I attended the Christian Products Expo in Murpheesboro, Tennessee between the 25th and 27th of August, 2019, that is, Sunday through Tuesday this week. This meeting is now probably the biggest trade show exclusively for Christian bookstores in the world. I gathered some impressions which I’ll share here about the market this expo serves, what’s going on there, and what that means for speculative fiction books.
First, let me mention that “CBA” (Christian Booksellers Association) used to be the shorthand to refer to Christian Bookstores in general and the term “ABA” (American Booksellers Association) was shorthand for the general, non-Christian market. Though in reality, a number of ABA stores like Barnes & Noble sell a pile of Christian books, as do “big box” stores like Walmart. But those stores exclusively dedicated to Christian content, the CBA, has changed. The CBA folded–it no longer exists–but independent Christian bookstores still do exist, so who represents them now? The Christian bookstore market is probably best represented by the Munce Group, who are the people who put on the annual Christian Products Expo that I attended. (Note that agent and Christian market insider Steve Laube mentions the situation with the CBA states who sells Christian books now in a blog post of his I’m linking here.)
Note that I attended the CPE because I have a book I published that I imagined would be in demand by Christian bookstores–Beatitudes and Woes, which has speculative fiction stories linked to Bible passages (I thought the Bible passages would make this a natural for Christian retailers). Note also I had never attended a trade show like this before, that furthermore I was not all that familiar with what was going on with Christian bookstores, and even moreso I am not from the Bible Belt and wasn’t as knowledgeable about the United States sub-culture of Evangelical Christianity that supports these stores as I am now. So some of my observations and thoughts may be in the category of “old news” for many readers of this article. If so, sorry about that, but I’m going to share my thoughts anyway, because it may be other people are like me and didn’t know all that much. (Note my observations are my own and may not always be correct–I’m don’t wish to be a “unreliable narrator” and will mention when I’m only reporting impressions as opposed to facts, but of course my observations are inherently limited by my own perspective.)
Note also that I never have been a member of an association of Christian authors like the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) other than Realm Makers and in fact interacted with the CPE as an author to a degree but more importantly as a small publisher. So the gatekeepers like ACFW have never been hugely important to me. I’ve been a creative indie who does what I want and then tries to sell it rather than caring about what market might exist for what I do. Though I’m shifting from that position to a degree…so this is my first real look at Christian retail buyers of books, though some of my observations may parallel what people have already said based on association with the ACFW and other organizations.
The retail market for Christian books is not dying, as Steve Laube mentions in another of his blog posts. And as was mentioned in a “Market Update” session at the CPE, the sale of e-books is leveling off across the entire book market. The novelty of buying e-books is wearing off for people and the fact that most people in the USA and tech-developed world are plugged into electronic devices all day means that most people have come to see reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for work) as something linked to a physical book. Books have come to be associated with being unplugged from the world of devices–and holding a book is a tactile pleasure that people enjoy when they really want to spend time in a particular story. Yes, you can get your physical book from the world of online retailers like Amazon and many people do so, but for some book buyers, going into the store to look at and touch the physical book you want to own is very important. And that probably will never go away.
But are Christian bookstores dying?
That’s a separate question from whether retailers of Christian books are disappearing, because it could be that ABA retailers like Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, and Walmart take over selling Christian books from stores who label themselves “Christian book stores.” My answer to this question is that Christian book stores are probably in decline, but won’t disappear altogether–though that’s based on some impressions (as opposed to solid facts) that I’ll specifically mention. Impression one was there were a lot of gray heads at any assembly of retailers at the Christian Products Expo. Sure, probably a lot of these retailers have plans for family members to take over the store when they pass on, but I doubt all of them do. So, if my impression is correct (IF), then the simple passage of time will reduce the number of Christian bookstores, at least to a degree, as store owners literally die off.
My second impression backing up the idea that Christian bookstores are in decline is the fact the Munce Group paid retailers to come to the Christian Products Expo. It was right in the program for the show that those putting on the exhibits were paying for booth space and that the Munce Group would reimburse retailers for travel and lodging expenses for coming to the CPE if they could show on a form that they had met with a certain number of vendors and discussed buying their products. Yes, we are talking about an impression of mine here, but it seems to be that if Christian bookstores were doing marvellously well, it wouldn’t be necessary to pay them to attend an expo of Christian products (though perhaps this is a common industry practice for all I know). Plus I heard a number of book store owners mention that they are struggling financially, as did a few of the people who spoke to these store owners in various sessions. So the struggle part is a bit more than an impression, even though I don’t have solid numbers.
Though it should also be said that I also heard a number of store owners mention that business is getting a bit better than it had been in the past. However, when I asked the store owners I happened to talk to (because I sat next to them during a meal) about how their business was doing, more than once I heard that the sale of gifts is a more important part of what their store does than sell books. And in fact a member of the panel from the market update session mentioned this as well–that Christian bookstores have shifted to selling gifts more than books or at least a lot more gifts relative to books than they had in the past.
