Why Religious Book Sales Are Down

It’s no secret that book sales have suffered in the current recession. According to the Book Industry Study Group, units sales for 2008 were 3.03 billion, down 1.5%, from 3.13 billion copies in 2007. If you look at the dollar comparison, book sales were actually up 1%, but this was driven by higher retail prices.

A Sales Graph Showing a Steep Decline in Results - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/alexsl, Image #8777697

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/alexsl

Sales of religious books fared worse. According to an article in today’s New York Times:

Sales of religious books, previously a bright spot for the publishing industry, plummeted 10 percent to 247 million copies from 275 million copies.”

Keep in mind that Christian books are actually a sub-category of Religious books. For example, The Secret, which was a huge bestseller, would be classified as Religious but not Christian. The Religious category includes all religions, including New Age titles.

Regardless, the Times reporter, Mokoto Rich, interviewed me for this story on Wednesday. In the article, she cited our conversation:

Michael Hyatt, chief executive of Thomas Nelson, one of the country’s largest religious publishers, said the category did not have a top-selling book like ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ by Rick Warren or the ‘Left Behind’ series last year. The success of those books, Mr. Hyatt said, helped benefit all books in the category because ‘when people walked into a store to pick up those titles, they picked up something else.’”

I thought I would elaborate on our discussion, since several of my comments didn’t make it into print.

  • No, I don’t think the growth in electronic books is driving the decline. While there’s a greater interest than ever-before, the absolute numbers are astonishingly small—just 0.47 percent (compare total U.S. book sales in 2008 of $24.3 billion to electronic book sales for the same period of $113 million.) You might find other statistics elsewhere, but these are the numbers reported by the publishers themselves (81 of them) to the Association of American Publishers (AAP).
  • The religion category has enjoyed several years of unprecedented growth. In fact, it has been a bright spot in the industry. This is why almost all of the New York trade publishers now have a Christian division or subsidiary. This fact makes the comparisons more stark.
  • Much of this growth has been fueled by a hand-full of true blockbusters, including The Prayer of Jabez, the Left Behind series, and The Purpose-Driven Life. These were some of the best-selling books of all time—not just in the religion category but across all categories.
  • These books were so big that they drove consumer traffic to the stores. While consumers were visiting the Christian bookstore or the Christian section of the general market bookstore, they bought other titles as well. As a result, the entire category benefited. Even the publishers that didn’t publish one of these books experienced growth. As they say, “a rising tide lifts all ships.”
  • Unfortunately, we have had no real Christian blockbusters since The Purpose Driven Life. As a result, our entire category has suffered. But what about The Shack? you may be thinking. For the most part, this book has not been merchandised in the Christian section of most general market bookstores. Instead, it has been in the bestseller section or the general fiction section. It has also been so heavily discounted in the mass market that Christian stores have had a difficult time competing.
  • I don’t think that this means there is something systemically wrong with the Christian category. I think another Christian blockbuster will eventually emerge. But in the meantime, the lack of one is forcing us to create models that don’t rely on blockbuster traffic. If there’s any benefit to the recession (and I think there are several), it is that it has shaken up our sense of business-as-usual. We are being forced to innovate. I believe we will come out of the recession stronger than ever.
  • We are seeing early signs that the recession may be bottoming out. It’s still too soon to tell, but the flow of returns is slowing compared to last year. In addition, we are seeing several of our own titles gain traction, including The Noticer by Andy Andrews and The Face of Betrayal by Lis Wiehl.

Frankly, this year at Thomas Nelson, we are assuming that sales will be flat. (The truth is that we have very little visibility, given the current environment.) However, we are convinced that we have the best list of titles we have ever had. As a result, we are working hard to exceed our goals. If the economy does see some improvement, we will have a very good year.

Though there may be gloom at Book Expo America in New York this weekend, is not affecting us here in Nashville. We remain cautiously optimistic and committed to this category.

Question: Do you see any other reason why sales of Christian books may be down? Do you see positive signs on the horizon?
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  • http://www.inrebasworld.com Reba

    For my part I think the quality of books has gone down. I personally have not seen any book last year worth reading. I went from reading at least 20-30 books in this genre a year to I think maybe 1-5 between mid 2008- current.

