Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Heavenly rewards: Christian retailing celebrates 50 years of growth

c. 1999 Religion News Service UNDATED _ In the 1940s, Christian retailing was in”a sorry state,”says Ken Taylor, who played a crucial role in transforming the industry into the $3 billion powerhouse it is today.”Christian bookstores were quite small and dilapidated,”says Taylor, who produced the best-selling Living Bible and formed Tyndale House Publishers to distribute […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ In the 1940s, Christian retailing was in”a sorry state,”says Ken Taylor, who played a crucial role in transforming the industry into the $3 billion powerhouse it is today.”Christian bookstores were quite small and dilapidated,”says Taylor, who produced the best-selling Living Bible and formed Tyndale House Publishers to distribute it.

Taylor thought a trade association would help, and in 1949 he helped form the Christian Booksellers Association, whose 50th anniversary convention opens Saturday (July 10) in Orlando with record numbers of attendees (more than 14,000 from around the world) and displays (489 publishers and suppliers occupying six acres of booth space).”The industry has dramatically changed from privately held single stores operated by largely inexperienced mom-and-pop owners to a highly professional, highly visible chain-driven industry,”says Doug Ross, CEO of the 25-year-old Tempe, Ariz.-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.”Publishing companies that started on someone’s kitchen table are today multimillion-dollar entities.” Over the decades, CBA members have engaged in heated debates about opening on Sundays (many stores do), selling Christian rap and hard rock recordings (most stores let customers listen before buying), carrying books on controversial issues like speaking in tongues or Y2K (typically, differing biblically-based views are offered) and admitting Catholics (today, Catholic stores make up 5 percent of CBA’s 2,500 member stores).

But now, coping with the industry’s newfound success may represent the greatest challenge the industry faces.”We sometimes find ourselves rejoicing in the growth and income more than about the results in the lives of people who buy the books,”says Taylor, whose once-tiny Tyndale House is gearing up for the August release of”Assassins,”the fifth novel in the phenomenally popular”Left Behind”end-times series. Tyndale is giving the book a 1-million copy first printing and a $1 million marketing campaign.

Bill Anderson, the third CEO in the Colorado Springs-based CBA’s 50-year history, has been president of the organization since 1985, presiding over its boom years and overseeing its increasing professionalism.”We encourage our members to see issues of ministry and business as fully integrated,”he says.”Their business is a ministry, but that ministry happens in an environment called business. No amount of love for the Lord or knowledge of Scripture will exempt us from the demands of good business.” Today, big, shiny Christian chain stores provide an increasingly affluent and educated clientele with thousands of”Christ-honoring products,”including state-of-the-art musical recordings, high-quality children’s videos, attractive decorations and gifts, and slogan-plastered T-shirts and bumper stickers (“Real Men Love Jesus!”).

Books and Bibles are still the biggest sellers, boosted by a strong U.S. market for spirituality and a greater emphasis on attractive, relevant, reader-friendly books. There’s also a growing emphasis on best-selling celebrity authors like Max Lucado, Charles Swindoll, and James Dobson and aggressive marketing campaigns.

When Crossway published Frank Peretti’s debut 1986 novel,”This Present Darkness,”it did so with little fanfare and a small first printing. Peretti’s latest novel,”The Visitation,”was just released by Word, a division of publishing giant Thomas Nelson, with a first printing of 600,000-plus copies and a marketing budget of $500,000.”When I first started out, I was pretty lucky to get my book in the neighborhood mom-and-pop Christian bookstore,”says Peretti.”Now, Word and Thomas Nelson have the ability to make things happen in a wider marketplace, so my new book is in Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton and Wal-Mart.” Peretti calls the modern Christian publishing and retailing colossus”the machine.”He’s glad the machine exists, but does everything he can to keep from getting”caught in the gears.” Writers who lack big names or big followings face tough odds in the increasingly bottom-line-oriented Christian publishing world. One veteran editor says he was”heartbroken”that his house wouldn’t publish a first-time author’s moving and beautifully crafted book on spiritual growth because no one could guarantee sales of 10,000-20,000.”Everybody struggles with these tensions of ministry and money on a daily basis,”says ECPA’s Doug Ross,”but I don’t know of anybody in Christian publishing who is only in it for the money.” CBA’s Anderson, who challenges publishers to serve God and the marketplace, is encouraging association members to double their sales in the next five years.

For its part, CBA is orchestrating a national promotional campaign with the slogan:”What Goes Into the Mind Comes Out in a Life.”The campaign is supported by a Web site (http://www.christianstores.org) and a toll-free phone number (800/991-7747), which help consumers find the nearest CBA store.”Our greatest challenge is our greatest opportunity,”says Anderson.”It’s a lack of awareness.” DEA END RABEY