Christian publishers say they are remaining calm, despite recent date from Nielsen BookScan indicating that Christian fiction sales dropped 15% from 2013 to 2014. Although fiction sales in all categories dropped during this time period, the hit Christian fiction took was more dramatic.
“We know the numbers are true, but we’re not in a panic,” said Karen Watson, associate publisher for Tyndale. “Tyndale does fiction very well and it is a profitable part of Tyndale’s business.”
David Lewis, v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group, told PW the company’s two divisions that publish fiction—Revell and Bethany House—are continuing to publish at full capacity and are considering hiring additional staff. The imprints publish 85-90 titles a year, with about 55% of them under the Bethany House imprint. Lewis acknowledges that fiction revenue has been flat over the past 12 months.
“Our trade paper fiction revenue declined by 8%, our e-book revenue increased by 3%, and our cloth fiction has increased by 45%,” Lewis said. “We see that revenue share by format continues to adjust to the current market realities.” Lewis attributes the revenue stagnation to more titles put on sale and significant discounts at brick-and-mortar accounts, and to fewer big releases last year. The increase in cloth fiction sales--just 6% of total fiction sales--is due to more sales in the library market, he said.
HarperCollins Christian Publishing, with its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan fiction lines, publishes 55-60 new titles each year and “our program is showing revenue growth over last year,” said Daisy Hutton, v-p of fiction. “Print is here to stay, but the category is undergoing a period of reinvention. The migration to digital reading is part of this, but the changing demands of our readers are an even bigger factor.”
Part of reader demand focuses on price points, as consumers become accustomed to steeply discounted or free e-books, which, according to Shannon Marchese, WaterBrook Multnomah’s senior editor for fiction, “has transferred to print to some degree.” Marchese believes that “print sales will right-size themselves, and I’m hopeful that there may be some influential voices that emerge to say that ‘here are the top books to read and they are worth you spending $14.99 on a print book.’”
WaterBrook Multnomah publishes 12-16 fiction titles a year, with the house finding new opportunities thanks to the Penguin/Random House merger in 2013. “[The different divisions are] learning from each other about how to really service our retailers, and that is not always value pricing,” she said.
Said Hutton, “It is not about prioritizing print over e-book purchasing and reading, but rather about continuing to support the discovery that happens at retail stores. We see the health of brick-and-mortal retails as critical to the fiction ecosystem.”
Many see what Watson calls “a winnowing away” of Christian houses publishing fiction as part of the reason for the drop in sales. Moody Publishing’s River North imprint moved from 8-12 releases in 2013 to 3-5 in 2014. Abingdon Press “paused” in acquiring fiction in August 2014, pulling back from its 25-35 fiction titles per year; and B&H Publishing Group “realigned” its fiction strategy to only publish novels tied to brands such as B&H Films or other cross-platform initiatives.
Publishers with major fiction programs told PW they aren’t worried. “There are still a number of new opportunities out there, so this isn’t concerning,” said WaterBrook’s Marchese. “Books have value, fiction has value, and we’ll continue to put out quality voices for our readers.”
HCCP’s Hutton agrees. “We can spend our energy lamenting the decline of our category, or we can continue to believe that our authors have something to say and stories to tell, and then be all about providing them with the support they need to say it and have it be heard.”