    There have been a few bright spots for me including a Robert Benson book 'The echo within', the continuing "Ancient Practices series", and a few other. It seems the quality has suffered drastically.

    I am not sure what would be the cause of this shift because in 2005-2007 there were so many books that I had in my list that I could not get through them all. It also seems the church was undergoing a overhaul at that time with the emergent movement going strong…It seems that movement is coming to a halt and kind of taking a back burner or maybe it is getting comfortable. Whatever it is…I hope the tide turns, I miss digging into a good book and being challenged to change my perspective.

  • http://waynehastings.blogs.com/offtheshelf Wayne

    Mike, I think you are right on. One other thing to think about, at least for Christian retail, is the fact that music is no longer the big traffic driver it was in the past and nearly 50% of music shoppers also bought books. Consequently, not only are there no blockbuster books to drive traffic, the decline of music has caused a similar pattern.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I hadn’t considered the impact of music’s decline. I know that video has helped (e.g., Fireproof), but I'm sure it's no where near what music was. Thanks.

    • http://www.parable.com Steve Potratz

      Wayne – you are right on. The decline in music is the single biggest factor in the decline in traffic. The other major factor is the decline in Christian retail outlets. There are many major cities without even one store today.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        Steve, what a great opportunity for you and Parable!

  • http://flowerdust.net anne jackson

    Oversaturation in publishing as a whole. I have probably purchased more books this year than ever, but I am finding myself gravitating toward classics and lesser known, but highly regarded authors (as far as faith books go) rather than "trend" setting books.

    I think with Christian publishing, it is following suit with Christian conferences. Same line up, same content, reworded and redesigned. It causes me as a consumer to lose trust when I read ABC book by ABC author and it is just rehashing what XYZ author said in XYZ book.

    Also, I don't know who "owns" the market for purchasing faith-based books (as far as age anyway)…but if the power is in the hands of the generation like mine, we are done with models and strategy. We know that backward and forward due to all the exposure over the last 5-10 years. What we are hungry for is spiritual guidance and something to get us thinking about our roots…something that is more a part of a movement or "tribe" instead of just knowledge.

    My two cents.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      This is good feedback, Anne. We are seeing much of the same thing.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/misternifty misternifty

      Great perspective Anne. I concur about conferences. I have gone back to good ol' CS Lewis classics the past couple months myself. I also have found some oldies at antique stores from the early 1910's. We definitely need to get back to our roots.

  • http://www.billwhitt.com/blog Bill Whitt

    I think your analysis is exactly right. I, for one, just bought $100 worth of Christian books yesterday, though, so I'm not part of the trend. I always have a steady diet of devotional books, books on marriage, apologetics books, etc.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      May your tribe increase!

  • http://www.davidteems.com David Teems

    "We are being forced to innovate. I believe we will come out of the recession stronger than ever." This is why you are, indeed, The Mike. It is this type of attitude that can turn the thing around. This is leadership. So much of money out there is perception. Wall Street is all about perception, movement of the herd and so on. Keep the pitch high. It makes writers, like myself, reach for something higher, better within themselves, to tap into the deeper stores, where greatness lies. Great post, and even greater outlook.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, David. I really am tired of acquiescing to the media's impact on perception. It's amazing how positive you can be when you just turn off the TV and the radio!

      • David Teems

        Me and Benita are about to celebrate our first year without TV. We took John Prine's advice and blew the darn thing up. Don't miss it at all. There is way too much animated life around us.

      • ;Glenn

        AMEN!!!

  • http://www.omarhamada.com Omar Hamada

    I have to agree with Reba. Most Cristian books these days seem to be very lightweight. Compare CS Lewis and Chuck Colson with most of the current top selling Christian authors. The word "fluff" comes to mind.

    It seems most authors are focusing on volume published and not quality or substance.

    For me, this is the largest factor by far.

  • http://truth4thejourney.blogspot.com Sonya Lee Thompson

    I believe it is time for another "block buster" Christian title to emerge. Just when and where, is up to God. Perhaps authors need to re-evaluate what the public is looking for.

    This is a season of change in our country, perhaps the change needs to be across the board. If we can find the need of our readers, we can hope to write the next blockbuster book.