That shift means (drawing a conclusion from impressions here) that what used to be Christian book stores have in effect become Christian book stores. What I mean is these stores started out selling books that covered Christian topics and as a result will always carry some books but when e-books started knocking down book sales, they found a new identity. That is, they are the place you go to find something that is very clearly identifiably CHRISTIAN, whether that’s a book or a wall cross or jewelry with a fish on it or a t-shirt or coffee mug with a Bible verse on it. Their identity is not in covering all the possible books a Christian might want to read.
Most books for sale at the Christian Products Expo were non-fiction. Most of the non-fiction had to do with practical subjects like how to raise a family and how to face divorce, though of course Bible sales and commentaries and books on things like the theology of the arts were important. And when the books for sale there were fiction, they were historical, romance, Biblical (historical in Bible times or with Biblical figures), or contemporary fiction. Precious little fantasy or science fiction or other speculative fiction was around, though there was a tiny bit. Though even romance wasn’t very strongly represented.
This makes it plain to me that if you want to write a book that will be bought by a Christian bookstore, you have to ensure there is no question that the book is super duper, clearly, unmistakably Christian. That’s what the store owners are looking for and that’s the section of the Christian market they cater to. I think the main problem with Christian speculative fiction for these retailers is that those of us writing such fiction often are nonchalant about identifiable Christian content, as I myself have been with some book projects I’ve been involved with.
Note I ‘m not talking about producing allegorical Christian stories like less-subtle-than-Narnia versions of Narnia. There may be a place for such tales, but I’m referring to content that addresses theological and practical living topics or the Bible itself directly.
I think the desire for these retailers to have clear Christian content has been frustrating for writers of Christian stories, because such a focus is not really about producing the best possible stories. But I think the inclusion of Bible verses as the direct inspiration for tales, as was done for the Beatitudes and Woes anthology, is a step in the direction of content that would be interesting for these store owners. I certainly received a good deal of positive verbal feedback about Beatitudes and Woes, though so far, the positive impressions the books seemed to have made haven’t translated into book sales.
In other words, reaching this market isn’t about making the story worse via terrible allegories or woodenly Christian characters (as has been done far too often), but rather by linking any story to the key things I already mentioned: theological topics and practical living and the Bible itself. And since there’s a rising trend to talk about theology of the arts (which was specifically mentioned during the “market update” session), then I’d say there is a place at the Christian Products Expo for non-fiction that relates to Speculative Fiction. Though it must be clearly labeled as having a Christian perspective or coming from a Christian point of view to serve this purpose.
I wish I could say that this strong preference for “Christian” meant these bookstores were filtering out heretical views of Christianity, but looking around at some titles, they aren’t. At least not enough so it isn’t around at all, though in fact they do probably as an overall whole care more about whether something is doctrinally correct than Barnes & Noble or Walmart will. (Which I think is a reason to want to support Christian bookstores when possible.)
Some other observations:
- The rise of women at the CPE is a genuine phenomenon. Many more women authors than men were at the expo and many more books for women than men. Though there’s plenty of space for male authors, too.
- A few of my fellow Realm Makers alumni were around. Amy Williams was actually on site for an AWSA conference, not CPE–note that AWSA has a specific mission of promoting female authors and speakers, but I saw Amy anyway. Tina Yeager was also there at the CPE and is with AWSA, though was promoting a non-speculative book. Among the Realmies I knew, only Elizabeth Newsom was there to promote a fantasy book.
- The expo was pretty huge. I didn’t get numbers of how many vendors attended, but they filled a large conference room. Certainly vendors of Christian books are not giving up on trying to sell items to independent Christian bookstores. So in that way, the market seems pretty robust. (Vendors with European accents were common enough–I had an interesting conversation with a Reformed book vendor from Scotland.)
- The conference center was nice, the food was great, and they even had entertainment Sunday and Monday nights (music, someone to share a message, and Christian comedians). Each day also had devotional/worship time. Pretty impressive. Obviously the Munce Group was making sure the bookstores are in the mood to buy products.
- More and more books on theology and Christian living are by non-experts, by celebrities and whatnot (according to the market update). That may be a negative thing overall, but I’m thinking there may be an opportunity there for me to write or publish books that would interest me, which Christian bookstores would also be interested in.
- The Christian Indie Publishers Association (CIPA), who represented the two books I brought with me to the CPE (I paid them to do so) didn’t prove to be very speculative fiction-friendly. If you want details, contact me individually and I’ll share them. But while CIPA did get me into the Christian Products Expo, I would recommend a bit of caution if any other small Christian publisher who does speculative fiction is thinking about joining them.
- Some training for authors on social media and email list building was included in the expo and was first-rate.
- I met some great authors (including Jay Payleitner, a bestselling author who was very impressed with Beatitudes and Woes) and important book sellers and distributors. I have no idea specifically what will come of all those contacts, but I’m glad I made them.
Anyway, this wraps up my report on what I saw, did, and what I think. I’d be happy to respond to any questions or comments you may have in the comment section below.