Andy Butcher, the editor of Christian Retailing magazine, read the posts. He then sent me an email with several questions. I agreed to answer them, provided I could do so on my blog. I also agreed to wait until his article was published before I published my answers to his questions.
Andy’s article was published this week in the February 12 issue of Christian Retailing. Unfortunately, you can’t read it online unless you are already a subscriber. Nevertheless, here is the full text of our original exchange.
QWho’s the “we” that needs a better list? publishers? Christian publishers? the whole industry? retailers?
AYes, all of the above. Consumers want an accurate bestsellers list because they want to know what everyone else is reading that they might have missed. Retailers need an accurate bestsellers list because they need to make sure that they are stocking what the public wants. Christian Publishers want an accurate bestsellers list because they are tired of their titles being marginalized. They want visibility for their best titles. They want to connect with consumers who might be interested in their titles—if only they had the opportunity to discover them.
QHas AAP considered your idea/suggestion at any stage?
AI have not spoken with anyone at AAP. As I said in my first post, I don’t think that an AAP bestsellers list is the best solution. All they can measure is sell-in as reported by publishers. It would be better than what we have now, but it wouldn’t be ideal. We need a list that reports on sell-through (sales at the cash register) from as many retailers as possible. I am still hopeful that we can do this.
QWhat’s the history of Christian retailers’ refusal to participate with Nielsen? Were they specifically approached, and declined? If so, when? Did CBA have a part in that process?
AThat’s a question you would have to ask them. I have only heard the reports anecdotally from various Christian retailers. Several have expressed their opposition to any program that would put their data into the hands of general market booksellers. While this is very different, in my opinion, the reluctance of some Christian retailers to participate in the STATS program is indicative of this attitude.
QYou question the validity of Christian retailers’ concerns over data being shared. Does this mean you’d question, too, the validity/wisdom of the CBA Cross-Scan project, as that was initiated in response to such fears?
AYes, I do question the validity of some arguments I have heard. For example, some retailers have complained that publishers were sharing STATS data with general market retailers. Perhaps they were. I don’t know. I can’t speak for every publisher. But I keep asking, “what data were they sharing?” If they were sharing a list of CBA bestsellers, they didn’t have to get it from STATS. That information is readily available from CBA itself and even Christian Retailing. If it’s a deeper list of product than these sources provide, you have to ask, “Why would a publisher share information about a competitor’s products?” If a general market retailer wanted to get this information, all he would have to do is ask Christian publishers for a list of their top-selling titles. They could have their list in twenty-four hours without ever so much as glancing at STATS data.
But even if this has happened—and I am not convinced that it has—ECPA has gone out of its way to warn its member publishers that sharing this data is a clear violation of our agreement with CBA. The new PubTracks system that ECPA is promoting has built-in security that reminds publishers every time they log in that this data cannot be shared. If we find that someone has violated their agreement, we are fully prepared to boot them out of the program. I don’t know what else we can do.
QYou’re writing as Thomas Nelson’s chief, of course, but you are also the ECPA chairman. Are you concerned that your comments may be seen as a criticism of CBA/Christian retailers?
AYes, somewhat. I love the Christian retail industry. As a new Christian at the age of eighteen, I was nurtured by my local Christian bookseller and his wife. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if they hadn’t taken me under their wing and encouraged me in my faith. They put just the right book in my hands at just the right time. Somehow, they knew exactly what I needed. I will be forever grateful to them for having the courage to start a Christian bookstore in a very small town, believing that God had called them to this work.
Christian retailers are crucial—really, foundational—to the work of reaching this generation for Christ. They have the passion and the expertise to make a real difference. But, unfortunately, I have seen a spirit of fear and protectionism replace that passion in some retailers. This is spiritually unhealthy. It also does not make for good business decisions.
Honestly, we have been dancing around these issues for too long. Sometimes I feel that we are “walking on eggshells” with one another. Everyone is afraid to speak their mind. But I think that now is a time for truth. We are family. We must be honest with one another. We must seek to solve our common problems together. Whether we like it or not, we are joined at the hip. And, more importantly, we are joined at the heart. Our success is bound-up together. I can’t have a healthy publishing business without a healthy CBA channel. Likewise, CBA retailers can’t have healthy businesses without healthy publishers. We need each other.
QIsn’t there a danger that if Christian books get a higher profile, that the general market will only see even more what a lucrative field they are, so that rather than help Christian retail, such exposure would only hasten/heighten its demise?
AI think this is extremely dangerous thinking. I understand it, but I think it is wrong. It is similar to what the Israelites did in the time of Jesus. They wanted to protect their “franchise,” their exclusive claim to the things of God. But that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose in coming. He came for the whole world.
As a practical matter, greater visibility for Christian books only drives demand for those books. That’s good for everyone. What Christian retailers need is more customers—new customers. If people are discovering Christian books in the general culture, great. I still maintain that they will eventually find their way to a Christian bookstore where they can find a much broader, deeper selection of products.
But this is where Christian retailers must be clear on their strategy. It’s not about price or even convenience. Both are important, but their primary strategy has to be about selection. That’s the value they add and the only way they can successfully compete against general market retailers.
QIs there any chance that Christian retail participation in Bookscan might be revisited?
AI hope so. But ultimately this will depend on CBA and on the stores themselves. In the meantime, ECPA is working on creating a multi-channel bestsellers list.
QHave you shared any of these thoughts with CBA/Christian retailers?
AI have only spoken with a few retailers here and there. Frankly, I have only come to these conclusions in recent months. I am hoping that these posts can serve as a foundation for further dialog. If I am wrong, I am willing to be corrected. “Iron sharpens iron.”
QHave you had any response/feedback since posting these comments?
AYou can read the comments on the original posts. Most have been positive. I haven’t deleted any. I have also received a few e-mails from Christian retailers and other publishers. All have been supportive.
I think there is a growing movement within our industry. People are beginning to sense that the old wineskins must be exchanged for new ones. The paradigm has to change. It’s a new world, and we can’t roll back the clock. What we desperately need is leadership. We need people who are willing to embrace the world Christ died for. We need people who rejoice that the Gospel is being spread—regardless of the channel God uses. If we do that, then we have the privilege of co-laboring with the Lord Himself. If we don’t, then, quite frankly, we run the risk of not merely resisting change, but resisting the One who is forever making all things new (see 2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5).