Dave Lewis has been in the Christian book business for almost 45 years; first as a bookseller, then in distribution, and finally in sales and marketing. Before retiring as executive v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing in August, Lewis is looking back on his career to offer advice for the future.
“My career in publishing was a complete accident, and I grew to love the business,” he tells PW. He got his start working as a bookstore manager for the Moody Bible Institute in 1976 after moving to Chicago with his new wife and running into a friend who lined up the interview. Within a few years, Lewis moved into wholesale distribution with Baggins Books in Bellingham, Wash. before purchasing the company. Once he had grown the business and received an offer from Spring Arbor (before it was acquired by Ingram), Lewis sold Baggins Books back to its original owner, Don Holmes, and began working as a sales rep for Zondervan. There, he was promoted to director of international sales in 1991, and later became v-p of key accounts before joining Thomas Nelson as v-p, CBA sales, where he worked with Sam Moore. Finally, in 1999, Lewis joined the Baker Publishing Group, and it was during this time that Christian bookstores were growing, 90 Minutes in Heaven (Baker, 2004) was selling millions of copies, and the publishing industry was experiencing a boon.
“Then Amazon came along, and it (Amazon) kept growing,” Lewis says. “Everyone blamed Walmart and Sam’s Club for their discounts, and it was too late by the time they realized their competition was Amazon.”
Addressing the increasingly small footprint of Christian retail today, Lewis draws comparisons between inventory tactics at Barnes & Noble and LifeWay Christian Stores (all of which are closing by the end of the year). B&N stocks books specific to each region, with 25% of the same inventory across all store locations and 75% depending on local buyers and graded by category; while LifeWay Christian Stores stocks the same inventory in all 170 location, he says.
“Too many [Christian] bookstores match their own faith journey with their customers’,” Lewis says. “You have to be able to serve the whole community.”
He stresses that in books, business rules apply. “You have to serve the market, and you can’t personalize it: it’s about authors and the market, not you. You have to like people and books; you have to want to serve readers and retailers, and approach marketing with a servant’s heart.”
In light of LifeWay’s closures, Lewis says he’s been working with Books-A-Million and other stores on filling in the retail gap and stocking Christian books. With a historical knowledge of the publishing landscape that has made him a mentor for many in the industry, Lewis also acknowledges more recent shifts, such as the current audiobook trend. “Like ebooks, they’re important, but only a fraction of sales revenue,” he says.
Another trend he sees is more authors without theological or educational authority who are writing books with “real-person insight,” such as Rachel Hollis’s bestselling Girl, Wash Your Face. “It makes you wonder who the next biggest author could be—it could be anyone,” he says.
Despite changes in consumer behavior and what he says as the lack of a solidly Christian major bestseller in recent years, Lewis has a positive outlook on the industry. “People keep reading,” he says. “They want content.”
Lewis, who is already handing off some of his responsibilities, will attend the Christian Product Expo just before his retirement, which he will spend “fishing, reading, watching Netflix, and taking a break in my travel schedule.”