    I wonder if there is a correlation to a decline in religion as a nation and a decline in the sales of Religious books?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I couldn't agree more. You can't just make this happen by following a formula. "Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." (Psalm 127:1).

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/colleencoble colleencoble

    I stopped in at my local Christian bookstore a couple of weeks ago. I was expecting to hear gloom and doom from the owner (it's a small independent store) but to my amazement, he said business was UP. And that he was thinking of opening another store in a nearby town that was losing its Christian bookstore. I came away greatly encouraged!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I have had that same conversation with numerous retailers. I think much of the problem is in our thinking. Do we see problems or opportunities?

      • Postscript

        But was the Christian bookstore seeing more book sales instead of an overall rising business with gifts included.

  • Lisa

    I would just encourage Christian writers to write what God tells you and Christian publishers to publish what God says publish. I am not trying to be oversimplistic, but I believe that God will take care of the rest. Jesus defied all odds. It didn't matter how crowded or hungry or hot or needy people were. When people caught a glimpse of his love and glory, all that did not matter. Let God speak thru you despite whatever!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/totai totai

    The #1 reason people buy a book in a store is because of an in-store display. Brick and mortar stores have been hit hard by the recession, which means less traffic. This results in fewer people seeing displays, and by extension stores bringing in fewer copies for less impactful displays. The #1 reason people buy a book online is because of the recommendation of a friend (note, I did not say online reviews, those are important but are not the same). When friends aren't buying books, they aren't making recommendations, it becomes a self-perpetuating problem. I disagree with the comments about "fluff". In any category of books there will be titles that are less substantive. However, there are many Christian books that continue to generate discussion in the media and culture. Books by authors like Tim Keller, Ravi Zacharias, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll and Don Miller continue to do well and are finding incredible backlist traction.

    In fact, just yesterday I was questioned by someone writing an article for the Reed College alumni magazine. He was doing an article on Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. Apparently that book drives 30 – 40 people a year to apply to Reed, an extremely liberal college. Christian books do impact culture, and they do continue to sell. I don't think the challenge is in the lack of quality content. I think the challenge is in the lack of consumer awareness and challenges with existing distribution channels.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      This is very helpful. I totally agree with you about "fluff." People have been complaining about this for as long as I have been n the industry. I honestly don't think the mix has changed any. There is still as much fluff and as much substantive stuff as ever. It all depends on what you are looking for.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Adam_S Adam_S

    I can't tell you the last time I was in a Christian book store. I occasionally go into a secular book store but almost never a Christian one. In spite of that I have bought more books this year than I have in a while. Many of them are social media driven because friends are recommending. I am one of the small percent that is buying ebooks heavily, but also reading a lot of public domain ebooks. Of the dozen books I am in process of right now, 6 are Christian and of those three are public domain. I also have been reading a lot of free books from ebook give aways. I bet I have read seven or eight free books (not public domain) this year. Most of those are non-Christian.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/totai totai

      Hopefully the Christian publishing industry will be quick to adapt consumer-friendly strategies related to e-content. Making digital content available how, when and where readers want it, will only mean good things for Christian publishers.

  • http://www.timothyfish.net Timothy Fish

    I don't know why Christian book sales are down, but here's what I do know. I'm not interested in romance novels or historical fiction. I'm not interested in stories about the Amish. I'm not interested in Christian vampire stories. I'm not interested in novels filled with clichés. I'm not interested books with guys with big teeth on the cover. I'm not interested in stories about the end time (I still haven't read "Left Behind"). I'm not interested in dark fiction. Also, if a book is supposed to be Christian, I expect the author to know what the Bible says and not write it in such a way that God becomes an abomination to Himself. When I find Christian books that I am interested in, I usually buy them, but I don't find very many.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lindsey_Nobles Lindsey_Nobles

      Timothy, I can appreciate your tastes. I don't like science fiction or fantasy AT ALL. But we must realize that there are people out there who do like the types of books you mention above – Amish fiction, historical fiction, etc.? I used to be a buyer and the HARDEST part of the job was buying for people who had different tastes than me. And I know our publishers face the same challenge.

      Writers are writing these books and publishers are producing them because there is perceived demand.

