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Religion Publishing: Sidelines Move to Center Stage
Kimberly Winston -- 1/17/00
Publisher revenues on nonbook items are now stronger in both religion and general retail outlets

Thirty years ago, if someone wanted to buy a cross or a framed copy of the 23rd Psalm, they would probably find themselves in the back of a religious bookstore or a church-goods shop. Now, as nonbook products have
become increasingly important in the religion market, the same shopper can walk into any number of bookstores, both specialty and general interest, and find religion-oriented calendars, videos, music, greeting cards, art work, clothing and anything else that isn't bound between two covers."You refer to these items as 'sidelines,' but to us they are not on the side," said Jim Seybert, v-p of marketing for the Parable Group, an association of 328 independently owned Christian bookstores. Nonbook items now account for 70% of the annual revenue of the group's member stores. Echoing the view of many retailers in this market, Seybert added,"We are not just bookstores anymore; we are specialty stores where people go to buy lifestyle items."

This has led some observers to wonder whether religion books -- which are now a mere mouse-click away at scores of online sites -- are diminishing in importance for religion specialty stores. Many of these retailers acknowledge that nonbook items are enticing to them: not only do they have a higher profit margin than books, they remain the products consumers are most likely to pick up, hold and examine before purchasing. Religion sidelines seem to have found their most fertile soil in the evangelical Christian market. According to Christian Booksellers Association figures, books and Bibles accounted for only about 38% of sales in 1998, a figure that has remained fairly steady since 1993. As with Parable, the Family Christian Stores chain (currently with 364 outlets) reports that sidelines constitute 60% of sales, with similar numbers in the company's new online venture, iBelieve.com. Parable's bestseller list offers an even more convincing illustration of how important sidelines have become: among the top 10 bestselling items for the week of December 4, 1999, only one was a book -- Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Tyndale) -- and it came in at number nine. All the rest were videos and music, with the Veggie Tales #6 video at the top, followed closely by albums from contemporary Christian music artists such as Jars of Clay and Amy Grant.

Giving the Gift
Christian publishing houses have been quick to meet the rising demand for nonbook products, and a survey of some of the largest shows how important these products have become to overall revenue. Thomas Nelson reports that nonbook items now account for 40% of its annual sales, while Zondervan executives say gift items alone -- including decorative book covers, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, frames and plaques -- make up 10% of its sales. Tyndale House declined to release the size of its sidelines revenues but agreed that it was significant and growing.

At Zondervan, gifts are responsible for some of the company's most dramatic growth. Since its launch with a couple of cloth book and Bible covers in 1992, the gifts division has grown by a factor of 20, with sales doubling between 1997 and 1999. Londa Alderink, director of Zondervan Gifts, linked the overall growth of sidelines sales to the rise of evangelism in many Christian circles."That has become such a key part of Christians' lives, and gift products are a softer way to share their faith with people who may either not be Christians or who are new in their [faith] walk," she noted. While the book covers still lead Zondervan Gifts in terms of sales, its product line now includes stuffed bears and"Scripture keepers," table-top card-holders decorated with bears or angels that hold daily Scripture verses printed on business-size cards. One strategy the company employs to promote its gift items with retailers is to provide some unusual merchandising aids, including flexible signage that can be hung like a mobile or placed on a table and fabric drapes that coordinate with stuffed animals."One of the things we heard is that the Christian bookstore market needs some help in working with these gifts, because the stores are relatively small and there are so many gifts now," Alderink said."With the versatility of our merchandising, not only can we get good product placement, we can get the store to look good with our stuff."

Kids in the Driver's Seat

At Tyndale House, some of the strongest growth in nonbook items has been in the children's division, where the company has more videos (seven different series) and more games (four) than ever before. Joan Begitschke, director of marketing for children's products, told PW that much of the overall growth in Christian sidelines is now fueled by the children's market, especially by the Veggie Tales phenomenon. The videos from Big Idea have sold more than one million units and have spawned books, puppets and other products, soon to include toys from Fisher Price. In the wake of Big Idea's success,"a lot of videos were launched by Christian publishers this fall," Begitschke noted."It has never been this competitive before." Tyndale hopes to gain an edge with Angel Wings and Kingsley's Meadow, two video series the company launched in September 1999 in a"strategic alliance" with Sony Wonder and the American Bible Society. Sony and ABS provide the creative resources for production of the videos, and Tyndale provides the marketing and promotion. Both series are currently exclusive to the Christian market but are slated for general distribution in fall 2000."The idea is that we would get it going in the Christian market, and then [Sony and ABS] will get it into the secular market," Begitschke explained."A track record in the Christian market will give them something to show, rather than going into the general market cold."

Another major product area for Tyndale is calendars. Especially good sellers are the Day Framer series, V-shaped stands with slots for a picture and a calendar. The company offers four Day Framers for 2000; response from both the CBA and general markets was so good that the company will be doubling that number for 2001. Tyndale also features a"radio theater" audio series from Focus on the Family -- complete dramatizations of popular books and series such as Left Behind and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Similarly, Thomas Nelson's children's division, Tommy Nelson, is experiencing significant growth in sidelines sales. Dan Lynch, v-p of sales, said the key to the growth has been expanding on brands established with books by creating corresponding plush toys, videos and games. The division's current hottest item is a Jay Jay the Jet Plane plush toy, spun off from the video series of the same name. Also popular is a video based on Max Lucado's book The Crippled Lamb; Lynch expects to sell 75,000 videos in its first season. Lynch noted the division's plan was to grow a certain brand through sidelines in the CBA market and then expand into the general market:"Appropriate brand extensions are good for all concerned. At Tommy Nelson, we'll see more plush toys, games, videos and audio products in the coming years."

