then you don't exist.
Morgan Lee: You're losing out discoverability
Mark Taylor: Exactly.
Mark Galli: How about Logos, or is it a called Faithlife now?
Mark Taylor: Those are fairly expensive suites of electronic products. We have the New Living Translation available in all of those. And there we do get a small royalty because you—I don't know how much you have to pay, ten dollars or something to access the NLT, which is our Bible translation. But of course, those Bible suites have thousands of resources available.
Mark Galli: And very expensive to get into, and if I didn't get review copies, I wouldn't be in them myself. But I find them extremely helpful, and I use the NLT all the time on that program.
Morgan Lee: I want to talk a little bit about the future. I'm just going to read again from article because it has this gem from a publisher—
Mark Galli: I'm sorry, who was the managing editor, then?
Morgan Lee: This is just great! It's fun to compare and contrast. Listen, Mark, you were doing—this is not slamming you. This is just talking about, it's really hard to like predict what's going to happen in the future.
But this is from a different, someone at a different Christian publishing house, I'm not going to identify them, you can read the story if you want to. But it says, "stores of the future may allow consumers to browse a library of books online, and burn a disc at the store, with the store collecting a fee." Alright, well that’s not happened as far as I'm concerned.
Mark Taylor: That was the publisher from Zondervan, I'm sure—
Morgan Lee: Alright, yes it was!
Mark Taylor: —because for a brief time, they were talking about doing exactly that, burning discs in stores. And of course, the whole physical disk category has now kind of disappeared.
Morgan Lee: So, I would love to hear everyone's predictions. They can obviously be mightily wrong. But do you have predictions about how people will be accessing Christian books in the next 10 or 20 years? I would love to hear them.
Mark Taylor: My sense is that there will still be physical books and electronic books, audiobooks are becoming a very big deal as well. So, the challenge continuing moving forward is how do we as a publisher get the products into the hands of people who want a physical book. Or even if they want to download an e-book, how do they find out about it? Or if they want to download from audible.com, how do they find out about it? So, once again discoverability. But I'm confident that there will still be physical books, there just won't be any bookstores left.
Morgan Lee: Mark do you have...
Mark Galli: Well, all I can do is talk about a purchaser like myself. And that is I do buy everything either through Amazon or audible.com, or I listened to audible versions from my local library. And the way I find out about them is I do a lot of reading. Read other magazines, read reviews in CT. I still follow John Wilson, even though his publication Books and Culture is no longer part of CT, whenever John Wilson writes something about books he's reading, I make sure to note. So there are certain people—and a lot of that happens on social media, someone who you're following on social media recommends a book. That's the way they're discovered nowadays. So, it puts tremendous pressure on our book review editor Matt Reynolds, who we're one of the few Christian publications left that actually exists and has a book review section. You can imagine the number of books that come across his desk every day. And he only gets to pick maybe five per issue, per monthly issue. Now, fortunately he's doing more, he's doing like one a week now also online, but still that's such a small number. And he's the first to admit, I don't cover a lot of really good books; I just don't have any space.
Morgan Lee: My prediction is just that we'll be increasingly seeing other ways that people will be engaging with Christian content that don't necessarily have to do with reading. So, we have an article in our April issue about the Bible Project, which some of you may be familiar with, but I know is really popular with people at my church. And it's kind of an easily shareable way on YouTube, and immersive, and engaging, educational, and teaches you a lot about what the Bible has. But, it's definitely, clearly in a 21st-century medium. And so, I do think people will continue to read books, but I also think that they'll be looking for alternative ways to engage with Christian content in formats and mediums that maybe didn't exist right now.
Mark Galli: It's already happening, obviously.
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