  • http://carryingdaily.blogspot.com Martin Richardson

    I'm not much of a book reader, and not a whole lot of my friends are(ages 16-25). I usually rely on books as gifts or a recommended book from my grandmother or other esteemed elders and peers. I don't read any fiction books purely because I don't have/make time for it. I think the priority for reading is very low in my generation, thus the search for new books in the market is also low. Other than a devotional, the Bible, required text for college courses, the rarely suggested book, and as many blogs as I can manage(I've actually been short on reading yours as much as I'd like to) I don't go looking for books, and even as a Christian you won't see me in a Christian bookstore very often. I think it has to do with already being stimulated from these sources, fully saturated you could say. I like blogs because they're more concise and easier to manage day-to-day, but they could have something to do with sales, both positive and negative. If I can find positive content for free, why go looking to pay for it? Yet, a strong review of a book or recommendation from an esteemed blog opens doorways and interest.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    Flat is the new up. :) Flat sales = a solid win.

  • http://www.kaylafinley.com Kayla

    Great response! I agree with many of the comments here saying that the content has not been good as of late. We need some meaty works rather than the fluff that has come out. Much of the "stuff" we get today doesn't approach the harder issues to deal with because people are afraid of it. So the general market has snubbed Christianity because there aren't any real answers coming out right now, and pretty soon people are going to abandon ideas like those in The Secret because they have no substantial basis. When the masses want to receive answers from God, the Christian market has to be ready to offer them.

    • Lisa

      That is really what I was getting at earlier. If people are hearing "real" answers from God, sales will take care of themselves. That is magnetic!

  • Postscript

    So you wouldn't count Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now's 4+ million in sales as blockbuster after Purpose Driven Life? That's a pretty high bar you've got set for blockbusters!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I probably could have included it. But to put it into perspective, Jabez sold about 12+ million copies, Left Behind 60+ million (for the whole series), and Purpose Driven 40+ million. So it certainly sold well, but I don't think it was the cultural phenomenon that the others were.

  • Chrystie

    I think my husband would beg to differ. I am not allowed to go buy any more books until I finish reading all the ones I have. I am always in the middle of 3-4 books at a time. As soon as I finish one, I pick up a new one.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Today I read in a science magazine that the telescope is 400 years old this year– the progress we've seen in the development of the ability to see deep within the universe has been powerful. And, then consider our dependence on our ability to communicate with people in real time. Do you realize the roots of computers and cell phones lay in telephones that needed to be cranked up and that existed only on party lines. Do we really want to go back to our roots in communication? Why do we need to go back to the roots of our faith?

    Somewhere along the line, we have picked up the idea that there is nothing new to be discovered about Christ–we have the gospel that has been preached unchanged for years. Yet, many people talk about the mysteries of God and the Bible–why aren't we solving them? The Bible contains so much information just waiting to be found and accessed. I'm believing that a shift towards the joy of searching for new understandings about God's absolute love is underway. And, I am hoping that Christian publishers will be leading the way.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/cecilchaney cecilchaney

    This is a great question to ask Michael. Being that I am not in the publishing industry, but a consumer of Christian books and a man who seeks God, I wonder if there are too many distractions in today's lifestyles. Everything in the world is so fast. It almost seems we have to make an effort to carve time out for God. We are placing our prayers in the microwave expecting an answer in a minute or less. Could it be people are too busy and distracted to seek God? But yet, He gives us the cure…"Seek and ye shall find."

  • Pingback: The Week in Review | Inspiring Generations()

  • http://terripatrick.wordpress.com/ terri patrick

    One blockbuster will drive sales of other books (and other publishers) shelved in the same section. Now your assumption that it will be a "flat" year means you don't have anything currently on bookshelves with the potential to be a blockbuster. Which means, maybe the standards of what is currently published do have a "same" or "fluff" flavor. Which is too bad, since there are a lot of people in free fall right now because of the recession.

    You stated Thomas Nelson is a Religious publisher and Christian books are a subset, and TN includes all religions and New Age titles. This sentence, in my humble opinion, may show the issue you are facing. What struck me as I read this post was, "Let's get past the religion segregation and into spirituality." I mean that in the literal sense. Certainly bibles and devotionals are to enhance spirituality, but only if the person is already there, in that specific religion.