Music to Their Ears

While children's videos are driving book publishers' sidelines strategies, music publishers of both liturgical and contemporary religious music are also reporting strong sales of recordings. The Catholic-oriented GIA Music, which publishes sheet music, songbooks and recordings, has seen the recording side of its business rise 25% in the last 10 years. Michael Cymbala, GIA's executive producer, gives credit to the booming interest in Christian music among religiously active laypeople."What people are asked to do most of the time they are in church is sing," he noted."No one walks out humming the homily." According to Cymbala, churchg rs like the music, recognize it and want to have it in their cars, homes, offices and gyms, all of which are now routinely outfitted with stereo equipment; he added that the demand for religious music has brought GIA Music recordings into some general retail outlets the company had not previously cracked, Borders for one.

Similarly, Paraclete Press has seen its music division -- which produces mostly sacred music -- grow to 22% of the company's overall revenue, according to Carol Showalter, Paraclete's director of marketing. In the Christian bookstore market, there has been nothing short of a revolution in music, driven mainly by evangelical churches, where the electric guitar has come to replace the organ and a pop band has supplanted the choir. The resulting popular"praise music" is considered more singable, and many churchg rs walk out of church and into a store looking for recordings. Many Christian bookstores now include vast music sections, often replete with listening stations. Parable's Seybert recalled that when he was growing up, there were"two or three Christian music groups you would let anyone know you listened to." But now, he noted, Christian artists can be found on Billboard's music charts."That was unheard of 10 years ago," he continued."I think the products have just gotten so much better and that is what people want to buy."

Opening the Way

Peter Pauper
Also riding high on the interest in religion-themed sidelines are small-gift manufacturers. Most of these companies produce more nonreligion products than religious, but many report being surprised by the popularity of their few religious items. Peter Pauper has successfully placed its Charming Petites line of small books with detachable and wearable gold charms in general bookstores since 1992; recently the company found Inspire Books, the"petites" line it launched last January for the CBA market, to be enormously popular."That market is not nearly as large as the secular market, and our sales reflect that," Laurence Beilenson, the company's v-p, told PW,"but we have reprinted our original 12 titles." The plan is to increase the line to 22 next year. Conversely, many general stores have asked for the Inspire petites, especially stores in the South and Midwest."Those parts of the country definitely have customers who are interested in this kind of product, and even if they are not a Christian bookstore, they will make room for these titles," Beilenson said. Amy Feigenbaum, publisher of Robern Publishing LLC, producers of postcard books, said her seven products featuring religious art have taken off in religious bookstores and gift shops, especially Judaica stores. They are also selling well online with Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, where Feigenbaum, referring to e-mail feedback from customers, thinks the postcard books are reaching a Generation X audience.

In the Catholic market, sidelines have always been a mainstay because of the devotional nature of nonbook items such as rosaries, statuary, crucifixes, medals and holy water. Another constant is the need for gifts tied to the Catholic sacramental cycle of baptism, first communion, first confession and marriage. But in the last few years, the devotional and other nonbook items have grown in importance for Catholic bookstores. Cheryl Tucker, executive director of the Catholic Marketing Network, told PW that in the five years since CMN has held its annual trade show, sidelines exhibitors have grown from 60% to 80% of the floor mix."There are, of course, specific books written for the Catholic market, like books on Mary, books on the devotions, and they have not gone away," Tucker said."In fact, the number of Catholic publishers we have as members is continuing to increase. But the category of 'other' -- all of those specialty items -- has surpassed the growth of publisher exhibitors." Tucker thinks the production of millennium and Jubilee objects is largely responsible for that growth. She also noted the crossover appeal of many religion sidelines and added that most of the sidelines exhibitors at CMN's upcoming show will also exhibit at the CBA shows.

Steve Hrycyniak, Sheed and Ward publisher and a board member of the Catholic Book Publishers Association, noted that he also has seen expansion in the types of sidelines Catholic bookstores carry; he attributes the increase to the rise of specific ministries and movements within the Catholic Church."The resource needs have shifted, and in my mind they are tied very often to renewal in the Church," he said, citing the charismatic movement and such programs as Cursillo, Christ Renews his Parish and the many marriage renewal courses."If you have an experience with one of these ministries, it is a hot button issue, so you are going to seek resources tied to that issue," he explained. Hrycyniak also said the quality of many items has improved due to the growing sophistication of the Catholic consumer.

Some booksellers love the opportunity to carry nonbook items and told PW that expanding their inventory broadens their appeal to customers. Said Patty Br samle, manager of Paulist Press Book Center, a Catholic bookstore in Costa Mesa, Calif., where nonbook items make up one-eighth of the stock,"I think when people are looking for a religious gift they think of us, and that brings them in where they can see what an extensive book selection we have. It introduces them to us." However, other booksellers feel they are walking a narrow tightrope between being a bookstore and becoming a novelty shop."The pressure is there" to carry more nonbook items, remarked Nancy Marshall, co-owner of Episcopal Bookstore in Seattle, where nonbook items account for about 30% of inventory. Marshall explained that the percentage is so high because sidelines generally have a higher profit margin (about 50%) than books, which have about a 40% margin."But," she added,"I just give the sales reps my spiel -- that we are a bookstore and not a gift shop."

As heavily reliant on sidelines as most Christian bookstores are, Parable's Seybert said that consumer surveys of member stores' customers show that books are still the number-one draw."Even with all the Veggie Tales stuff we sell, we can still get more new customers by sending out a flyer that says Bibles are on sale. Our heart, our foundation, is still in the books."
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