I have often wondered if Christian books sell as well as general market books. With the rise (and near fall) of mega-bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders, we really have not seen any noticeable expansion of Christian bookstores. As I stroll the isles of the mega-bookstores, the Christian section (which is usually combined with all spirituality) has not grown either, in fact has decreased in size. According to statistics from the Christian Booksellers Association, approximately 2500 locally owned and operated Christian Bookstores have closed over the past 5 years. So has this once niche market fallen victim to mass merchants and or the economy?
Unfortunately, the deeper I got into the topic, the more questions I found had to be answered. While I started off just trying to do some research to determine if Christian books follow the same sales patterns as general market books, I came to understand it is anyones guess how the future will unfold for the publishing world. Also, as important, is the published page (both Christian and general) following the same digital path as music? That is a scary thought if you are a bookstore owner, or worse yet, a publisher! Will we one day see a publishing world where an author simply registers his or her work digitally and there it is for the world to browse and purchase?
I have searched the web for Christian book resources and a few things have become quite evident. First, there are more websites than ever, selling books both Christian and general market. Second, authors of Christian books, who once relied on Christian Bookstores to sell their books, are more frequently selling their books (as well as other authors) on their own ministry websites. I think it is pretty obvious to everyone that as long as the internet continues to grow and be more competitive (sales tax exemption, low shipping charges, availability, etc.) brick and mortar bookstores will continue to lose market share. With Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders (who recently added an internet presence, a little late to the game) as the big players, niche websites are also sprouting up at a rapid pace. For example, Joyce Meyer, a very good selling Christian author, sells most of her products on her ministry website. However, they are all (or mostly all) at full list price. Whereas a niche website I found joycemeyerdailyword.com sells all, or most of the same products at a relatively low discounted price. Could it be that the ministries themselves, or big web players do not believe they have to compete on price? That may become an issue as the consumer forms opinions toward their browsing results and if a certain website does not establish itself as one of value, a consumer is less likely to search that site in the future. The internet discount (I believe for all merchandise) has become in essence an advertising fee to keep browsers believing in your site.
As you can see, asking what seemed like a simple question; Do Christian Books Really Sell? has opened up what appears to be a never ending sequence of questions and sideline distractions. Trying to get back to the original topic, here are a few things I have come up with. The Christian Book Industry has an association, but it is difficult to get sales stats from them. Each month they do report if sales were up or down and by what percent year over year, but what those increases and decreases translate to in dollars is difficult to determine. Since more and more general market booksellers are selling Christian books, the ability to determine specific sales numbers for Christian books is becoming more difficult.
I continue to watch best seller lists such as the New York Times and others, for Christian books, and I have noticed that typically, authors getting their books on the best seller lists have self promotion capabilities beyond that of their peers. For example, Joel Osteen, who has a very prominent television ministry, sees his books make the lists through prominent sales. I suppose when you have the attention of millions of people each week, all of whom has an interest and a liking for you, it is easy to translate promotion into sales. One item to mention is that once again, I found that when purchasing books directly from the ministry website, you are likely to pay full price. When searching the web for Joel Osteen books, there are plenty of sites selling his books at very low discounted prices. For instance, joelosteenbooks.org has his entire library including books, eBooks and audio books in both English and Spanish, all discounted off the full price.
I realize I have yet to answer the question I titled the article about. The simple answer is yes, Christian books continue to sell. But to answer that question more fully, they are selling in more places than ever before so to track the data for accurate comparisons is difficult. Considering the fact that bestselling authors releasing new titles has a greater impact on overall sales compared to the general market, it would be unfair to simply use year or year comparisons to determine whether or not Christian book sales are increasing or decreasing. I can foresee a time when all books just like music songs will be purchased predominantly through digital means and there will be real time sales numbers associated with each book so that the consumer can determine the popularity in real time. Until then, we will have to trust our instincts when purchasing a Christian book.
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