In the wake of LifeWay Christian Resources’ March announcement that it will close its 170 bricks-and-mortar stores by the end of the year, Christian publishers are scrambling to figure out what to do about the loss—the latest domino to fall in a two-decade decline of Christian retail—and Christian stores are also bracing for a significant impact in 2019.
LifeWay’s move is not good news for publishers, said David Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing for Baker Publishing Group—not only because of its effect on sales but because it will hurt the exposure that books receive. “It will surely have a negative impact on the sales of our books,” he said. “The question is how best to deal with it.”
LifeWay’s decision to close its stores does not reflect diminished sales of Christian books, Lewis explained; instead, “seismic shifts in retailing overall are to blame.”
IVP publisher Jeff Crosby agreed: “We have had three consecutive years of significant growth, and as I interact with my publisher peers, I am also hearing stories of year-over-year growth of 3%–5%, so I don’t believe we are seeing a decline of Christian book sales in the aggregate. We are seeing radical shifts in where the books are sourced.”
Crosby added that though Amazon and other online retailers are the sales juggernauts, IVP is seeing “an uptick in work with general market national chains who remain, but also with the growing number of ABA independents, where a breadth of religion titles are being welcomed and promoted.”
Fewer competing stores might seem like good news for independent Christian retailers, but 2019 promises to be a tough year. Bob Munce, president of Munce Marketing Group and the newly formed Christian Retail Association, said that “stores that are near a LifeWay are bracing for the prolonged effect of a going-out-of-business sale through the 2019 holiday season,” adding, “Christian bookstores need a survival strategy.”
Munce suggested that independent stores run their own sales and conduct marketing campaigns with catalogues, postcards, and emails. Another way indies can shore up sales is by offering a wide range of titles. Munce, whose Munce Group provides marketing services and produces the Christian Product Expo trade shows for its 225 members, hopes that publishers will pitch in to help.
Supporting Christian indies is crucial, Lewis said. “Baker will offer extended dating, a better discount for a core-title stock-up order, and a temporary increase in co-op dollars. We want to help Christian retailers identify our bestselling backlist titles and offer them incentives to buy the key new releases.”
Crosby said IVP is also looking for ways to help stores, though no details were available at press time.
Publishers are reconsidering acquisitions with the aim of offering titles that will sell effectively in both Christian indies and general trade stores. Lewis said, “The most immediate decision we made as a result is ending the publication of new full-length study Bibles,” which do not sell well in venues other than Christian stores. He added that Baker plans to acquire more authors with strong platforms, who can sell and market their own books online, as well as “more authors with a personality or topic likely to generate media attention and strong crossover books that can succeed in the big-box accounts, where shelf-space for books is actually expanding.”
Neither Lewis nor Crosby believes that LifeWay’s restrictive policies on what it would stock was a factor in the chain’s demise. “LifeWay knew its audience—and still will in its digital focus—and that audience knew what to expect from LifeWay as a gatekeeper,” Crosby said.
Lewis agreed, noting that the policies about which books LifeWay stocks were there from the very first day it opened. He attributed the chain’s demise to its operating systems, its philosophy of having similar titles in every store, the fact that its stores were too large, and the dramatic reduction in title count last year.
Mary Burns, CEO and president of publisher Barbour Books, sees an opportunity for new indies to spring up. Added to the 2017 collapse of the Family Christian Stores chain, the loss of LifeWay stores means that even more communities will have no local Christian bookstores. “There were several new store openings by former Family employees who saw the need and opened stores of their own,” Burns said. “LifeWay employees could decide to do this as well.”