    Another thought is, are any of these religious books fun and uplifting? Do they show real people, living in love and laughter within their religious focus? Do any of these non-fiction religious books include some of the necessary requirements in fiction of – character arc (growth), or a transformational journey?

    If a publisher wants to search out a different type of story, how do they break down the gatekeepers? Eg: the agents that weed through their submissions and only send those that meet the needs of what you've already purchased. And how do you search for a new story, or different book, when you won't know it until you see it – yet all you get to see – is filtered by the front line gatekeepers?

    Religions are segregated by cultures and dogmas but the primary purpose is to incite a desire in the persons heart and mind to become more wholly spiritual. So what were the books read, or flavor of the stories, that encouraged people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and seek a more spiritual focus for their lives?

    I truly believe the stories you want are already out there, or being written, you are just too busy with the business, to see them, or too familiar with what has worked in the past, to feel what has changed in the present.

    Maybe that's a path to consider, returning to your own personal inner journey and remember what put you on it – then start looking for those stories. What inspired you (or others) when they were involved in the most basic details of living life, but knew, there had to be something more…

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think you misunderstod me.. We have numerous books that we think have the potential to be blockbusters. However, they are notoriously difficult to predict. The publiic's taske is fickle. Given the recession, we are trying to be conservative and plan for a flat year. That doesn't men we won't shoot for the stars; it just means that we won't grow our overhead until we see some sign of the environment improving.

      Thomas Nelson publishes strictly Christian titles. Not all of these are explicit in terms of their expression of faith, but all are at least implicit. We don't publish New Age titles are books from other relegions.

      We do publish books that we believe wll be transformational and many of these, depending on the genre, are fun as well. I also think we are being very experimental. We are not just relying on what has worked in the past. We are looking for he fresh voices who can tell compelling stories that people want to read.

    • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think you misunderstod me. We have numerous books that we think have the potential to be blockbusters. However, they are notoriously difficult to predict. The public's taste is fickle. Given the recession, we are trying to be conservative and plan for a flat year. That doesn't mean we won't shoot for the stars; it just means that we won't grow our overhead until we see some sign of an improving economy..

      Thomas Nelson publishes strictly Christian titles. Not all of these are explicit in terms of their expression of faith, but all are at least implicit. We don't publish New Age titles or books from other religions.

      We do publish books that we believe wll be transformational and many of these, depending on the genre, are fun as well. I also think we are being very experimental. We are not just relying on what has worked in the past. We are looking for he fresh voices who can tell compelling stories that people want to read.

  • http://creative-views.blogspot.com/ HeartNet

    Nice post. I wish to share this book: 3:16: The Numbers of Hope

    Best-selling author Max Lucado leads readers through a word-by-word study of John 3:16, the passage that he calls the "Hope Diamond" of Scripture.

    Creative Views

  • http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html David A. Bedford

    Part of the problem is that editors have thousands of manuscripts to go through. They have to reject on the basis of one paragraph, which is an inadequate evaluation, because there is no time to do otherwise. All this means that the criteria for acceptance become extremely narrow and a lot of good work never gets published. I had a hard time (four years) getting my new release published and I doubt that any religious publisher would be interested. It's Angela 1: Starting Over, the first in a series of three set in a coastal Texas high school. It is so different from everything else that editors don't know what to think of it. I would invited anyone interested in knowing about the book to go to my website. Thanks!

  • Brian

    I am a Christian bookstore owner in California and I was pleasantly surprised to see my book sales up 7.5% this past year and bible sales were up 10.5%! The independent bookstores are still struggling and I think the comments on lack of music sales to drive traffic are spot on. I feel that with more stores going out of business and more traffic going to big box stores and online retailers it is becoming more difficult for publishers to “break” new artist and hence each month we simply rework the same titles on the Top 20 list. In the past customers were coming to the Christian bookstore for the best-selling titles and would be exposed to new authors from the knowledgeable staff. Now customers are finding the best sellers elsewhere and the exposure to new authors is suffering. Books and bibles are what I love selling and why I am in this business so I plan to do everything possible to keep those sales strong so my store doesn’t get overrun with gifts.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Good for you, Brian. I think we are going to see a renaissance of local bookstores. Many people are tired of the impersonal, sterile experience of the superstore booksellers. I want a knowledgable staff person who loves books and can make person recommendations to me.