Chip MacGregor

June 1, 2017

Who ate my CBA fiction market? (a guest blog)


Once again, Steve Oates is the VP of Marketing for Bethany House Publishers, and he sent me a blog post as a follow-up to her previous post… 


When we set out two years ago to do a complete analysis of the Christian fiction market, we were pretty shocked at what we found. As the leader in the Christian fiction market for decades, we at Bethany House were amazed when we saw that a competitor had come out of nowhere in just 10 years and very quietly gained 40% market share in print units. It was a publisher who pretty much never appears on the Christian fiction bestseller lists, but clearly does an enormous volume.

Know who I’m talking about? Harlequin, of course, doing business under the Love Inspired imprints, selling largely at Walmart, but also in other receptive outlets for mass-market sized books, mostly at $5.99. The market share numbers are not quite so daunting when you do them on a dollar basis, as they only get half as much share, but they are still the largest player in the arena.

What does this mean for all of us in Christian fiction? More competition. Harlequin was a new (well… new for CBA), low-priced competitor, joining those at the bottom of the market offering free eBooks, or self-published books put out at low cost and with low prices, and publisher specials of older books, such as $5 print specials in stores and $.99 or $1.99 fiction specials in eBooks. That means if you are a customer who doesn’t have to get the latest and greatest new book, you can find lots of ways to read, often for free in eBooks, and almost never above $10 in print. At a minimum, I think this devalues the worth of our new, full-length novels, and, at worst, it satisfies demand for book entertainment so that some buyers completely disappear from the full-price market and only buy value fiction.

The end result is that, while consumers get a better deal, authors and publishers all make a lot less income from selling their books. The same trend is underway on the retail side of the business, as customers move away from the physical stores to buying books online to save a few dollars here and there. That’s where I disagreed with Chip on his “trends for the new year” post — there are still the same number of books being sold and read, but everyone along the way makes less money in the process, putting pressure on the retailers, the publishers, as well as the authors, and we are seeing less production and business among all of them.

I often observe that I was born without the fear gene, and there isn’t much that bothers me, but if there was something that was going to keep me up at night, it is a consumer who wants everything cheaper and cheaper. High quality writing, editing, marketing, book covers — they all are expensive to produce, and if readers don’t value that, then it will be very hard to keep producing it. I am encouraged that our “full price” market has now stabilized and is holding its own, and the low-price end of the market now seems to be cannibalizing itself, as seen in the recent reports about the demise of the Love Inspired Historical line. As the direct club models increasingly have difficulty, we see in Harlequin a weakened competitor who is unlikely to gain further market share, and is probably going to decline in share with the rest of the mass market format over time.

Working in publishing is like reading a thriller — some readers like to skip to the end of the book because they can’t stand the suspense to find out how it ends. But we don’t have that option, and honestly, no one knows how all of this is going to work out, but I am hopeful that we have many, many faithful readers who enjoy a quality reading experience and place enough value on their time to pay a few more dollars to have a book that they will love.

-Steve Oates, VP of Marketing for Bethany House Publishers and Chosen Books


Okay, happy to see your response, writers… 

[A note on comments: I upgraded my WordPress, and now the comments are screwed up. Sorry! Trying to fix that. I’ve changed it back several times, and it keeps defaulting to this thing where you have to put in a password.]




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